Asparagus spearheads the changing of the seasons

A hallmark of the Harvest Launceston Community Farmers’ Market is acknowledging the passage of the seasons, and with spring, the arrival of the asparagus crop is always eagerly anticipated. This year, Harvest is fortunate to see the return of two asparagus producers to the market as a celebration of the increasing diversity of Tasmanian produce and the commitment required to produce an intensive hand-picked crop such as asparagus.

The Headlams, Lucy, Philip, Charles and Will, have defied difficult weather and are  busy with harvesting their purple and green crops.

At Newry Farm Asparagus, Pam Hutchins is keeping busy in her retirement as she spends her Fridays before market at her kitchen table grading and bunching her spears.

For Lucy and Philip Headlam, their asparagus romance is in its second phase. The couple have been growing asparagus since 1989, but price competition from second grade mainland produce meant that they did not feel it was viable to replant when their 12-year crop was no longer producing commercially viable yields.

The family relocated to Pipers Brook in 2008. The philosophy for their property, ‘Oakbank’ is to use best farming practices to enable a profitable, environmentally sustainable and aesthetically pleasing farm and business. “We have developed Oakbank with an Integrated Property Management Plan. Riparian and strategic corridors of bush have been fenced off to provide shelter for livestock, protect threatened vegetation and create a habitat for birds and frogs which in turn feed on insect pests. About 25% of the farm has been retained in this manner.”

After a long break from asparagus production, Lucy and Philip felt that the timing was right and planted a new crop in 2013. They were also awarded a scholarship to participate in the Sprout Producer Program, which enabled them together with their sons Charles and Will to bring to the growing of those green spears of deliciousness the passion and commitment needed to develop a niche market for their quality produce. However, the Sprout program gave them a “new set of eyes” that has led to a rebranded product that concentrates on supplying markets and customers who respect the product and are interested in their Headlam Farm story.

To discover more of their story and understand the commitment and work required to viably produce a seasonal, intensive and highly perishable crop, visit the Headlams at their Harvest Launceston stall this Saturday. “We aim to grow using a more holistic production system which enables us to the best of our ability to sustainably and ethically produce fabulous asparagus which is truly fresh, locally grown, genuine and delicious.”

At Oakbank, the family also produces Merinos primarily for wool, Corriedale sheep to produce prime lambs and wool, and they also have a small self-replacing Angus Simmental cow herd.

Asparagus is a perennial crop with a commercial lifespan of 12 to 15 years. It requires minimal irrigation once established, but takes 5 years to reach full production with the first small 4-6 week harvest in the second year, with the length of harvest gradually increasing each year until a full harvest from year 5 onwards which is 10-12 weeks. It is rich in vitamins B and C, calcium and iron and loves a good winter freeze but needs warm sunshine to grow tall and strong.

Handpicked the day before the market, Pam Hutchins of Newry Farm has a bunch of ideas on just how to get the maximum enjoyment out of the freshest green stalks possible. Whether it is simply blanching them with a squeeze of lemon and butter to a dressing of soy sauce and sesame seeds, the asparagus is a deliciously diverse vegetable. Pam’s asparagus can be a simple addition to the table or a fabulous centrepiece of any banquet feast.

At Newry Farm the plants are nursed over winter with layers of mulch to avoid the use of sprays and each stalk is hand cut and graded into bunches at the Hutchins kitchen table on the evening before market day.

Pam is a gifted grower and following her retirement from farming and overseeing the rose garden and vegetable patch at Woolmers Estate, her thoughts turned to keeping herself busy. Pam recounts how she loves growing things, and as she pondered on the ideal Tasmanian conditions for growing asparagus and its rarity here due to the intensive hard work required to produce a crop, she discovered her way to stay happily retired. To avoid sprays she and her husband spend the winter mulching the crowns and hand weeding the paddock and on Friday afternoons during spring, Pam is to be found among her asparagus, hand picking the stalks ready for eager market goers.