Asparagus: The Poster Vegetable for Farm-to-Table
Farm-to-table refers to locally sourced food that is purchased directly from the farmer. The concept implies environmental concerns for sustainability and support for local economies. Foodies view the term as a type of cuisine. Others consider farm-to-table a social movement that focuses on protecting the environment and experiencing a healthy lifestyle.
Rutgers University refers to the concept as farm-to-fork, defining it as “a food system in which food production, processing, distribution, and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place.”
For most of human history, people ate what grew locally. It wasn’t until the 1940s, when packaged foods became available, that people disconnected from the farm. As the counterculture developed in the sixties, individuals joined communes where they grew their own food, and the farm-to-table movement began. The movement gained momentum as global warming, climate change, and resource depletion became headline news.
So what is involved in taking produce from farm to fork?
Asparagus. Foodies consider asparagus a delicacy, and restaurants offer it in colors of green, white, and purple. Yet, Americans consume less than two pounds of asparagus per year, making it one of the country’s least favorite vegetables. Compared to 21 pounds of onions or 19 pounds of tomatoes, asparagus is an under appreciated vegetable. Yet, it epitomizes the farm-to-table movement.
Asparagus can be grown from seeds, but most farmers use asparagus crowns. Growing asparagus from seeds is time-consuming, taking at least a year to produce the necessary root system or crowns for planting. Unlike onion plants that can be shipped by mail, asparagus crowns require containers that can keep the root systems moist.
Asparagus stalks do not appear until the second year; however, farmers wait at least three years before harvesting to give the crowns sufficient time to establish. Once established, an asparagus crown can produce about half a pound of asparagus per season for up to 20 years. Individual crowns can be separated and replanted to increase the per acre yield.
Asparagus requires nonacidic, sandy soil. Excessive water damages the root systems, making it an eco-friendly plant. At the end of the harvest, the plants develop fern-like leaves that can be returned to the soil to maintain adequate nutrients for growth.
Determining farm size depends on the defining agency. For tax purposes, farms making less than $250,000 (US) are considered small, while those above $500,000 (US) of gross income are considered large. All farms, regardless of size, can be classified as commercial or noncommercial. Small-scale farms that raise fruits and vegetables (and perhaps a limited number of livestock) are the agricultural source for the farm-to-fork movement.
Harvesting (or cutting) asparagus is labor-intensive. It requires manual labor to walk the fields cutting individual stalks of a specific length with specialty knives. For large commercial farms, the return on investment is much higher for crops such as corn or soy that can be harvested by machines.
During the 12 weeks beginning in early spring, asparagus must be cut daily. Work begins at sunrise because the crop cannot tolerate high temperatures or intense sun. To keep it fresh, asparagus must be placed in containers that block the sun while retaining as much moisture as possible. The storage containers must also protect against damage to the tip of the asparagus stalk.
Containers are stacked onto pallets and moved to a processing center that cleans and packages the spears. Throughout the process, the asparagus must remain moist and cool. If not, the stalks lose their crispness.
Part of the farm-to-table movement means sourcing produce in season. Local farm-to-table restaurants serve asparagus on the menu in the spring. When asparagus appears on menus out-of-season, the produce has not been sourced locally. Transporting asparagus increases its environmental impact because of the fossil fuel involved in air transport. China and Peru are the primary asparagus producers making air transport the only viable means of reaching North American and European tables while still fresh. Once the produce arrives, it must be placed in cold storage to maintain its crispness.
Asparagus has the same growing season regardless of its color. White asparagus is green asparagus that is not exposed to sunlight. The process results in a more tender vegetable. Purple asparagus comes from a different asparagus crown. It contains more sugar, so is less bitter than green or white asparagus. However, the vegetable is still green on the inside and will turn green if cooked.
Health is an essential component of the farm-to-fork movement, and asparagus is low in calories and high in nutrients. A half-cup serving of cooked asparagus is only 20 calories with less than a gram of fat and almost two grams of fiber. It contains almost 60% of the recommended daily amount of Vitamin K, which is a key element in heart and bone health. Recent research indicates that the vegetable can help lower blood pressure.
Asparagus can be steamed, roasted, boiled, or baked. It can be eaten raw in salads, omelets, and stir-fries. Although it can be canned, it loses nutrients and crispness. It can become stringy and lose some of its flavor. Many chefs combine asparagus with lemon or bacon to enhance its taste.
The underlying concept of farm-to-table is the contribution locally sourced produce provides to the environment, economic, social, and nutritional health of a community. It requires an awareness of the environmental resources required to produce, process, and distribute food and the economic impact of keeping financial resources within a community.
Farm-to-fork also encompasses the social and health benefits of fresh food and the social interactions connected with its preparation. Farmer’s markets and roadside stands facilitate social interactions that can strengthen a sense of community. And, the process introduces a healthier lifestyle for residents.
Providing the best containers for harvesting, storing, and distributing produce ensures that each item maintains its fresh quality and nutritional value. At Flexcon, we support the farm-to-table movement with our agricultural, produce, and storage containers.