Tender spears poke up through the earth, signaling spring.

The fast-growing stalks⁠—harbingers of the new season and more good things to come in the garden⁠—are among the earliest crops of the year, emerging when soil temperatures reach around 50 degrees. They’re also among the most labor-intensive.

As you pile bacon-wrapped asparagus atop a serving platter or place a pickled spear into a tall and tangy bloody mary, consider this: each individual stalk is cut by hand.

Harvesting asparagus is stoop labor, performed with bent backs and hip baskets holding up to 15 pounds of the delicate, herbaceous, earthy vegetable. Cutters rise before dawn, donning headlamps to help them see stalks rising from still-darkened fields. Shoots are sliced at their bases with a V-tipped knife and a swift and forceful jab. They’re sorted and packed before shipping from throughout the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley to grocery stores around the country and Canada.

At the industry’s peak in 1990, when canned asparagus was king and Washington state led global production of green asparagus, farmworkers here cut 102 million pounds from 30,000 acres. Today, local farmers grow 22 million pounds on roughly 4,500 acres, the focus is on fresh, and competition is fierce. Despite its drop in acreage and production, Washington remains among the top three asparagus-growing states, along with California and Michigan. And it’s known for its high-quality crop.

Asparagus⁠—mostly green, sometimes purple, rarely white around these parts⁠—has been cultivated here for more than 100 years, but it originated around the Mediterranean Sea, growing from Syria to Spain. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all enjoyed asparagus. The cookbook De re culinarian, or De re coquinaria, believed to date from the first century CE, contains a recipe for an asparagus-and-herb omelet. Frescoes found at Pompeii depict bundles of asparagus.

The perennial plant is dormant most of the year. But, during the height of growing season, it can sprout anywhere from five to seven or more inches in a day. Long, straight spears are prized. Crooked shoots are culled. So are really thin ones, which drain nutrients from more robust stalks.

Once tips begin budding, asparagus turns tough and fibrous, so it’s best enjoyed while it’s young. Choose firm spears with compact tips, and take a sniff. Asparagus lets you know when it’s been sitting too long. More and more, it’s traveled here from Peru or Mexico.

In 1991, around the height of the War on Drugs, the United States enacted the Andean Trade Preference Act, giving duty-free imports and grants to Andean countries trafficking cocaine into North America. Peruvian asparagus, heavily subsidized by the US law, was allowed to enter America tariff-free. Canneries in Dayton, Walla Walla, and Toppenish closed.

Today, America’s asparagus crop confronts overseas competition that didn’t carry much weight 30 or 40 years ago. And not all US retailers are willing to pay a premium for Washington state asparagus, which costs more than foreign-grown spears. Labor and production costs drive up the price. Plus, cutters can be hard to find and keep.

Hand-harvesting “exposes workers to harsh outdoor environments, repetitive hand movement, continuous bending, and other risks for physical injury,” says Manoj Karkee, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. “In the long term, we’d like to have machines perform hard-labor jobs, like picking asparagus.”

Karkee leads a research program in agricultural automation and mechanization with an emphasis on sensing technologies for apple and cherry crops. While his department has not worked on asparagus for about ten years, he notes it’s “a unique crop that requires selective harvesting every day for an entire growing season while other crops generally require one or two passes.”

That’s a main challenge in mechanizing the short but intense harvest, which runs six to eight weeks from April to June. So is limiting damage to crowns and spears that haven’t yet come up, says Tim Waters (’02 Biol., ’04 MS, ’09 PhD Entom.), the regional vegetable specialist at WSU Extension of Franklin and Benton Counties. “There are a lot of variables in choosing which spears to harvest, and machines have had difficulty honing in on those things like the human eye does.” Plus, he notes, “asparagus has to be picked at the right time. If you wait or miss harvest by a day, that could be the difference between breaking even, making money, or losing money.”

Some customers are willing to pay more for organic asparagus, which has seen an increase in acreage in recent years. So has America’s appetite for asparagus. US asparagus consumption is slowly creeping up, from 1.76 pounds per capita in 2018 to 1.83 in 2020.

Overall, though, US asparagus acres are declining, from nearly 83,000 in 2000 to 20,000 in 2020. America imports nearly seven times the amount of its total asparagus production.

Waters encourages consumers to buy asparagus locally and seasonally, looking for the band wrapped around bunches that proudly proclaims “Washington” as its origin. If you see asparagus in the produce aisle outside of the state’s growing season, it likely does not hail from here.

Another option: buy asparagus directly from growers at farmers markets.

“Nothing tastes quite like it,” says Linda Burner Augustine (’83 Home Econ., Honors). “It has a gentle, kind of nutty, green flavor.” And its “substantial but tender” texture stands up to pasta or grains such as quinoa or farro. “It’s really nice in a bowl.”

Augustine collaborated with Jamie Callison, executive chef at the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management at Carson College, on The Crimson Spoon. The 2013 cookbook from Carson College carries a recipe for roasted asparagus. “It cooks quickly,” Augustine says, noting asparagus is “easy to work with, especially if all of the spears are the same diameter, and there’s very little waste. It’s just really friendly to the cook in the kitchen. It truly is one of my favorite vegetables.”

Her 30-Minute Asparagus Chicken Skillet is a popular recipe on her A Year at the Table blog. But one of her favorite preparations of asparagus⁠—low in calories and high in iron, fiber, and vitamins A and C⁠—is roasting it with lemon zest, olive oil, salt, and pepper, then serving it with grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Asparagus reminds Augustine of spring, of course, and elegance. “It’s one of those vegetables,” she says, “that makes everything on the plate look a little more beautiful.”


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Asparagus recipes