By Jenny Cowan
Nothing says summer like the taste of freshly picked fruits and vegetables. With plenty of homegrown farm stands to choose from throughout Gloucester County, “farm to table” is a way of life in the summer for many living in South Jersey.
Over the years this area has become well known for its outstanding corn, tomatoes, and blueberries. Thousands of visitors who travel through the state on their way to the shore stop at the many stands along the way, hoping to find a ripe, juicy Jersey tomato or fresh sweet corn.
But one highly sought after vegetable doesn’t get quite the same amount of press as the rest. Asparagus. Ironic, since it is the most labor intensive crop of them all and as a result not grown nearly as widely as other produce.
“Growing asparagus is a 15 year commitment,” said Joe Maugeri, of Maugeri Farms in Woolwich. He went on to explain that asparagus is a perennial plant, meaning it continues to mature year over year. Other plants, like tomatoes and corn, are freshly planted each year and can be rotated throughout a farmer’s fields. However, asparagus, which starts out in the first year as a seed, will hopefully give 12-15 years worth of asparagus in the same field.
The Maugeri family has been growing asparagus since the 1930’s and they have seen the ups and downs that the asparagus crop has endured throughout the decades. Brothers Joe and Sam Maugeri run the farm now, and devote a full 70 acres to the crop. “Although it yields a smaller crop, it takes up the most acreage of our farm,” said Maugeri.
He explained the process of growing just one field. “Year one, you plant your seeds; you don’t get a crop that year. Year two, you dig up the plants that have germinated and replant them in trenches. Year three, you put up ridges to support the plants, and if the weather isn’t too hot, you can cut it for one week. In year four, you get about six weeks. It’s not until year five that you get a full season of cutting,” said Maugeri.
Asparagus, once known as “king” of all crops in South Jersey, has not been widely grown in the area in the last few decades, but is slowly making a comeback.
Indeed, asparagus in the first half of the 20th century was one of the biggest crops grown in South Jersey. In fact, chefs were so eager to get their hands on the vegetable that in 1922 asparagus made it’s first airplane flight from Mullica Hill to Boston, so that people in the northeast could get a taste of asparagus grown along our very own Raccoon Creek. The asparagus flight was such big news it even made headlines in the New York Times.
The asparagus industry wasn’t only for farmers however; other businesses got involved too. Hurff Cannery, based in Swedesboro, was started by Swedesboro resident Edgar Hurff in 1913. It was the largest privately owned processing plant in the world. In its first year there were only 40 employees, but by 1941 the cannery employed over 900 people.
The cannery was the first place to process canned asparagus in the eastern United States, under the direction of Hurff. The cannery later became the California Packing Corp that packaged Del Monte vegetables for many years.
Maugeri can remember his family farming asparagus from the time he was young. “When I was a kid, we made our own seed. But we can’t do that anymore,” he said.
“Back in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s asparagus was a huge crop around here. But after that there was a disease that ran up and down the East Coast that killed a lot of the asparagus. After that, a lot less people were growing it,” said Maugeri.
What Maugeri is referring to is a disease caused by fungus that creates rotting at the root of the plant. According to the Rutgers University website, this rot led to a sharp decline of asparagus across the United States from the 1960’s to the 1980’s.
For the past 70 years, Rutgers University Agricultural Experimental Station has led an asparagus-breeding program and has produced some of the most widely grown commercial varieties today. Howard Ellison, who since the 1950s was head of the department, dove into an extensive research project after the rot wiped out much of the area’s asparagus, searching for a way to bring back the asparagus crop.
Ellison’s hard work paid off. He was able to indentify male asparagus plants that were resistant to rot. These plants, known as “super males” carried a dominant gene, that, when crossed with a female plant, resulted in seed offspring carrying the disease resistant gene 100 percent of the time.
Ultimately, this new all-male species of asparagus became the industry standard; not only because they were disease resistant, but also because they outlasted female plants, which went to seed and produced unwanted seedlings in the field. With all male plants, more of the plant’s energy is devoted to growing a stalk, rather than sharing energy to produce seeds. This leads to a better product overall.
“The old timers will say that the asparagus today isn’t what it used to be, but I think it comes pretty close,” said Maugeri. He did note, however, that because growing a successful crop requires specifically all male seeds, that overall the price of seed is much higher than it used to be.
Growing asparagus is most certainly a labor of love. And more labor goes into harvesting asparagus than any other vegetable.
“What most people don’t realize is that every asparagus stalk is hand cut in the field with a knife,” said Maugeri.
After stalks are cut, they are gathered into bundles and brought to the packinghouse. Maugeri Farms does all of their own packaging and shipping in- house. Asparagus stalks are washed, sorted by size, and then separated by hand into one-pound bundles.
“No part of our process is automated; every step is done by hand,” said Maugeri.
And who is buying all of the asparagus? “We have our market on Oldman’s Creek Road where people can stop by and purchase freshly picked asparagus,” Maugeri said. The market, run by his wife Karen Maugeri and his brother Sam’s wife Linda Maugeri, opened in June 2011 and is currently in its fifth operating season.
“We love having the market. Everything is so fresh and we enjoy talking about the farm to our customers,” said Karen Maugeri.
As for the rest of Maugeri’s asparagus crop, it is sent to customers all over the country by way of auction houses, such as the Vineland Produce Auction, as well as brokers who buy for large supermarket chains. “Our asparagus is in many different supermarkets like ShopRite and Whole Foods,” said Maugeri.
Asparagus is a chef favorite as well. Its sweet flavor paired with a hint of bitterness and a sharp crunch makes it a popular choice as a side dish.
In fact, it is so popular that Mullica Hill based restaurant Blue Plate hosts a special week of asparagus dinners every year. Blue Plate is known for its seasonal “farms to fork” menu, where the bulk of ingredients come fresh from local farms located in Mullica Hill and Clarksboro.
“The asparagus that we use here is generally picked that day from a local farm and delivered here right after being cut. It is super sweet and fresh,” said Blue Plate chef James Malaby.
“We also host a three course dinner for a week in June, with appetizers, a main dish, and desserts, and every course includes asparagus in some way,” said Malaby.
Dessert might sound like a funny meal to include dessert, but at Blue Plate Malaby has perfected that asparagus chocolate cake. “One of our specialties that is more unique is the asparagus chocolate cake. Asparagus has a slight bitterness that enhances the flavor of the chocolate,” said Malaby.
Malaby admitted people are often skeptical at first. But not to worry, there are no asparagus chunks in the cake. “This is just like Grandma’s chocolate cake, only better. Everyone who tries it loves it,” said Malaby. He added that the asparagus dinners would be held this year from June 9-13.
Whether in chocolate cake, or prepared more simply, it only takes a bite of freshly picked local asparagus to understand what all the buzz is about. Though few people understand the many years of work that went into just one stalk, the taste of fresh, sweet asparagus speaks for itself.