March asparagus farm Avelings still going strong after 39 years
- Credit: Archant
In 1976, March farmer Victor Aveling took the plunge and decided to shift away from growing potatoes, wheat and strawberries to growing asparagus.
Thirty-nine years on, his son Will is proudly carrying on the tradition.
Avelings Farm, off the end of Badgeney Road in March, produces 70 sellable tonnes of asparagus a year, which is distributed to high-end hotels, supermarkets, restaurants and markets. The farm has a particularly strong relationship with Cambridge market.
Mr Aveling said: “My father Victor was one of the first asparagus growers in the country. With more and more strawberries being imported in 1976 he decided to set up an asparagus farm. He’s 75 now but he’s still very active and an invaluable source of advice (he served as chairman of the Asparagus Growers Association between 1987-2008).
“He’s seen a fair amount in his time. My mother still works in the office, too.
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“We specialise in open-field asparagus and don’t use plastic, as this gives it a better taste.
“We do everything by hand, so it is a tremendous amount of work and expensive to produce, but we enjoy doing it this way.”
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The asparagus is grown on a rented 100-acre patch of land in Coldham, five miles away from the farm. It is picked from April to the Summer Solstice, never later, as the fern needs time to photosynthesise, Mr Aveling says.
In fact, after a crown is planted, the fern is left for three years before the asparagus is picked. During this time, there is no income from it.
On a typical day, a team of 20 workers assemble at 5am and spend the day picking asparagus. Every field needs to be picked every day.
With two supervisors looking on, they work in teams of six - five pick the asparagus and put it in piles for the sixth person, steering an electric cart, to collect. It’s hard work, but there is a good spirit and camaraderie. They are paid a piece rate, so, on a productive day, they can earn upwards of £120.
The day’s yield, which can amount to several tonnes, is then transported to the packing house at the farm, where, with military precision, it is washed, cut, graded and wrapped up, ready to be taken away to suppliers. Many of the workers in the pack house have been at the farm for upwards of 20 years.
An unseasonably cold winter means this year’s yield will not be quite what was predicted, Mr Aveling says.
He said: “We’ve been unfortunate this year because we’ve had a freezing cold May. We’re completely dependent on the weather. The cold is not good for asparagus, but you can’t change the weather.
“We will not be able to catch up so we’ll end up down a bit on where we would like to be, but we’ll be ok.”
The bulk of the world’s asparagus is produced in Peru and Mexico. In England, there are about 100 asparagus growers, predominantly small farms with a few exceptions.
The key for the future of England’s asparagus industry, Mr Aveling says, is to promote what makes British asparagus different from its competitors.
He said: “In Germany, they have really embraced their seasonal white asparagus. We’ve got to embrace what we can offer here. It’s low mileage, seasonal, good quality and buying it will boost our economy.
“More and more people are eating asparagus, and it’s extremely healthy, but there are still millions of people who have not tried it. There is an opportunity there.”