Did you know New Jersey is the fourth largest asparagus producer in the country? And every stalk is picked by hand.
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Beginning each April at places like Sheppard Farms, an army of green spears juts from the ground with alarming alacrity. If temperatures reach the 70s and above, asparagus stalks can grow as much as 7 to 10 inches in 24 hours. They’re harvested when they’re about 9 inches tall.
“We harvest every day, but if you get a warm spring day, you may have to harvest twice,” says Tom Sheppard, co-owner (with brother Erwin) of the 1,600-acre spread in Cedarville, Cumberland County. “You need a person with a good, strong back, because you cut asparagus under the surface of the ground. They’ve tried developing machines to do it, but they haven’t been successful.”
The hard reality is that asparagus, like many other labor-intensive crops, is picked by migrant laborers. At peak season at Sheppard Farms, where 150 acres are planted in asparagus, about 36 migrant workers, ages 20 to 40, fan out brandishing long-handled knives with v-shaped blades, with pouches cinched to their waists. “It’s piecework—the more you do, the more you get paid,” Sheppard says. “They work really quickly and efficiently. The locals shy away from that kind of hard work.” About 90 percent of the migrants live in housing on farm property, some with their families, Sheppard says, and many of the wives work in the packing house.
Much of the asparagus sold in the U.S. comes from Peru and Mexico, but American-grown spears hold about 30 percent of the market. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2007 New Jersey farmers harvested 1,000 acres of asparagus yielding 2.5 million pounds, in fourth place after California (58 million pounds), Michigan (31.7 million), and Washington (30.1 million).
From April to June, you’re likely to find Jersey asparagus in local supermarkets, often within 48 hours of its being plucked from the ground. “In some places, like Wegmans, it’s in the store within 24 hours,” says Sheppard, whose farm produces 840,000 pounds annually. The brothers supply “Jersey Fresh”-banded platoons of asparagus to Wegmans, Shop-Rite, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Costco in season. Three years ago, the Sheppards also began distributing microwaveable bags of trimmed asparagus to supermarkets. “Throw it in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes,” Sheppard says. “It comes out ready to eat.”
Asparagus is a relatively new crop for the Sheppards, first planted only twelve years ago. “The land we farm now was our great-grandfather’s,” Sheppard says. “The family came to Cumberland County in 1683 and have basically been farming here this whole time.”
The Sheppards grow asparagus varieties developed by Rutgers’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES), recognized worldwide for its contributions to asparagus science, particularly for breeding all male plants, which are esteemed for being more efficient producers.
“Female asparagus plants produce berries, a drain of energy,” says Jack Rabin, NJAES’s associate director of farm programs. “Males put all of their energy into making spears instead.” Boys will be boys, even in the plant kingdom.
NJAES researchers breed asparagus to improve disease resistance (a soil fungus wiped out 25,000 acres of asparagus statewide in the 1960s) and increase antioxidant levels for cancer prevention. They also focus on aesthetics, since consumers buy based on appearance.
“Some people like a smaller diameter,” Sheppard says. “They think thinner is younger or more tender, which is a fallacy, but it’s what they like.”