The loss of farmers and their work
Every year I buy a bunch of asparagus as a token to the local economy here in the Central Valley of California. To me this is an event because I actually purchase so few fruits and vegetables. I have been working at farms and trying to grow my own food for the past 10 years, and this has made me question all of my purchases at the grocery store.
The occasion for me is celebrating the seasonal harvest of a vegetable that can only be produced for a couple of months of the year. By eating seasonally, I enjoy the best quality produce only at the time of year it is available in my region. I also support the people and places that grow my food.
So why should we care where our food is grown? Mexican asparagus probably tastes fine. Asparagus isn’t even one of my favorite vegetables. But, asparagus represents the seasonality of food. It’s only available for a few months of the year. And, as a perennial plant, it takes 2–3 years to get to maturity and then it takes up space in the ground for the rest of its life (this is a big thing for farmers).
Asparagus has been grown here in the valley for over 100 years, and has been celebrated with its own festival in Stockton for 30 years. The fact that we have a festival that celebrates our heritage says to me that people take pride in the products that our region produces.
How can we have a festival that celebrates a product that isn’t even grown here anymore?
The Problem with Asparagus
Local farmers are discontinuing growing asparagus now because of the high labor costs that come with a crop that must be harvested by hand.
The farms in California and throughout the U.S. pay their employees our minimum wage which can be ten times the amount that a worker in Mexico would make for the same job. The majority of production cost in farming is labor. Asparagus costs farmers so much to harvest, that it isn’t worth growing in the United States, when it can’t be sold for enough money to cover their costs.
In California, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics, the number of acres planted with asparagus has fallen from 32,000 acres in 1998 to 6,000 acres planted in 2018. At this rate, there won’t be any U.S. grown asparagus in a few years! And as I write this, farmers in Stockton are destroying plants that they have in the ground and can’t afford to harvest. At many stores right here in the valley, they only carry Mexican asparagus, because it is so much cheaper than California grown.
So in my own little effort to pay farmers what they deserve, I bought a locally grown bunch this week.
Keeping things simple I grilled my asparagus then drizzled balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and fresh ground pepper.
I am going to have to learn how to grow this unique vegetable. Unfortunately, I will probably need to grow my own if I am going to have a token bunch every spring, in the years to come.
- 1 bunch of asparagus
- olive oil
- fresh ground pepper
- balsamic vinegar
Remove the bottom end of the spears by breaking off a few by hand to see where the asparagus is tender, then cut the rest at the same height (you can break them all by hand if you want). Toss with a drizzle of oil and sprinkle of salt. Cook over a hot grill or cook under the broiler in the oven, turning once until they are brown on both sides. Remove from the heat and then drizzle with balsamic vinegar, season with salt, fresh ground pepper and an additional drizzle of olive oil if desired.