Farming feature: ‘That’s the English weather for you,’ explains asparagus grower John
- Credit: Su Anderson
“It’s just so cold,” says asparagus farmer John Poll.
John, of Old Abbey Farm, Leiston, has been growing the crop for the last 25 years, to supply a few small outlets and the East of England Co-operative.
By this time last year, his asparagus, grown without plastic sheeting, was well advanced. But then, it was an exceptionally warm spring.
This year is much more the variable English norm.
“When it warms up, it’ll get going. Last year, we were well away. It was really warm at the start of April. It was going a treat - but that’s the English weather for you,” he says.
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“Normally, we get 100 boxes a day - at the moment, we’re getting 10. This year we’ve got this bitingly cold easterly or northerly. We’ve had it before. We’ve had wet years, we have had dry years. Every day we go over it.”
As an asparagus grower, John faces a number of challenges, from the weather, which heavily influences the rate of growth, to finding reliable staff to pick the crop, grading the spears for sale, and general farming issues such as weed control and rabbits.
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The reward is an end product which is the king among crops, and a great seasonal favourite at his own dinner table.
John grows about 45 acres of asparagus on fields at Snape, near Aldeburgh. He planted some more crowns this year to replace some of the old beds which will be coming out at the end of this season. If markets developed, he would consider planting more.
By tradition - and for sound, practical reasons - the asparagus season ends on midsummer’s day (June 21), when the plants are left to recover and rest ready for the next season.
He may end up picking less overall “unless it gets really hot, in which case it will go really ballistic”.
“That’s what tends to happen. It’s all heat dependent,” he says.
“When it’s hot, it really does grow. You are talking about cutting it every day. Sometimes you can cut it every morning and evening,” he explains.
“It’s extremely hard work and you have to be extremely well organised with the staff and the grading and getting it sold, but it’s worth it.”
English asparagus is a cut above the imported crop, he believes, both on taste, freshness - and air miles.
“It’s a lot fresher and I think personally it tastes better. My gripe with imported is it’s air miles. You are flying it from Peru. Most of it’s Peruvian and some of it’s South African. What damage is that doing for the environment? It does seem a different world, especially when they are flying it in in the English season.”
John sells to local outlets, and a delivery man picks up the East of England Co-op crop to deliver to local stores. “It’s nice and easier. It’s down the road - job done.”
Although it’s considered a premium crop, prices haven’t really gone up in the 25 years he’s been growing it, he says.
“Wages go up and all the costs go up and in time I think that’s why some people pack up, because the premium is disappearing fast, and of course the supermarkets are putting pressure on prices,” he says. “I think if someone actualy put asparagus in to make money they would be shocked.”
Price-wise, it’s not doing particularly well at the moment from his point of view. However, he wouldn’t do it unless it made money.
“I grow asparagus mainly because it’s an early crop. I grow potatoes and cereals and other crops and I can fit it in before the other crops,” he says.
As for what the weather has in store, John is hoping it will get warmer soon. “I want to be positive. It’s going to be an average year.”
He doesn’t use polythene to bring the crop on early because of the costs involved, but hopes to be supplying the Co-op next week in small quantities.
Down in Colchester at Fiveways Farm, Julian Mead has been growing asparagus for about 12 years, and has supplied the East of England Co-op since 2009. He grows a couple of hectares, some of it under plastic.
His experience this year is almost identical to John’s
“It has been a much colder spring than last year so we have been quite a bit later than last year. We do have a few tunnels over the some of the crop which helps to bring some produce on early, but it’s really the outdoor crop has not really got going yet.
“Demand is good, but we are really only cutting about 40 to 50% of what we normally would.
“Last year was exceptionally early. We started actually at the end of March last year in tunnels which is exceptional but his year it has been around the second week of April.
“Asparagus is very sensitive to temperature so we have had quite cold winters. It has been quite cold at night so asparagus doesn’t grow very fast because of that. What we are cutting every day is down.”
But he was positive about the predictions for the next fortnight, which should bring on the crop.
“The weather is going to get warmer. Next week is going to be warm and the week after that warmer still. The temperatures are going to be average. Last year, we had above average.”
It was “early days” , and the crop still had time to do well, he said.
“If we get a warm May and early June then production can pick up quite substantially. We can soon make up for lost ground.”
He added: “I do like growing it. The thing I like about it the most is it’s a very seasonal crop. I eat a lot of it myself when it’s in season. I have it every season. It’s just a fantastic vegetable for taste and flavour. It’s something to look forward to.
“I know you can buy the imported produce, but imported isn’t as good as the English in my view and many other people’s view.”
This week, Julian, who also grows strawberries and other soft fruit, has about eight pickers, but that will rise to about 30, across the crops, at the height of the season.
At the moment, though, he’s philosophical about the weather.
“It will warm up at some point. We can’t have an exceptional year every year,” he said. “Asparagus just takes its time really and you have to cut it when it’s there.”