It started with a dare in the blizzard of ’93. Robert Ploeger‘s father was having a hard time growing asparagus, and Robert said, “I’ll bet you I can grow it.” That winter, he and wife, Glenda Ploeger, co-owners of Cane Creek Asparagus & Co., started what would become their first three rows of asparagus in the greenhouse attached to their Fairview home.
In the beginning, the Ploegers specialized in white asparagus, which is white because it’s grown in trenches and not exposed to sunlight. They sold to restaurants and country clubs, who paid up to $33 a pound for this specialty crop. Glenda recalls packing their exquisite spears, looking chiseled like white chocolate, in ice and shipping overnight with FedEx. “I still have chefs call me,” she says, but she has to decline these requests, since everything she and her husband grow now that doesn’t feed their own family goes into their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes.
Focusing on white asparagus was a good way to get themselves established. But the Ploegers soon realized that local families wanted to eat quality products too. They started a CSA and began growing a variety of crops, adding “Seasonal Gourmet Vegetables” to qualify their original name. The couple now has 90 different varieties of crops, of which only one is asparagus. They no longer have white, but specialize in purple asparagus — for the uniqueness factor, says Ploeger. She thinks purple asparagus has a slightly sweeter flavor than the standard green. When cooked, however, it loses its purple color and will become a different, more iridescent shade of green.
Asparagus is not native to Western North Carolina and prefers cooler temperatures such as those in Michigan and Washington State. It’s a very fickle crop, Ploeger says. Drought will hurt it, as will too much rain. And harvesting is very time consuming as you need to bend down and pick each spear by hand. So much care can go into each individual spear, in fact, that Ploeger used to refer to units of asparagus as “eaches.” “To get as much as we’ve got, we’re just thrilled with it,” she says.
The Cane Creek asparagus field, situated next to an Asian-greens-rich spring garden, is spotted with small ferns and the occasional green or purple spear. Ploeger describes how the ferns will grow to a lush, beautiful 10-feet high. Some people plant asparagus ferns as a border, she says, while others use them in flower arrangements.
The Ploegers pick their mix of purple passion and other asparagus varieties daily during a harvesting window of about six to eight weeks, approximately late April through the beginning of June. After that, they stop picking the spears, letting them turn into ferns, which feed the roots underground that will send up the spears next spring.
As asparagus grows, it produces a mat of roots that spread horizontally. Gardeners often start with a one-year-old root system, called a crown, rather than seed, in part because of common advice to wait at least a year or two after the first spears arrive before starting to harvest. Google “asparagus crown images” and you’ll see clusters of tendril-like roots resembling sea creatures.
“We’ve planted from 500 to 1,500 crowns every year to keep this going,” says Ploeger. Crowns can often last 15 to 20 years, but with the crop being so fickle, the Ploegers have needed to fill in holes, planting new crowns on top of where the old ones have died.
The Ploegers have 16 tillable acres on their Fairview property, of which they’re using about seven. Two or three of their fields will be sunflowers, Ploeger says, which bring in bees for pollination as well as goldfinches and cardinals that make a lovely backdrop to their farm work.
It’s just the two of them working all this land, and for Robert, it’s a second job. During the day, he runs a factory that manufactures, among other things, typewriter ribbon. The garden work is done on weekends and weekdays from the late afternoon through sunset, so the Ploegers often don’t eat supper until 10 p.m.
“We eat our own food 365 days a year,” says Glenda, “and most meals of the day.” Lots of her favorite recipes can be found on the Cane Creek Asparagus CSA website. “We have been eating fresh food since before it was popular. And we just turned it into a second income source.”
For asparagus, Ploeger’s favored cooking method depends on size of the spear. The tiny spears she likes to roast. The medium ones she will often steam. And the huge, thumb-size diameter ones she recommends grilling.
Asparagus are labor-intensive to grow and harvest, so they don’t come cheap. They are often loss leaders at the grocery store, says Ploeger, sold at below market cost to entice you into the store to buy more profitable items like chips and cookies.
The Ploegers harvest about 2-3 pounds of asparagus daily, and are hoping for 4-5 pounds daily when the weather gets warmer. What used to be their business is now only a small part of the 90 crops that fill their CSA boxes.
Ploeger says that selling their vegetables exclusively through a CSA, with no farmers markets and no wholesale, creates a streamlined production and delivery system that works well for them. Ploeger has an MBA and used to teach high school business classes.
“Sustainability has to consider the economic side of the formula, as well as what’s good for the earth and the community,” she says. If you don’t charge enough for your product to stay in business and continue to do what you’re doing, then you’re not a sustainable farmer.
The majority of Cane Creek Asparagus & Company CSA members live in Buncombe County, but some have been from as far away as Boone, Cashiers and Pickens, South Carolina. Ploeger works daily deliveries to pickup sites into her schedule, also donating daily to charity whenever there’s surplus.
The Ploegers pride themselves on being one of the longest running CSAs in the area, with an extended season that last year ran until Dec. 31. Since honoring commitments is very important to them, the couple always plants more than they need. Often times, Ploeger notes, they plant twice what they need.
“[People] think we’re crazy, for going all this work, when we could just go to the store and buy the vegetables,” she says. “The only thing is, the vegetables at the store, you won’t see bug holes in them, you won’t find a single worm. How much spray had to go on that broccoli and on those other products to keep them that perfect?”
Cane Creek Asparagus CSA members should expect to see some insect damage on their crops, Ploeger says. The farm is not certified organic, but that’s a term that Glenda thinks has been “hijacked” for marketing purposes. “I think fresh, local, is the most important thing, and using as few chemicals as you can get by with,” she says. “That’s why we call ourselves ‘seasonal, gourmet vegetables.'”
Ploeger gives off an air of efficiency, and the Ploegers’ 15 years of experience filling weekly CSA boxes with produce may make one think they have everything under control. But not everything is organized. “One of the biggest gambles out there,” says Ploeger, “is trying to grow a vegetable.” Even with plenty of dedication and hard work, there are so many variables with farming, so many risks.
“How do you deal with those risks?” I ask.
“I suppose,” she says, pondering, “a lot of prayer.”
This story was originally posted at Earth Flavors, a website profiling local ingredients in Asheville and Western North Carolina. Carla Seidl is the founder and producer of Earth Flavors.