It's good to be the king

News Apr 23, 2014 by J.P. Antonacci Norfolk News

Looking for a hot “stalk” tip? Invest in asparagus.

Ontario’s earliest vegetable crop will soon be ready for harvest throughout Norfolk County, bringing a welcome boost of local produce to grocery store shelves.

“We’re the hotbed for asparagus,” says Bernt Solymár, executive director of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario.

Norfolk is home to about 80 growers and more than three-quarters of Ontario’s 2,700 acres of asparagus, making the county Canada’s top producer of the vitamin-rich vegetable.

With interest in local food on the rise and homegrown seed varieties opening new markets at home and abroad, this is a good time to be in asparagus.

California’s asparagus crop has shrunk to a fraction of its former size due to increased water and labour costs, and production in other Canadian provinces is negligible. That leaves Ontario and Michigan as the main sources of the vegetable that has become highly sought after along the Eastern Seaboard and in the United Kingdom.  

Solymár predicts demand in those new markets will push the total asparagus acreage in Ontario to 3,200 acres in the near future.

Farms throughout Norfolk County, from Port Rowan and Port Burwell to Langton and Delhi, grow the crop Louis XIV of France is said to have called “the king of vegetables.”

Seeds purchased from nurseries are planted six to eight inches deep, protecting the roots from the winter chill. “It also hedges your bets against an early frost – which can kill what’s coming up – because there’s always more following,” Solymár said.

Cut asparagus spears regrow quickly during harvest season, making for healthy per plant yields. After the harvest, the final spears grow tall and sprout ferns, which protect the plant and collect nourishment from the sun. This cycle can repeat for many years.

“Other than apple trees and maybe some other fruit trees, there’s nothing else that lasts 20 years in the ground,” Solymár said.

To help get even more harvests out of the already hardy perennial, Dr. Dave Wolyn from the University of Guelph, assisted by scientists at the Simcoe Research Station, developed an asparagus variety called Millennium. Solymár says Millennium, now the dominant variety in North America, is more tolerant of cold and has a yield 50 to 100 per cent greater than the former asparagus standby, Jersey Giant.

The rise of Millennium and seeds like Guelph Evolution – popular among growers in the United Kingdom – and UG009 – a Millennium variety sold exclusively to an American seed catalogue company – created a business opportunity for AFO.

Through an arms-length company called Fox Seeds Inc., Ontario asparagus growers get a piece of the action on all seed sales, making for a lucrative side business.

Solymár explained that this unusual arrangement came about three years ago, after the government looked askance at AFO’s former practice of selling Millennium crowns directly to growers. That meant the non-profit organization was actually taking in a lot of profit. So AFO created Fox Seeds, whose sole purpose is to sell seeds developed by the University of Guelph and split the dividend generated by those sales among AFO members.

“It’s a very unique way of setting up,” Solymár said. “It’s all done legally and above board, and it makes for a stronger industry.”

While Ontario growers are content with Millennium, since only consumers with the most discerning palate can tell the difference in taste between the varieties, Solymár said marketing efforts mean the seeds developed in the lab on Blueline Road end up in burgeoning asparagus markets, which leads to more profits.  

“We work very closely with the breeding program to develop varieties that are needed not only by our industry, but by new markets that Fox Seeds has,” he said.

Closer to home, Norfolk asparagus growers are looking forward to soon seeing supermarkets stocked with local asparagus, which conveniently arrives just as the Mexican crop ends, so the two aren’t forced to compete on price.

AFO doesn’t set prices or directly market its commodity, making it different than other such organizations. But Solymár and his staff actively promote Ontario asparagus by arranging radio spots and a contest sponsored by Foodland Ontario to reward the grocery chain with the best display of local asparagus.

Such efforts have helped to establish Ontario’s $7 million asparagus market, as has the Norfolk Asparagus Trail, a county-led online project that maps the locations of local asparagus growers.

Those growers can range from two-acre family farms to giant operations like Sandy Shores in Port Burwell, where farmer Ken Wall grows 350 acres of asparagus and takes in the same amount from other farmers to be packed, stored and shipped to retail stores in Ontario and the U.S.

Solymár expects consumers will welcome the rich flavour of fresh local produce after months of eating weeks-old asparagus shipped north.

“If you eat asparagus from Mexico, and you compare it to asparagus picked fresh two days ago – there’s no comparison,” he said.

It's good to be the king

New varieties, higher yields and increased demand have asparagus growers seeing green

News Apr 23, 2014 by J.P. Antonacci Norfolk News

Looking for a hot “stalk” tip? Invest in asparagus.

Ontario’s earliest vegetable crop will soon be ready for harvest throughout Norfolk County, bringing a welcome boost of local produce to grocery store shelves.

“We’re the hotbed for asparagus,” says Bernt Solymár, executive director of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario.

Norfolk is home to about 80 growers and more than three-quarters of Ontario’s 2,700 acres of asparagus, making the county Canada’s top producer of the vitamin-rich vegetable.

With interest in local food on the rise and homegrown seed varieties opening new markets at home and abroad, this is a good time to be in asparagus.

California’s asparagus crop has shrunk to a fraction of its former size due to increased water and labour costs, and production in other Canadian provinces is negligible. That leaves Ontario and Michigan as the main sources of the vegetable that has become highly sought after along the Eastern Seaboard and in the United Kingdom.  

Solymár predicts demand in those new markets will push the total asparagus acreage in Ontario to 3,200 acres in the near future.

Farms throughout Norfolk County, from Port Rowan and Port Burwell to Langton and Delhi, grow the crop Louis XIV of France is said to have called “the king of vegetables.”

Seeds purchased from nurseries are planted six to eight inches deep, protecting the roots from the winter chill. “It also hedges your bets against an early frost – which can kill what’s coming up – because there’s always more following,” Solymár said.

Cut asparagus spears regrow quickly during harvest season, making for healthy per plant yields. After the harvest, the final spears grow tall and sprout ferns, which protect the plant and collect nourishment from the sun. This cycle can repeat for many years.

“Other than apple trees and maybe some other fruit trees, there’s nothing else that lasts 20 years in the ground,” Solymár said.

To help get even more harvests out of the already hardy perennial, Dr. Dave Wolyn from the University of Guelph, assisted by scientists at the Simcoe Research Station, developed an asparagus variety called Millennium. Solymár says Millennium, now the dominant variety in North America, is more tolerant of cold and has a yield 50 to 100 per cent greater than the former asparagus standby, Jersey Giant.

The rise of Millennium and seeds like Guelph Evolution – popular among growers in the United Kingdom – and UG009 – a Millennium variety sold exclusively to an American seed catalogue company – created a business opportunity for AFO.

Through an arms-length company called Fox Seeds Inc., Ontario asparagus growers get a piece of the action on all seed sales, making for a lucrative side business.

Solymár explained that this unusual arrangement came about three years ago, after the government looked askance at AFO’s former practice of selling Millennium crowns directly to growers. That meant the non-profit organization was actually taking in a lot of profit. So AFO created Fox Seeds, whose sole purpose is to sell seeds developed by the University of Guelph and split the dividend generated by those sales among AFO members.

“It’s a very unique way of setting up,” Solymár said. “It’s all done legally and above board, and it makes for a stronger industry.”

While Ontario growers are content with Millennium, since only consumers with the most discerning palate can tell the difference in taste between the varieties, Solymár said marketing efforts mean the seeds developed in the lab on Blueline Road end up in burgeoning asparagus markets, which leads to more profits.  

“We work very closely with the breeding program to develop varieties that are needed not only by our industry, but by new markets that Fox Seeds has,” he said.

Closer to home, Norfolk asparagus growers are looking forward to soon seeing supermarkets stocked with local asparagus, which conveniently arrives just as the Mexican crop ends, so the two aren’t forced to compete on price.

AFO doesn’t set prices or directly market its commodity, making it different than other such organizations. But Solymár and his staff actively promote Ontario asparagus by arranging radio spots and a contest sponsored by Foodland Ontario to reward the grocery chain with the best display of local asparagus.

Such efforts have helped to establish Ontario’s $7 million asparagus market, as has the Norfolk Asparagus Trail, a county-led online project that maps the locations of local asparagus growers.

Those growers can range from two-acre family farms to giant operations like Sandy Shores in Port Burwell, where farmer Ken Wall grows 350 acres of asparagus and takes in the same amount from other farmers to be packed, stored and shipped to retail stores in Ontario and the U.S.

Solymár expects consumers will welcome the rich flavour of fresh local produce after months of eating weeks-old asparagus shipped north.

“If you eat asparagus from Mexico, and you compare it to asparagus picked fresh two days ago – there’s no comparison,” he said.

It's good to be the king

New varieties, higher yields and increased demand have asparagus growers seeing green

News Apr 23, 2014 by J.P. Antonacci Norfolk News

Looking for a hot “stalk” tip? Invest in asparagus.

Ontario’s earliest vegetable crop will soon be ready for harvest throughout Norfolk County, bringing a welcome boost of local produce to grocery store shelves.

“We’re the hotbed for asparagus,” says Bernt Solymár, executive director of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario.

Norfolk is home to about 80 growers and more than three-quarters of Ontario’s 2,700 acres of asparagus, making the county Canada’s top producer of the vitamin-rich vegetable.

With interest in local food on the rise and homegrown seed varieties opening new markets at home and abroad, this is a good time to be in asparagus.

California’s asparagus crop has shrunk to a fraction of its former size due to increased water and labour costs, and production in other Canadian provinces is negligible. That leaves Ontario and Michigan as the main sources of the vegetable that has become highly sought after along the Eastern Seaboard and in the United Kingdom.  

Solymár predicts demand in those new markets will push the total asparagus acreage in Ontario to 3,200 acres in the near future.

Farms throughout Norfolk County, from Port Rowan and Port Burwell to Langton and Delhi, grow the crop Louis XIV of France is said to have called “the king of vegetables.”

Seeds purchased from nurseries are planted six to eight inches deep, protecting the roots from the winter chill. “It also hedges your bets against an early frost – which can kill what’s coming up – because there’s always more following,” Solymár said.

Cut asparagus spears regrow quickly during harvest season, making for healthy per plant yields. After the harvest, the final spears grow tall and sprout ferns, which protect the plant and collect nourishment from the sun. This cycle can repeat for many years.

“Other than apple trees and maybe some other fruit trees, there’s nothing else that lasts 20 years in the ground,” Solymár said.

To help get even more harvests out of the already hardy perennial, Dr. Dave Wolyn from the University of Guelph, assisted by scientists at the Simcoe Research Station, developed an asparagus variety called Millennium. Solymár says Millennium, now the dominant variety in North America, is more tolerant of cold and has a yield 50 to 100 per cent greater than the former asparagus standby, Jersey Giant.

The rise of Millennium and seeds like Guelph Evolution – popular among growers in the United Kingdom – and UG009 – a Millennium variety sold exclusively to an American seed catalogue company – created a business opportunity for AFO.

Through an arms-length company called Fox Seeds Inc., Ontario asparagus growers get a piece of the action on all seed sales, making for a lucrative side business.

Solymár explained that this unusual arrangement came about three years ago, after the government looked askance at AFO’s former practice of selling Millennium crowns directly to growers. That meant the non-profit organization was actually taking in a lot of profit. So AFO created Fox Seeds, whose sole purpose is to sell seeds developed by the University of Guelph and split the dividend generated by those sales among AFO members.

“It’s a very unique way of setting up,” Solymár said. “It’s all done legally and above board, and it makes for a stronger industry.”

While Ontario growers are content with Millennium, since only consumers with the most discerning palate can tell the difference in taste between the varieties, Solymár said marketing efforts mean the seeds developed in the lab on Blueline Road end up in burgeoning asparagus markets, which leads to more profits.  

“We work very closely with the breeding program to develop varieties that are needed not only by our industry, but by new markets that Fox Seeds has,” he said.

Closer to home, Norfolk asparagus growers are looking forward to soon seeing supermarkets stocked with local asparagus, which conveniently arrives just as the Mexican crop ends, so the two aren’t forced to compete on price.

AFO doesn’t set prices or directly market its commodity, making it different than other such organizations. But Solymár and his staff actively promote Ontario asparagus by arranging radio spots and a contest sponsored by Foodland Ontario to reward the grocery chain with the best display of local asparagus.

Such efforts have helped to establish Ontario’s $7 million asparagus market, as has the Norfolk Asparagus Trail, a county-led online project that maps the locations of local asparagus growers.

Those growers can range from two-acre family farms to giant operations like Sandy Shores in Port Burwell, where farmer Ken Wall grows 350 acres of asparagus and takes in the same amount from other farmers to be packed, stored and shipped to retail stores in Ontario and the U.S.

Solymár expects consumers will welcome the rich flavour of fresh local produce after months of eating weeks-old asparagus shipped north.

“If you eat asparagus from Mexico, and you compare it to asparagus picked fresh two days ago – there’s no comparison,” he said.