There’s not a lot that beats freshcut, crisp asparagus for flavour, and you won’t get fresher than the Jersey Giant spears produced in the deeps soils of Greenfern Les Asperges.
The Cummings’ family and their workers start picking at 6am, get the crop into the packhouse by 11am, and send it out within hours to ensure their customers get the best possible taste and texture.
The process of growing that asparagus has stayed the same for most of the 20plus years that Bill Cummings has been in the business, but these days he’s also getting his head around a very different way of producing it. Half of the family farm is in conversion to organic under Biogro and it’s a big change.
“Over the years of my involvement in asparagus I have noticed the effect of chemicals on soil structure and the biology and thought it about time we all started doing something about improving the land for future generations,” says Bill.
“With conventional there’s only a couple of opportunities you get to spray for weed control... because of this there’s some fairly tough chemicals that are used. When you go organic you’ve got to think of alternatives.”
Last year he cultivated the weeds, but now he’s thinking of gas or steam.
“(Fellow organic asparagus grower) John Kells has got a gas burner but I don’t particularly like gas and I just think steam would be much better. And steam may cause less harm to the spear too.”
Then there’s the new world of organic fertilisers.
“It was a total change on how I did it before, I needed to get rid of all that old thinking. There’s some good people I have been able to talk to.”
That’s included Tony Banks of the local Organicfarmsnz group, and organic farmers Steve Erikson and Peter Downard.
“I’ve talked to (Peter) quite a bit and I’ve actually got him to make me a compost tea-maker, so now I have to find out how to make compost tea!”
This is tea on a serious scale, made in a large vat.
“The water bubbles up through the compost and it brings out all the biology, then you add feeders like molasses and fish fert for the biology to feed on, then you quickly spray it.”
Using organic methods has meant a lot more work for Bill who also runs a packhouse for asparagus.
“It is very difficult to find the time to get out there and do things you need to. You can put a chemical on conventional and it will sit there and do its job for you for three, four, up to six months without you having to do anything more, but with organic you need to be out there much more often, and with a small WHO: Bill & Irene Cummings, Greenfern Les Asperges WHERE: Cambridge WHAT: asparagus LAND: 16ha (40 acres) CONTACT: www.facebook.com/greenfern
packhouse that can be difficult.”
Production last year was down slightly and Bill says it could be from the changeover or maybe just a difficult growing season, but he’s feeling positive.
“The plus in it is you’re selling into a completely different market than everybody else - there’s only John Kells and myself registered.”
Irene Cummings is an avid farmer’s market attendee, selling at both Cambridge and Hamilton. She says many of the people who attend these markets are looking for spray-free product and she loves selling their fresh asparagus.
There’s more competition now, with the introduction of Peruvian asparagus into the NZ canned market. That makes it even more important says Bill, that consumers are able to buy a local, spray-free product, and it makes all the extra work involved in going fully organic worthwhile. n