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In Season: Great year for Valley asparagus

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2012 - 9:33 am

These are the kind of days when Stockton makes Martha Stewart green with envy.

Asparagus is literally shooting out of the ground. It creates an emerald avalanche at the packing sheds, a welcome sight at supermarkets and a food festival to rival any in the nation.

"We're known for having the best asparagus in the world," said Kate Post, executive director of the Stockton Asparagus Festival. "You don't get this stuff – the quality, the flavor, the freshness – anywhere else like what we grow right here."

The lure of asparagus will draw more than 100,000 people to Stockton for this weekend's 27th annual festival.

While asparagus may seem like an exotic vegetable elsewhere, it's a spring bargain in the Central Valley.

"I talked to Martha Stewart a few years back for her radio show," Post said. "She asked me what we paid for our asparagus – at the time it was $1.19 a pound (wholesale) – and she couldn't believe it. They were paying 10 times that (in New York). It's an international delicacy, but here we take it for granted, like corn in Iowa."

Prices and supply will be good again this asparagus season, which has finally hit its stride after a sluggish start.

"It's been slow," said Jim Jerkovich, general manager of asparagus giant Victoria Island Farms, the area's largest grower. "March was unseasonably cool and wet. The first part of April was cool, too, but we're really ramping up now."

In February, the California Asparagus Commission predicted this could be the "best season ever."

That season actually started last summer when the plants were growing and storing energy in their "crowns" or roots.

"When you grow asparagus, you're actually growing ferns," Jerkovich said. "You won't get good spears unless you have healthy ferns. It stores up all this energy for good spears the next spring."

"We had a very good year for spear formation," added executive director Cherie Watte Angulo. "The 'gas tank' in the crown is filled with so much energy, they can really produce.

"The quality so far has been exquisite," she added. "We're looking at great quality and volume through the middle of June."

Asparagus needs warm nights above 50 degrees and days in the 70s before hitting peak production. The current warm spell is just what the crop needed.

"When the nights are above 53 degrees, it grows around the clock," Jerkovich said. "It's amazing; it grows so fast. We cut the fields every day. The spears can grow 9 to 10 inches a day. It's really fast paced. It's fun."

Most of those spears will be destined for local supermarkets. The fresh crop arrives in stores within a day of harvest.

No. 1 in asparagus, California – and the San Joaquin Valley in particular – produces more than 70 percent of the national fresh crop, according to the California Asparagus Commission. But total acreage has slipped from a peak of 36,000 in 1999 to about 11,000.

"The acres are down dramatically," Jerkovich said. "The California industry has been hurt by competition from Mexico. … A lot of people moved out of the asparagus business. But it's stabilized now. Our California growers are in it for the long run. We're really committed."

That commitment goes back more than a century to when Sacramento- and Stockton-area farmers discovered that asparagus grows great here.

"It's our peat soils," Jerkovich said. "It's organic and light. Asparagus loves it."

When looking for a way to promote their community, the organizers of the festival turned to this home-grown crop. Now 129 local nonprofit organizers use the asparagus festival as a fundraiser, totaling more than $5.5 million since it began.

"We get great support," Post said. "We've been told by many people that it's the best food fest in the West."

Helping to spread the festival's fame, world champion eater Joey "Jaws" Chestnut – known for wolfing massive numbers of hot dogs and chicken wings – got his start at Stockton. As a San Jose State engineering student in 2005, Chestnut delivered a breakout performance by winning his first deep-fried asparagus-eating contest with 6.3 pounds.

Chestnut, who now has six asparagus fest titles, will be back to defend his crown Saturday and better the world record he set last year: 9 pounds, 5.2 ounces in 10 minutes.

That's lightweight. Last year's fest crowd gobbled up 36,000 pounds of asparagus. They chowed down on 40,000 orders of deep-fried spears, 9,000 tri-tip-asparagus sandwiches and 4,000 asparagus burritos.

An instant hit was introduced last year: the Foster Farms' chicken Asparawrap – a green tortilla wrapped around chicken breast and asparagus spears with a tomato-basil vinaigrette.

"They went through 5,000 pounds of chicken," Post said. "People love it."

For dessert? Asparagus ice cream, of course. It's made especially for the festival by Gleason's Ice Cream of Stockton.

"We ordered 8,000 servings this year," said Post. "We had 5,000 last year and ran out in no time. It's delicious."

Post's favorite food at the festival is the asparagus pasta: rotini with asparagus, garlic and tomatoes.

"I eat it for breakfast," she confessed. "During the festival, we're here at 3 a.m.; there's so much work. The pasta is better than more doughnuts."

STOCKTON ASPARAGUS FESTIVAL

Where: Downtown Stockton and marina.

For GPS: 221 N. Center St., Stockton. For parking map and shuttle information, see website.

When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday-Sunday

Admission: $12; $7 teens 13-17, college students with ID, seniors and military with ID; children age 12 and under admitted free; parking, $10

Details: www.asparagusfest.com

Highlights: At noon Saturday, champion eater Joey Chestnut – a six-time Stockton winner – will try to break his world record of consuming 9 pounds, 5.2 ounces of fried asparagus in 10 minutes.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington



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