Country Woman magazine chats with an asparagus farmer whose crop spearheads spring.
Elna Edgar, Innisfail, Alberta
Family: Elna and husband Doug have two daughters and two grandchildren.
Job: She co-owns a 1,280-acre mixed farm, producing asparagus, wheat, barley, canola, cattle and specialty vegetables.
Passion: "It's rewarding to deal directly with each customer and show them how local and fresh are best."
CW: Why did you add asparagus to your farming mix?
Elna: When Doug and I took over his family's farm, we raised traditional grains and cattle. To remain viable in times of market downturn or crop failure, we knew we had to diversify.
Twenty-four years ago, with help from our daughters, Keri and Angela, we started experimenting with growing asparagus. We now have 21 acres—the largest field in Alberta—and the girls have asparagus to thank for paying for their education.
Recently, Keri and her husband, Randy, returned to the homestead. Our granddaughters, Makayla and Megan, are the sixth generation of Edgar farmers.
CW: Is your area well suited for asparagus?
Elna: Actually, ag advisors warned us that heat-loving asparagus couldn't be commercially grown in Alberta because of our cool climate and unpredictable springs. Some seasons, snow has covered our crop as soon as it popped out of the ground.
On the upside, our sandy loam soil is perfect for asparagus, and lower temperatures increase the spears' sugar content. So what we lose in quantity, we make up in flavor.
CW: When do you get busy picking your crop?
Elna: Harvest starts when the first tender shoots emerge in May and continues until late June. Our crew rides on an asparagus picker Doug custom-made, hand-snapping the stalks as we move along. Each buggy is rigged with comfy seats, sunshades and rain covers. That's a blessing, since we pick every day, and sometimes twice a day if it's exceptionally warm. Asparagus can grow 10 inches on a hot day!
After it's picked, we weigh, bundle and wash the asparagus and immediately chill it in ice water to keep the sugar from turning to starch. It's stored in our walk-in cooler until market day.
CW: How do you sell your asparagus?
Elna: We market our asparagus direct to the consumer, selling at two large farm markets in Edmonton, our capital. In addition, our vegetables are sold at 20 other markets across the province as part of our local growers' co-op.
Customers can visit our on-farm retail store to stock up on fresh asparagus, too. We also sell our handpicked peas and beans, farm-raised Angus beef and homemade frozen fruit pies.
CW: What can you tell us about your annual asparagus celebration?
Elna: Our family has a blast hosting our Asparagus Festival. We invite the public to tour our fields and watch how our crop is picked and processed. To give guests a real taste for our asparagus, we enlist area restaurant chefs to do cooking demonstrations, complete with samples.
CW: Do you enjoy cooking your springtime spears?
Elna: They're on our menu regularly. In fact, we've published an asparagus cookbook with recipes we've developed and tested.
To make life even more interesting, we built a commercial kitchen on our farm. We process thousands of jars of pickled asparagus and relish, asparagus dip and frozen asparagus soup to sell. Talk about a versatile veggie!
CW: What tips can you share about asparagus?
Elna: When selecting asparagus, look for firm spears that have a closed tip. Purple tips indicate extra sweetness.
Asparagus should be kept in the fridge. Ideally, bundles should stand in about an inch of water, covered loosely with a plastic bag. Stored properly, asparagus can keep for up to a week.
For more on Edgar Farms, their produce, events and hours, visit their Web site, edgarfarms.com.
Get delicious health benefits from asparagus. The king of spring veggies is…
- low in calories—about 5 per spear
- free of fat or cholesterol
- very low in sodium
- an excellent source of potassium and folate
- a good source of vitamin C and vitamin K
- high in antioxidants associated with prevention of cancer and heart disease
- especially rich in the antioxidant rutin, valuable in strengthening blood vessels