What No One Has Told You About Asparagus and Why Locally Grown is the Best

A few years ago, a group of Upper Valley farmers sat down to coordinate their efforts and talk about asparagus—how to grow it, why to grow it, and who should grow it. 

One name kept coming up: Alex MacLennan, a thoughtful, innovative farmer whose family-owned, wholesale vegetable farm extends across a pristine stretch of rich Connecticut River Valley farmland in Windsor, Vermont.

I met Alex a few years ago while touring his farm in late summer, the height of corn season. (Alex is famous for corn as well as asparagus.) There is a winding road there, and that day the sun was bright and warm. Alex wore a light blue shirt and an old cap, his eyes squinting in the sun.

For small-scale, local asparagus growers like Alex, an ever-evolving, highly competitive global market has changed the asparagus business in the United States.

“While the emergence of Peru as a year-round global asparagus supplier was good news for U.S. consumers, it had a considerable negative effect on the U.S. asparagus industry,” the USDA wrote in a report published a few years ago. “Peru’s success as a low-cost asparagus exporter played a large part in the recent decline of the U.S. asparagus industry.”
 
Fewer U.S. growers are planting asparagus because of water shortages and low prices driven by competition from importers in Peru and Mexico. According to the USDA, Peru in particular has emerged as a significant fruit and vegetable exporter. And because the same products exported by Peru are grown in the United States, Peruvian exports affect U.S. growers and consumers. 
 
The outlook is even more bleak today, and the environment is paying a high price for it. Asparagus is draining Peru dry, creating water shortages to keep up with the demand of voracious western markets. Also, to have our favorite products on the shelves throughout the year, it means those products have to be shipped from half a world away.
 
“We often leave an enormous carbon footprint with our choices,” writes Jaime King, a Co-op chef and food writer, “like Peruvian asparagus in January, which travels thousands of miles to hit our plates.” 
 
This brings us back to Alex. Locally grown produce, like MacLennan asparagus, is a beautiful, seasonal affair. Alex’s conscientious growing methods work with the land, the season, and the careful use of resources. The result? Delicious asparagus, happy planet.

Preparation Tips

MacLennan asparagus is in season now. Try our chef’s tips:
 
Off-season, imported asparagus usually requires a few minutes in the pot. But Alex’s purple-tinged beauties cook in even less time with delicious results. This year, the first harvest spears have been bigger around. Some folks shoot for the pencil size, but this is a time when bigger really is better. You’ll get tons of mature flavor. Whatever the size coming in, MacLennan Farm offers a superior product.

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Above, Alex MacLennan, MacLennan Farm. Our Co-op’s vision is a well-nourished community cultivated through cooperation. 

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis

Ken is a writer in the Co-op Outreach Department. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.