Shooting star: Asparagus springing forth

  • Wally Czajkowski, owner of Plainville Farm in Hadley, tours The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield in March 2017 after his farm was named “Farm of the Year.” Gazette photo

  • Freshly harvested asparagus from Plainville Farm awaits purchase during the WGBY Asparagus Festival in Hadley in 2017. Gazette photo

For the Gazette
Published: 5/16/2020 2:26:34 PM

Each spring, the arrival of asparagus at farm stands across the Valley marks the beginning of the field crop season. After months of cold, Wally Czajkowski is happy to report that green spears are popping out the soil across his farm.

“So far, we’re just picking at it,” Czajkowski says. “But I’ll tell you what, there are so many babies coming up. All we need is some heat and we are going.”

Czajkowski owns Plainville Farm in Hadley with his wife, Mary McNamara. A third-generation farmer, Czajkowski proudly explains that he grows vegetables and tobacco “on some of the best land in the world.” His crop plan for this year includes lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cucumbers and winter squash.

But May is the month of asparagus.

“Asparagus is totally an optimistic vegetable,” Czajkowski says. “It comes up, we cut it off. It comes up, we cut it off. It does this for six weeks.”

Six weeks of harvest means up to 40 rounds of cuttings from each asparagus plant.

“It’s like any other natural thing — all it wants to do is procreate. It’s got one goal. And we keep frustrating it, day after day after day, and it just doesn’t give up. Isn’t that amazing?” Czajkowski says.

The asparagus spears that we eat are the plant’s attempts to put up shoots that, if left to their own devices, develop leaves, and eventually, flowers for reproduction.

“We stop when the plants tell us to stop,” Czajkowski explains. “The shoots start coming thinner and there’s fewer of them. There’s no sense of being greedy. If you push it too hard, you’ll damage your crop forever.”

When the asparagus season wraps up, typically towards the end of June, Czajkowski will finally let the shoots grow. Once mature, the asparagus stalks look like giant ferns.

“I love to see ferns in the field as tall as me. That’s a great sign,” Czajkowski says. “Through photosynthesis, those ferns put down food into the crown.”

The root system of the asparagus plant is known as the crown. Throughout the summer and fall, healthy asparagus plants pump nutrients down into their crown. Asparagus is a perennial crop, so when the cold weather hits, its vegetation dies back but the root system below the ground remains vital.

Once spring hits, the healthy crowns are ready to send shoots skyward. This cycle repeats for years. On Plainville Farm, Czajkowski’s crew will typically harvest the same asparagus plant for up to 14 years.

These days, Czajkowski is thankful to have an experienced crew of farmhands to rely on.

“We’re blessed to have probably the finest crew I’ve ever seen in my life working here,” he says.

Right now, his team numbers 14. But its ranks will grow as the weather gets warmer and there’s more work on the farm. The people on Czajkowski’s crew have come from all over the world, including Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Czajkowski sees that geographical diversity as an asset to the farm.

“People come here, and they’ve worked on other farms all over the world. And they have tons of good ideas that we never even thought of,” he says.

But in the time of a pandemic, the long-distance travel some of his seasonal employees are undertaking to come to work has been a major point of anxiety.

“When people are coming from other countries to work here, they’re scared because the United States has much higher infection rates than other countries,” Czajkowski says.

Czajkowski is responsible for housing his employees who participate in the H-2A program, a federal visa program that authorizes people from other countries to temporarily work on farms in the United States.

It’s shared housing, so “it’s very difficult to have social distancing all the time,” Czajkowski says.

So in addition to adopting new safety measures on the farm, including installing dividers between bunching stations and having crew members wear masks, Czajkowski was able to make arrangements with Cooley Dickenson Hospital to preemptively test newly arriving members of the crew for COVID-19.

“Anybody now who’s going to enter that housing for the summer is going to be tested before they go in there,” he says.

For now, heightened concern for the crew’s safety has been the pandemic’s primary impact on Plainville Farm.

Czajkowski sells his produce wholesale to farm stands across the Valley as well as to grocery stores including Big Y, Stop and Shop, Price Chopper, Wegmans, Whole Foods and Rhodes Brothers. While many farms across the Valley have scrambled as orders from restaurants and schools dried up, Czajkowski was fortunate that his longtime retail customers have stayed up and running.

Meanwhile, asparagus season will continue to gain momentum on Plainville Farm and throughout the Valley. To find a local farmer selling fresh asparagus near you, visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide.

Noah Baustin is the communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).




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