Growing a premium product such as asparagus is demanding, but farmers can reap the rewards if everything goes to plan, according to Norfolk grower Tim Jolly.
Asparagus is the quintessential taste of spring, but a lot of investment, work and risk goes into growing each and every bundle of spears as Tim Jolly knows all too well.
He has been growing his Norfolk County Asparagus crop in Roudham for the past 20 years. The brand has gone from strength to strength and Tim enjoys the challenge of growing and marketing it. However, this year may prove to be one of his most challenging years yet.
Born and bred in Suffolk, Tim moved to Roudham, Norfolk, in the early 90s after selling the family farm near Ipswich.
He says: “Roudham Farm was for sale and with the irrigation opportunities and light land I thought it was a great opportunity.”
Sitting on top of a chalk aquifer, there was a ready supply of irrigation water and the farm already had extensive equipment including several vast central pivot irrigators.
“The oldest one is now the best part of 30 years old and is still going strong,” says Tim, who is chair of the UK Irrigation Association.
“Hopefully it will still be going in another 30 years.”
The farm is about 384 hectares (950 acres) in total, of which 324ha (800 acres) is arable land. On this land, Tim and his team of four full-time men (plus seasonal staff) grow potatoes, onions, parsnips, sugar beet and barley, as well about 16ha (40 acres) of asparagus.
The remaining acreage is made up of woodland and meadows and additional land is rented for onions and potatoes.
Asparagus was already grown on Roudham Farm when Tim took it over. He says: “This is a fairly traditional area for growing it. Asparagus doesn’t like getting its feet wet, so this light land is very suitable for it.”
Growing asparagus is quite different to most other crops, explains Tim. The work is done by hand so a lot of labour is involved, but the season is only about eight weeks long.
Tim says: “Nearly all the activity is concentrated in those eight weeks.”
Outside the harvesting period, some work is needed to make sure the plantations are kept weed and disease free. He says: “Being a perennial crop you don’t want perennial weeds in your asparagus because the opportunities to deal with them are not as good as with an annual crop.
“Thistles in particular are a nightmare so we need to make sure we start off with a clean field and hope we don’t get them or can keep them down. Sometimes hand weeding is the only way to keep infestations at bay.”
Similarly, some diseases can pose a problem, particularly soil diseases. This year, Tim is particularly concerned about fusarium affecting crops after the persistently wet weather.
Tim employs teams of workers from Latvia, Bulgaria and Poland who have worked for him for several years and he firmly believes it works well for both parties.
Harvesting starts around April 20 and once in full swing, one person can cut around 2ha (five acres) per day. The cutters use specially designed buggies which travel over the top of the rows.
Tim says: “The first buggy we bought was from Italy but now we have Italian, Dutch and English ones. The benefit is the cutters don’t have to walk or carry the trays.”
Tim now has seven of these buggies, six electrically powered and one petrol powered.
Once cut, the asparagus goes into the cold store and will is then graded as soon as possible. A team of eight people work in the grading and packing operation and this year, they will have the benefit of a brand new packhouse shed.
“We also bought a second-hand grader, a Dutch make, which we bought from another grower in this country.”
Most asparagus in the UK is grown from one-year-old crowns. Once planted, Tim leaves his to grow, go to fern and die back for two years before they are harvested.
Tim says plantations can last between eight and 15 years if well cared for which is just as well because ‘at 22p per crown, one acre costs around £1,800’. The decision to replace crowns is fundamentally an economic one.
He says: “Over the years, as plantation quality and yields decline, so does the return. There comes a point when an older plantation is no longer financially viable and so it is time to retire it.”
While a plantation could be replanted with new crowns, it is generally agreed this is not good practice because of the build up of soil diseases. Therefore, Tim chooses to put asparagus land back into his arable rotation for eight to 10 years before considering planting asparagus there again.
In previous years, about two-thirds of Tim’s asparagus were sold in London wholesale markets and one-third to supermarkets.
He says: “This year, we are hoping for 80 to 90 per cent going into the London markets. The amount going elsewhere purely depends on what sort of crop we get.
“I am worried about the impact of fusarium on the crop. We have seen increasing amounts of soil problems affecting the general health and vigour so I am not as optimistic as I might have been about yield and quality this year.
“With more benign weather conditions, the plant is able to organise its defences and resist diseases, but with the wet weather we have been having, the crop is having a tough old time.”
Outward signs of fusarium include plants not thriving and at harvest time, spears are lower quality, more likely to be bent, twisted and less attractive.
Tim says: “With a premium product, the plants do need to look perfect so it is a worry.”
The spears are graded and bunched accordingly. Traditionally, the wholesale market uses a system where spears ranging from six to 10mm in thickness are ‘choice’, 10 to 16mm are ‘select’ and anything 16mm or bigger is ‘extra select’.
All spears are expected to be 200mm long, as straight as possible with a good colour, and the heads need to be tight.
Tim says: “Supermarkets tend to prefer smaller sizes. But as harvesting and grading costs for thin asparagus spears are the same as thicker ones, bunches of thinner spears work out more expensive to bring to market.
“Really thin spears are simply not worth dealing with, so we decide it is best to leave those in the field.
“Although there is a very small processing market for imperfect asparagus, it is not financially viable to grade and box the tiniest spears.”
Tim sells at three big London markets – Covent Garden, New Spitalfields and Western International – where his crop is sold under the Norfolk County Asparagus brand.
He says: “The London markets give a better return than supermarkets even though they involve more work for us.
“The customers are no different though. They want quality and consistency but they will reward you for supplying them with it. However, the price goes up and down as it is an open market.
“We talk to traders on a daily basis to see how the market is going, what prices are like and what volumes are selling.”
However, even with this knowledge there is limited scope for delay in selling the crop.
“Asparagus is different to a lot of crops as you have to harvest it on daily basis. Once you stop harvesting it you have to let it go to fern.”
If the market is oversupplied, Tim and his team have to make quick decisions about whether to keep the harvest in the cold store for an extra few days. There is also an additional possibility it simply will not be economic to sell it at all.
He says: “The amount we harvest is weather dependent. The hotter it is, the faster it grows.”
In an effort to smooth out harvesting peaks, Tim has introduced a second variety of asparagus to the farm.
“Most of what we grow is the variety Gijnlim, but we have also introduced Guelph Millennium from Canada. It is a slightly later variety then Gijnlim.”
The new variety now accounts for about one-fifth of Tim’s crop. He says: “We began cutting it last year. The quality has been reasonably good and it yields well. It is a nice variety and tends to be a little straighter with a good colour to it. I have had pretty good first impressions.”
Tim’s customers travel from far and wide to buy his asparagus at the farmgate, as well as his customers at the London markets who re-sell the crop via a wide range of outlets.
Hopefully, despite the additional challenges, this year’s harvest will be plentiful enough to keep the customers happy and make Tim’s hard work worthwhile.