By Tom Collins
WELLINGTON — Farmers can make a living just growing asparagus, says the executive director of Asparagus Growers of Ontario, and the new owner of Eastern Ontario’s only large-scale asparagus farm agrees.
Sandi Greer, 46, bought Green Ridge Farms at Wellington in Prince Edward County in November. Born on a farm that grew corn, tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries, this is Greer’s first foray into the asparagus business. She grows 60 acres of asparagus and started harvest on May 5, about a week earlier than usual.
Instead of selling to chain stores like most other asparagus farmers, she is selling the crop for $3 per lb. at her on-farm store and to restaurants. Leftover asparagus will be sold to the Toronto Food Terminal. The former owner, Brian Beatty, had a contract with Loblaws but last year couldn’t supply enough asparagus and bought asparagus from the Toronto Food Terminal to meet his contract. Beatty cancelled his contract last year.
“We don’t want to do that,” said Greer. “We want to sell everything local if we can.”
A farmer can sell asparagus for $1.50 a pound wholesale, said Bernie Solymar, executive director of Asparagus Growers of Ontario. A variety developed by the Asparagus Growers of Ontario, called Millennium, will yield an average of 7,000 lb. in less than two months. That’s a gross of $10,500 an acre, or $525,000 for a
50-acre farm. Millennium can yield as much as 9,000 lb. per acre (or $13,500 gross).
Solymar said a farmer can earn a full-time living with at least 50 acres. But he said asparagus is not a cheap crop to get into. Seed costs $1,000 an acre and it takes three to four years to get your first crop. Most farmers would plant crowns — one-year-old roots — and get their first crop the following year. The season following planting, a farmer should only harvest for one or two weeks to allow the plant to grow stronger. But once established, the crop can last longer than 15 years.
Greer is growing an older variety that yields about 3,000 lb. an acre in the right conditions. She wants to switch over to Millennium but that is something that has to be done slowly. Re-planting the whole farm all at once would mean she would not have any crop to sell for a few years.
Offshore labour is also a necessity and a big expense. There’s eight weeks of harvest for asparagus in May and June. It’s laborious work. A worker sits low to the ground on a motorized cart, and using a knife, cuts the asparagus by hand as the cart moves down the field.
Greer, who hires 15 Jamaicans each year, said Beatty tried to hire local workers a few years ago without success. In one day, he went through more than 100 local workers. Not one person lasted longer than a day. Most were gone within a few hours.
“They would come for a couple of hours, and they wouldn’t do it,” she said. “They just left.”
There are no current cost-of-production studies (the most recent is about 15 years old) as there are too few farms. Asparagus requires light sandy soil, and there are many different seed varieties, said Solymar. There are just 85 growers in Ontario growing 3,200 acres. Asparagus can grow 10 to 12 inches in one day.
“In the right conditions, if it’s hot enough, you can pick a field twice a day,” said Greer. “That’s how fast it grows. It’s a short season, but when it comes on, you have to be here all the time.”