If you asked her today, Elna Edgar would admit that the folks at Alberta Agriculture were “absolutely right” 30 years ago when they said asparagus couldn’t be grown in their little corner of central Alberta.
“It’s the most quirky, odd, drive-you-crazy vegetable that you can imagine,” said Edgar, who owns and operates Edgar Farms near Innisfail with husband Doug, daughter Keri, and son-in-law Randy.
“Any of these direct-to-consumer crops are not for the faint of heart, I tell you that. You lose a lot of sleep over them. You live and breathe them.”
Up until 1986, the Edgars ran a mixed grain and cattle operation on the family homestead before deciding to diversify with vegetables — mainly asparagus.
“My mother-in-law had a lovely little patch of asparagus in the family garden, and it always tasted really good.”
Starting with a one-acre plot, the Edgars seeded asparagus plantlets from the greenhouse in the back of the yard at the top of a sandy ridge “that wouldn’t grow much of anything else.”
“We didn’t want to take a good piece of agricultural land out of production — and we didn’t want the neighbours to think we were stark raving mad either,” she said with a laugh.
Today, the Edgars still farm 1,200 acres of mixed grains and have a 140-head grass-fed cow-calf operation, but their vegetable operation has grown to include 50 acres of crops, an on-site commercial kitchen, and a country store where the family sells fresh vegetables, frozen beef, and preserves.
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“It’s a ton of work,” said Edgar. “It’s much easier to just get in your tractor and go seed your crop. But it’s rewarding. You get to talk directly to your customers, and they appreciate what you’re doing.”
The Edgars begin their six-week picking season in May, working eight- to 10-hour days seven days a week for the duration of their early-summer harvest. All of their picking is done by hand using three-man machines that travel slowly down the field, allowing workers to snap off the stalks as they go.
In the beginning, they picked everything by hand and on foot, walking and bending to harvest their crops.
“I swore if we were going to expand it that we would never ask anybody to pick that way,” said Edgar. “That’s hard work.”
The Edgars now have 12 full-time seasonal workers, including six from Mexico.
“That bundle of asparagus you see in the grocery store or the farmers’ market is handled up to eight times from the time we pick it,” she said. “We pick it, we sort it, we weigh it, we bundle it, we wash it, and we chill it. It’s huge labour.”
The crop itself poses some challenges as well. Asparagus is a fern, says Edgar, and the spears are essentially the “trunk of the tree.”
“As it grows, it’s going to fern out. When we stop picking the field, it just keeps growing taller until it opens up into a big, beautiful fern.”
Because the plant stems are so small right after the initial planting, it takes five years for asparagus to hit peak productivity.
“We put in a patch this year, but we won’t pick this year and we won’t pick next year. The third year, we can pick for two weeks, and the fourth year we can pick for four weeks. In the fifth year, we can pick for the full six weeks,” she said.
“It’s a huge investment in the future. That’s what you have to look at — what are we going to be doing in five years?”
And while asparagus likes sandy soils — “the sandier the better” — central Alberta’s cool, wet springs and cold nights cause “crazy” variability in the yields.
“We might get 100 pounds in a day off 28 acres or we might get 1,000 pounds. It just depends on how warm it is,” she said.
“We could not possibly go the wholesale route with it because I never know how much we’re going to have.”
Even so, Edgar credits the cool climate for the “amazing flavour” her asparagus has.
“When it cools down at night, it keeps the sugars from turning into starch. It stays lovely and sweet.”
And it’s the flavour that keeps their customers coming back for more.
“Word of mouth is definitely our best form of advertising,” said Edgar. “If somebody comes out and has a good experience, they’ll tell somebody else.”
In addition to their on-site country store and annual asparagus festival that attracts more than 2,000 visitors to their farm in June, the Edgars sell their asparagus at 20 different farmers’ markets throughout the summer with Innisfail Growers, a marketing co-operative made up of five farm families.
“I never dreamt this would take us where we are when we planted it,” said Edgar of the farm’s growth.
Her advice to other farmers thinking about diversifying with vegetables is to “start small and figure out where you’re going to sell it.”
“Anybody can grow it, but it takes a special person to be able to sell it,” she said.
And for Edgar, that comes down to believing in the product she’s selling.
“I firmly believe that we’ve got the best-tasting asparagus in the entire world, so it’s easy for me to go to a farmers’ market (and sell),” she said.
“You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing, and you’ve got to love doing what you’re doing.”