Global Agriculture

Asparagus challenges

16 November 2022, NZ: Boyds Asparagus managing director Andrew Keaney had hard and fast decisions to make on an early October morning following an unusual polar blast that brought snow and frosts well up the North Island.

Pictures show one of Boyds’ key fields covered in the grainy texture of ice with the early season harvest lying ruined somewhere beneath.

The decision came down to cost: mow in 164ha or get the picking teams to work their way through the remains, harvesting salvageable new spears, while clearing the wilting wreckage off the top.

Andrew chose the mower. Bringing in workers to tidy up and do in two or three days what would normally take a day would have cost even more.

The frost hit was a set-back for those dependent on what they could sell in the domestic market. For Boyds it was around 60 tonnes of product, equivalent to 200,000 bundles, and a revenue loss of about $300,000.

”The biggest concern to me is the significant loss of revenue in a marginal business. These days our market is really the North Island, but after Labour weekend the prices drop below the cost of production.”

The frost cost ten days of production at a time of year when prices were at their best. Boyds’ usually bustling packhouse lay deserted. But it was not the end. New spears would come away. One hundred and eighty seasonal workers, many from the local community, had to be scheduled, with some paid for a portion of the usual time – to prevent them from going elsewhere and adding to the overall labour problems.

The impact on the availability of asparagus to the market would be minimal, as growers in the Hawke’s Bay and Horowhenua would make up the difference, Andrew says.

This isn’t the first time Boyds had been hit with frost in 2022. Another cool night brought frost in early September, but luckily only on a 20ha block with a loss of about two to three tonnes.

”We’ve had frosts before, but never as widespread. We have six blocks within a 40km radius and this is the first time frost has hit them all.”

According to Andrew, there wasn’t a lot that could be learned from the experience, or put in place as a protection should the same event happen next year.

”Unfortunately for us, there’s not a lot we can do. It would cost $100,000 to get a helicopter in. The margins are just not there.”

Only ten minutes’ drive away from Boyds is Greenfern (Les Asperges Ltd), where Bill Cummings and his son Hadyn grow asparagus. They were also hit by the frost, but have more strings to their bow.

The bulk of Greenfern’s asparagus crop is the green variety, providing about 35 tonnes annually, with small quantities in purple. About half goes out to organic wholesalers and the rest through the Farmers’ Markets.

For the past 12 years, Greenfern has grown white asparagus. Sweeter and juicier, white is a favourite in up-market restaurants. Blacked-out and insulated tunnel houses allow white asparagus to be grown in warmth and total darkness. These now cover about one-third of a hectare, and produce 20 to 30kgs a day. 

Bill Cummings is 73. His son Hadyn works in the day-to-day management of the family business, having moved in the past couple of years from working for salad greens grower Southern Fresh Group – right next door on Bruntwood Road.

Along with asparagus, Greenfern also grows globe artichokes, gourmet carrots and fennel.

Artichoke is a variety of cultivated edible thistle. The edible portion of the plant consists of the flower buds before the flowers come into bloom. It has a short, two-month season.

”We started growing artichokes about ten years ago and put in 1000 plants. We have since introduced new varieties. Artichokes are very popular with people who know about them, particularly through the Farmers’ Markets.”

Fennel is a perennial herb of the carrot family (Apiaceae) grown for its edible shoots, leaves and seeds. Fennel is cultivated in temperate regions worldwide, and all parts of the plant are aromatic and used in flavouring. The bulb-like stem base can be eaten as a vegetable. 

Greenfern is organic. But Bill says this strategy has not been without its problems with invasive weeds. The Greenfern operation had experienced a very mild winter which had allowed an early crop. Things were looking good for the new season.
”But this plateaued and we got a colder spring and then, just when we thought we were getting ahead, we were hit by the first big frost we’d had in 20 to 30 years.” 

The Antarctic blast knocked out 2.5ha of green asparagus, and followed last year’s struggles with Covid-19 lockdowns, which blocked access to the usual asparagus outlets through restaurants.

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