Calgary·FOOD AND THE CITY

Edgar Farms' asparagus crop in Innisfail is sure sign of spring in Alberta

Alberta asparagus is the most fleeting, surest sign of spring - and a six-generation farm in Innisfail is seeing an early crop of the thick juicy stalks thanks to unseasonably warm conditions in the province.

Earliest ever aspagus harvest at 6-generation farm north of Calgary

Elna Edgar shows off some freshly-picked asparagus at the farm near Innisfail. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

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."

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.

Edgar Farms' central Alberta location provides the ideal soil conditions and cool climate to produce sweet and flavourful asparagus. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

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.

Elna Edgar with Keri and Makayla - three generations - are seen in this 2012 photo. (Edgar Farms)

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.

The Edgar Farms country store is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. until mid-September. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

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.

Asparagus served with a sesame-soy sauce makes a quick and tasty meal. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

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.

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.