Western Massachusetts was once “the asparagus capital of the world”–and its long green is still the best in America.
There I was, at 5:30 on a chilly, damp morning in May, at Waskiewicz Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts—about 20 miles north of Springfield—staring at an asparagus spear. Should I cut it or let it grow another day? I looked pleadingly at Mark Waskiewicz, already an expert harvester at age 12. "Take it," he said confidently. I thrust the razor-sharp blade of a long asparagus knife into the ground at a 45-degree angle, praying that I wouldn't cut some hidden baby shoot beginning its journey to daylight. Voila! The thick, pale green stalk, with licks of purple on its tight arrowhead tip and cold dirt clinging to its white butt, fell gently into my hand. A beauty.
Knife poised, I moved on to a slightly shorter spear, then hesitated again. "Leave it!" called Mark's cousin Jeff Kristek, waving me on. There was no time to dither. The boys' grandfather, Barney Waskiewicz—a sturdy, squat-faced, no-nonsense man who has been growing asparagus in Hadley for most of his life—was bouncing toward us on his old tractor to collect our baskets and assess our progress. In the misty morning light, I saw row upon row of pointy stalks stretching down the four-acre field. We had a lot of cutting to do before the boys left for school.
The asparagus harvest is a rite of spring in Hadley and a handful of other towns, including Hatfield, Sunderland, and Whately, along the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts. From the 1930s through the 1970s, this area, blessed with a deep layer of sandy loam—the sediment of a glacial lake that once covered the valley—was one of America's premier asparagus-growing regions. In this fertile soil, the vegetable—and especially the standard Mary Washington variety—thrived as it did nowhere else, sending down strong roots and often producing for 30 years or more. And the combination of the rich soil and cool New England climate yielded spears of incomparable sweetness.
Hadley "grass"—as the crop is still called in these parts (it's short for "sparrow grass," a corruption of asparagus popular in the 17th and 18th centuries)—was once a mainstay of the local economy and an important source of community spirit. (Hadley got top billing because most Massachusetts asparagus was grown here, and it was reputed to be the finest.) During the annual harvest in May and June, townsfolk young and old would join forces to help pick, sort, trim, and bunch a total of about 50 tons (that's a couple of million spears) of the vegetable by hand each day. The asparagus was then trucked to Boston and by the following morning was in markets and restaurants throughout the Northeast, sporting colorful labels proclaiming its origin. It was also said to be a prized export, served at restaurants in Paris and Germany and at Queen Elizabeth II's annual spring feast in England.
But where once several hundred small, family-owned farms in the valley grew asparagus, there are now only a handful, and the road signs that read Welcome to Hadley—Asparagus Capital of the World are long gone. In the mid-1970s, a soil-borne fungus known as Fusarium attacked and destroyed the seemingly inexhaustible Mary Washingtons. Production plummeted, and field after field was plowed under. Some determined growers, including Wally Hibbard of Hibbard Farm in North Hadley, kept the crop in production and eventually replanted newer, disease-resistant hybrids, but this investment proved too expensive and time-consuming for most. Many farmers focused on potatoes, corn, tobacco, or onions instead; others stopped farming altogether. Nowadays, total production is barely a tenth of what it used to be, and what little asparagus is still grown is sold almost exclusively in the area, at farm stands and small markets.
Good old Wally Hibbard has never known a springtime without an sparagus harvest. His father, Ernest, planted the first asparagus in North Hadley in 1910 and soon became one of the valley's biggest producers. The fungus shriveled the Hibbards' crop from 40 acres down to just six, but the family refused to give up. While visiting in March of 2001, Hibbard showed me his newest asparagus bed, a one-acre plot hiding 7,000 baby root crowns—Jersey King hybrids—grown from seed the summer before. It would take three more years of careful tending to yield a full harvest of asparagus, he explained, and with luck the crowns would produce for eight, maybe ten years. Hibbard, who now farms a total of 16 acres of grass, would be well into his 90s by the time this field was generating a profit, but this did not concern him. "My father lived until he was 98," he told me, "and was at the farm almost every day, so I think I have time left. Besides, someone's got to grow asparagus."
When the industry collapsed, the character of the valley changed, too, a fact that saddens those who remember when asparagus was king. "Even growing up in the '60s and '70s, grass was always on your mind," said Allan Zuchowski, a third-generation Hadley farmer who stopped growing asparagus in 1996 when production costs got too high. "You'd be in class and see someone nodding out; you knew they'd been up picking since before dawn." It was tedious work, he acknowledged, but doing it with friends made it easier. The button local kids wore said it all: "Asparagus Isn't a Vegetable, It's a Way of Life".
But on a few farms, this way of life persists. The only major difference between a bunching session on Waskiewicz Farm (which actually stopped growing asparagus for about two decades after the Fusarium struck) today and one 30 years ago is the amount of asparagus handled. When I arrived at the barn after a morning of picking, three generations of Waskiewiczes, along with a neighbor, Helen Rodak, herself a former asparagus grower, were sitting at a long table surrounded by baskets of the day's bounty. Each person had two wood-and-iron contraptions called bunching boxes in front of them, one of which they filled with the thickest spears, or #1s, the other with the "skinnies," or #2s. Wiry "shoestrings" (which Rodak uses for soup) and misshapen "crooks" were tossed into discard piles. Working quickly and chatting all the while, they set the tips of the asparagus flush against the top of each box and, when it was full, cut the ends off at a designated spot. Then they jostled the spears into a tight cylinder and slipped rubber bands over both ends.
Meanwhile, Barney Waskiewicz, who passed ownership of the farm to his son, Tom, in 1992, gathered and stacked the bunches in wooden crates. At the end of the session, he happily counted three times as many #1s—which fetch the highest prices because they are the "meatiest" (and some say the most flavorful)—as #2s. "When Tom told me he was going to plant grass again, I told him he was crazy," Waskiewicz said. "After the fungus drove me out of the business, I said, 'Never again.' But this field is coming in beautiful, and the 'spargus tastes terrific, too."
For every farmer who is still passionate about growing Hadley grass, there are countless locals who are equally passionate about eating it. They wait patiently for the short season to begin—shunning trucked-in asparagus at the supermarket the rest of the year—and then indulge in the vegetable almost every day while it's available. In the process, they've become pretty creative in the kitchen with the spears, cooking up everything from asparagus casserole to asparagus on toast. Everyone seems to have a version of the last, but I discovered two standouts. Margaret Barstow, who used to own a produce-trucking business with her husband, Norman, piles boiled asparagus soaked in a good dose of cream over toasted homemade bread. Karen Smiarowski, who with her husband, Charlie, owns the Smiarowski Farmstand and Creamy in Sunderland, just north of Hadley, makes hers with a cream sauce so tasty that the dish sells out whenever she offers it at her shop. But Karen's "fried" asparagus was my greatest find. It's Charlie's favorite, and she makes it at home when she has time. Gently sauteed in a bit of vegetable oil until they're wrinkled and caramelized, the pieces are as intense as candy but much more interesting.
The big event of the asparagus season in Hadley is the asparagus supper at the First Congregational Church. Held on the third Saturday in May, it's part of a tradition started in the '30s, a reunion of sorts. It is also one of the church's biggest fund-raisers. Thus, I was pleased when Margaret Barstow, who has organized the event many times, invited me to help out while I was visiting.
Barstow had prepared me for what to expect. At exactly 5:15 p.m., 192 ticket holders would have 45 minutes to gobble up as much buttered asparagus, baked ham, potato salad, and strawberry shortcake as the waiters could rush to the tables. The makeshift dining room in the church hall would then be cleared and reset, and at 6:30 sharp another 192 diners would take their places.
About a dozen of us kitchen volunteers, led by Barstow's daughter, Robin Bialecki, spent most of the day rinsing, trimming, and cooking 240 pounds of Hadley grass. It was another example of asparagus's bringing people together, but the real action started a couple of hours later, after the first set of guests had been seated. When we heard the Reverend Bill Cobb clearing his throat for the blessing, we began taking the pans of asparagus out of the warming oven, whipping off the foil covers, and spooning the steaming chunks into serving bowls as fast as we could. Then, at "Amen," 30 waiters plucked the bowls from the counter. I barely had time to get another pan from the oven when the first empty bowl came back for a refill, then another, and another. The frenzy ended only when the waiters brought out coffee and dessert.
During the short break, I managed to sneak a few pieces of asparagus. All that time in the warming oven had drastically changed Bialecki's perfectly cooked pieces: firmness had given way to flab, vivid green had faded toward olive. But to my surprise, the asparagus was still incredibly delicious—it melted in my mouth and bathed my tongue with that special sweetness. Its glory days may be past and its future uncertain, but Hadley grass is still one of the great blessings of spring in this corner of New England.