There is a lot of energy around asparagus in the spring. Aside from fiddleheads, ramps, and morrels, which are foraged, not cultivated, it is the first edible thing out of the ground. You can imagine the appeal of this little veggie to our ancestors, who had likely been eating turnips for a few months! Asparagus in Massachussetts was really only established in the 1920’s, and Hadley now has an estimated 200 acres that have been devoted to growing asparagus. Hadley’s fertile soil produces generous asparagus bounty, and at one time, Hadley was crowned the Asparagus capital of the world – not only for volume, for there was once far more than 200 acres under asparagus crop, but most certainly also for taste. Hadley is deemed to produce some of the highest quality asparagus in the world, and is shipped East Coast to West, and even as far as Hawaii.
Fondly known as Hadley grass, the flavor and quality of asparagus grown in Western Mass is credited to the soil. The area is blessed with deep, sandy loam, the sediment of a glacial lake that once covered the valley, and this, combined with the cool New England weather provides a sweetness that’s incomparable. The asparagus had longevity too, the crowns sent down deep roots feeding the plants for 30 years or more – which was important when you consider it can take three years to establish an asparagus bed.
From the 1920’s to the 1970’s, Hadley grass was the mainstay of the local Hadley economy, and an important source of community spirit. Townsfolk, young and old would gather to pick, sort, trim, and bunch around 50 tons of the vegetable each day – that’s a couple million spears. The asparagus would then be trucked to Boston for distribution, proudly sporting colorful labels proclaiming its origin. It was distributed to restaurants throughout the North East, and sent to London and Paris and Germany, and was even on the menu for Queen Elizabeth II’s annual spring breakfast.
As with all good things, this boom was to come to an end when in in the 1970’s a soil born fungus destroyed much of the asparagus variety that was being grown at the time (Mary Washingtons), farmers suffered and as production dwindled, the asparagus was plowed under and newer, disease resistant varieties planted. However, this investment proved too expensive and time consuming for many farmers, who opted to rather try their hand at potato or tobacco crops. One farmer in particular, Wally Hibbard, has never known a spring time without asparagus, his father, Ernest, planted the first asparagus in North Hadley in 1910. The fungus shriveled the Hibbards’ crop from 40 acres down to just six. Back in 2001, Wally planted a one acre asparagus bed, it took 7’000 asparagus root crowns of King Jersey hybrids that had been started on the farm from seed the year before, it would take three more years of careful nurturing for the field to yield a full harvest – and if the crowns produced for 8 to 10 years, the field would only generate a profit into its sixth or seventh year.
When the asparagus industry collapsed, the character of the valley changed. Asparagus wasn’t just a vegetable, it was a way of life. But a glimmer of the asparagus lifestyle still exists today. Asparagus is still a rite of passage, it is still grown on family farms where it is picked, bunched and sorted by hand, and they still have ‘the asparagus supper’ at the First Congregational Church each year where the menu is buttered asparagus, baked ham, potato salad and strawberry shortcake. Once thing is for certain, for every farmer who is still passionate about growing Hadley grass, there are countless locals who are equally passionate about eating it. With its short season, large upfront investment of money and time, and long delay before a full yield, it is unlikely that Hadley will return to its glorious former asparagus producing history, and it’s future may be uncertain, but Hadley grass is still one of the great blessings of spring in this corner of New England, and it is still the best darn tasting asparagus in the world!
Source: Hadley Grass published by Saveur in 2007