Asparagus growers keep it old school

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In the last 50 years, robots and machines have taken farming by storm. But many asparagus growers are keeping it old school. Like Roscoe Zuckerman IV. His family has been growing asparagus in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for more than 80 years and relies upon farmworkers to harvest the crop each year, spear by spear.

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Roscoe Zuckerman IV’s great grandfather started Zuckerman Farms over 80 years ago. (All photos by Joseph Stone)

The acres of asparagus stalks grow on the farm in long rows like thick blades of grass. Some are the diameter of a No. 2 pencil, others the thickness of your thumb. You would think the thinner spears come from the baby plants, but the exact opposite is true. Younger plants produce thicker spears that are juicier and more flavorful. Zuckerman prefers the tenderness of the older, thinner stalks for salads and stir frys. Workers start harvesting the delicate spears by hand in late February. During the growing season, which is about three months long, close attention is paid to the lunar calendar since asparagus thrives under a full moon. Nutrient-rich peat in the delta soil is key to producing stalks that are rich in flavor, tender and crisp. “The San Joaquin Delta is to asparagus as Napa is to wine,” Zuckerman says. To keep it that way, the farm rotates crops in fields where asparagus was grown and leaves some asparagus fields fallow for decades.

Nick Montgomery and Akira Akuto's colorful attire reminded Laura Avery of Oscar and Grover from Sesame Street
Nick Montgomery and Akira Akuto’s colorful attire reminded Laura Avery of Oscar and Grover from Sesame Street.

Asparagus is a perennial plant with a life cycle of about 10 years. After the spring harvest, the Zuckermans let their asparagus fields fern out. The stalks can reach up to 5 feet tall before they are chopped up in the fields. The soil is turned in fall and spears emerge again in spring. If the farm wants to propagate new asparagus fields, root crowns are started in greenhouses before being planted in the ground. 

Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery recently relocated to California from New York and serve grilled asparagus with spring onions, pistachios and ricotta at Osso in downtown Los Angeles. They opt for thin spears because they are easier to handle in the kitchen. To prepare the dish, the chefs toss the spears with spring onions in olive oil, salt and pepper before charring them on the grill. The grilled veggies then get dressed in vinegar. A dollop of ricotta is smeared on the plate before adding the asparagus, spring onions, pistachio oil, pistachios, Meyer lemon zest and sea salt.

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Grilled Asparagus with ricotta, pistachios and spring onion. (Photo courtesy of Osso)