Springtime farming in Hadley, Mass., involves a lot of grass cutting—with a sharp knife. Time consuming, yes, but when the “grass” (as the locals call it) is asparagus, it’s well worth the effort.
In the 1920s, farmer Ernest Hibbard and his friends introduced asparagus to the area that would become known as the “Asparagus Capital of the World,” producing in its heyday 50 tons of asparagus a season on 1,200 acres. Asparagus flourished in Hadley’s sandy loam, laid down in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts by receding glaciers.
Ernest’s son, Wallace Hibbard, 85, still grows asparagus and claims it’s that dirt that makes Hadley’s “grass” so good. He remembers cultivating asparagus with the help of his horse when he was a little kid. His father printed red labels branding Hibbard Farm asparagus “Hadley Queen.” Wallace still slips the cards under the rubber bands that bind each handpicked bunch of asparagus for store and restaurant buyers and local folks who buy direct from the farm.
Down the road in Sunderland, Karen and Charles Smiarowski farm 12 acres of asparagus. Karen explains that a virus devastated the region’s crop in the 1970s when 200 families grew it. Determined farmers planted a disease-resistant variety that has brought asparagus back to the status of royalty. She estimates that there are 10 major producers and many farms with acre-sized plots in the area today. “You grow asparagus because you love it,” Karen says. “It’s not just a vegetable. It’s more like a precious jewel.”
—Denise Favro Schwartz, a food writer in South Deerfield, Mass.