Edgar Farms' asparagus crop in Innisfail is sure sign of spring in Alberta
Earliest ever aspagus harvest at 6-generation farm north of Calgary
While fires continue to rage up north, this unseasonably hot weather is triggering an early, healthy crop of asparagus on Edgar Farms, just southwest of Innisfail, Alta.
"In all the years we have been growing this very quirky crop we have never picked before May 5," says Elna Edgar, who runs Edgar farms with her husband, Doug, daughter Keri and son-in-law Randy.
"We usually get going around May 15. We saw the first spears up about April 5 and started picking our early rising hilltop on April 19."
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Doug and Elna have been growing asparagus since the 80s. Doug's mother had a small asparagus patch in the garden, and it inspired them to diversify and experiment with a larger plot.
Six generations of Edgars have lived and farmed on the homestead, where Doug's great-grandfather, William Edgar Sr, settled in 1907 after arriving by covered wagon.
Elna grew up on a farm 12 miles east, and the pair attended Olds College before taking over the farm.
Asparagus isn't a common crop in Alberta, and many people told them it wouldn't work.
But our sunny days and cool nights make the perfect growing conditions for sweet, tender spears with purple tips — cool temperatures keep the natural sugars from turning into starch.
The catch — their crops can vary wildly depending on weather conditions, and are often damaged or destroyed by hail.
Besides asparagus, the Edgars grow peas and beans and raise Angus beef.
At their farm store, you'll also find homemade asparagus relish and pickles, pickled beets, handmade pies and other things that should be bought straight from the farm (they have an onsite commercial kitchen).
But they're known for their asparagus — the largest crop in the province.
The window for local asparagus is always narrow. They usually pick from mid-May until the end of June, but this year it has opened early.
It's a good sign — earlier than usual last year they had to abandon picking portions of the asparagus fields that were hit the hardest by devastating hail storms in the summer of 2014, damaging the mature plants.
Doug and Elna have built their own harvesting system — rows of seats set as close to the ground as possible on motorized wheels, with buckets rigged to the sides so that pickers can reach down between their legs to snap off each spear — which emerges from the ground on its own — right at the base, so there's no need to trim woody ends.
On the hottest days, they pass through the fields to harvest twice, the asparagus grows so fast.
"This year, the spears are nice and fat, which indicates lots of stored energy in the crowns, due to the exceptionally warm summer last year and the fact that we stopped picking early," Elna says.
Last year, the plants were skinnier, without any nutrient reserves after the 2014 hail storms.
Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to asparagus, thinner is not necessarily better — in fact, even Elna herself prefers thicker spears, and says they're sweeter.
Thicker stalks are better suited to certain dishes — if you plan to grill them, for example, they're easier to handle with tongs and less likely to slip through the grate than the pencil-thin ones.
Doug and Elna will have a good supply at farmers' markets this weekend under the Innisfail Growers banner, including stalks from their newest field, which at only three-years-old, can only be picked for about 10 days to prevent stressing the plants.
Alberta asparagus is the most fleeting, surest sign of spring — one we can embrace by eating as much as possible before the plants turn to tall, wispy ferns and lie in wait for next year.
Edgar Farms is located near Innisfail, (403) 227-2443. Their farm store is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week until about mid-September.