When Doug and Elna Edgar initially enquired with Alberta Agriculture about growing asparagus on their farm, consultants said it couldn’t be done due to the challenges of weather, terrain and cold.
But the Edgars like a challenge, and it seems so does the asparagus. While it’s prone to setbacks, the Edgars are still able to produce a crop on what is now the largest asparagus farm in Alberta.
Elna and Doug are fourth-generation farmers. They started out as traditional grain farmers in 1974, but quickly began looking for ways to diversify. Their two daughters started growing peas as well as a small patch of asparagus in their garden, which eventually expanded into the current operation.
The weather does throw the occasional curve ball.
“The yield is variable and we will occasionally lose production for about four or five days,” says Elna. In some cases, harvesters can gather hundreds of pounds of the crop, and other days, there can be nothing to harvest.
Temperature is a major factor in how the crop develops. In warm temperatures, the crop can grow up to 10 inches in a day. “We’ll get about 1,000 pounds an acre a season, which is about one fifth of the yield that they can get in a warmer climate,” says Elna.
The crop can be damaged by frost, snow, hail, mud and cold, and strong winds can bend the crop over.
The asparagus season is short and generally runs from the beginning or middle of May until the end of June. At the end of the season, the Edgars and their staff stop picking to allow the fern to have eight weeks of frost-free weather to grow. The fern supplies nutrients to the roots and crowns so they’re ready to produce shoots next year.
The asparagus shoots grow out of the fern, which is left all winter to trap snow and prevent soil erosion.
Spring weed control
Every spring, the Edgars cut and chop the fern and spread it over the soil before they rototill the field. The rototill is the only weed control used until the harvest has been completed.
Asparagus is a perennial member of the lily family. The roots (crowns) of the crop grow in clumps. The plants, which take
about three years to establish, were initially planted about 18 inches away from each other in rows about five feet apart. “Eventually it gets so wide that it’s hard to pick,” said Elna.
Once the crop is ready, it is hand picked. Elna and her two daughters used to pick the asparagus by walking, bending and picking a mile each evening, but Doug eventually built motorized harvesters which allow workers to sit and move slowly among the 28 km of asparagus rows. The Edgars have three harvesters, which enable nine people to pick at one time. The family and their staff members will pick every day during the season.
Asparagus grown at the Edgar’s farm has a purple tip, which indicates the sweetness of the plant due to the cool climate, says Elna.
The spears have to be picked daily to prevent the plant from ferning, at which point it will quit producing spears. Once a spear is picked, another spear will develop. After the spears have been picked they are weighed, bundled, washed and chilled using a refrigerated tank. The chilling prevents natural sugars from turning into starch and keeps the asparagus fresh longer.
The Edgars knew they wanted to market directly to the consumer, so Elna began selling asparagus at the Red Deer and Innisfail farmers’markets. She eventually started selling at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ market in Edmonton and was pleased by the excitement of the urban consumers. In 1993, Edgar farms joined the Innisfail Growers, an local area co-op that joins five farm families together for marketing efforts. The co-op sells their products in 20 farmers markets throughout central Alberta, Edmonton and Calgary.
The Edgars now have produce sales and a farm store on their land and sell pickled asparagus, beets, sauerkraut, cookbooks and pies to farm visitors. The farm held its second asparagus festival the last weekend of May and hosted 1,500 visitors. Elna was surprised by the attendance, but says it proved that people are interested in local food.