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A Soft Spot for Tender Spears of Asparagus

March 05, 1992|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

Asparagus, a prized winter vegetable that is among the major crops of the Imperial Valley, also does well in isolated pockets of North County.

One of those pockets is on the Hillebrecht family ranch, tucked away in the hills on the edge of Escondido.

Ben Hillebrecht is a fifth generation California farmer who grew up on that ranch, once committed to citrus and avocados. As the Hillebrechts decided to diversify their crop, much of the land was cleared of trees. As they sought a way to market their original crop of muscat grapes, the idea was born for The Farmstand, a fixture on the corner of Summit and San Pasqual Valley Road since 1979.

Since then, the Hillebrechts have been experimenting with more than 50 crops to supply the stand. "We've always grown everything ourselves," Hillebrecht said. "It's opened up all sorts of new windows."

Several acres behind the Hillebrecht home are reserved solely for asparagus. A few green spears, barely visible through a thick carpet of hay, pierced the rain-soaked soil after a recent rainfall.

Under ideal conditions such as these, the vegetable can grow up to 6 inches a day, Hillebrecht said. It needs to be cut daily--by hand, of course--with the help of sharp blades welded to the end of a metal rod.

"The growth of the asparagus depends on the number of daylight hours," according to Hillebrecht's daughter, Mary, who helps out at The Farmstand when she is not managing the Pacific Beach, Hazard Center, or Coronado farmers' markets.

After picking, the spears are sorted according to size--a chore that takes place in the Hillebrechts' large packing shed. Only asparagus 9-inches long qualifies for the commercial market. This past year, the vagaries of the weather played havoc with the harvest.

Growing asparagus requires as much patience as it does tender, loving care. "All this doesn't happen overnight," Hillebrecht said. Before the asparagus seeds are sunk into the ground, fields are fumigated to eliminate pests.

A crown, which has the appearance of a gnarled ginger root, forms the first year, Hillebrecht said as he retrieved one from the moist earth. Crowns are then dug up, replanted, and spaced at least a foot apart.

It can take up to three years for the first edible spears to appear, but a good field will yield the vegetable year after year. "You have to be careful not to over-harvest," Hillebrecht said. After the harvest, the plants are left to go to seed, thus ensuring a healthy start for the following year.

The asparagus season has a jump-start on the rest of the nation in nearby Imperial Valley, due to the mild climate, and more importantly, the water supplied by the Colorado River.

The Valley provides much of the asparagus found in San Diego County supermarkets at this time of the year, according to Don Currier, Jr., sales manager and vice-president of Badlands Provisions Inc. in Brawley.

"We've had excellent growing conditions the past few weeks, with light rains and warm days." As a result, Currier said, the asparagus "eats like candy."

Currier's family farm ranks among the top 100 in California. Badlands' asparagus, sold under the El-Don brand (available locally at Vons and Big Bear supermarkets, among others) gets shipped to all 50 states, and nine foreign countries.

Currier is particularly keen on El-Don's Jumbo Asparagus, which can reach 1 inch in diameter. It is a great favorite of European consumers, he said. "Americans, and especially Californians, are really missing out by not trying them out."

Nina Vedder-Ames, whose family has been farming in the Valley since the early '20s, markets the vegetable for her family's Vedder Ranches.

Every Saturday during asparagus season, rain or shine, Nina and her husband, David, stand behind their table laden with rows of tightly packaged bunches of asparagus, picked a few hours before.

"Asparagus is a very sensitive plant," explained Nina, as she and several customers huddled under the stand's plastic tarp in a vain attempt to keep dry during a recent downpour. "Just when you think you've figured out the plant, it fools you."

At the Vedder Ranch, new growing techniques are tried each year. "Quality varies from field to field, and sometimes, even within the same field because the soil is different," Vedder said.

After the season is over in the Imperial Valley, most of the asparagus grown in California comes from the San Joaquin Delta.

Water, a primary requirement for the thirsty vegetable, is in plentiful supply. So much so, in fact, that tall levies shelter the extensive asparagus plantings of Zuckerman Mandeville Ltd., an important producer of prime, White Asparagus.

The plump, white spear, considered a culinary delicacy in Europe, originates from a special root stock, which yields both green and white asparagus, said Suzannah Zuckerman.

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