With family effort, asparagus farm thrives
May 20, 2013
The Bernholtz family gathers around an asparagus sign near their one-third acre plot on 210th Street southeast of Carroll. The family has sold asparagus for nine years and pictured are (front, from left) Zoey Bernholtz, Saige Raasch, Emma Bernholtz, (second row) Mollie Bernholtz, Jaidan Bernholtz, (third row) Stacy Raasch, Donna Langfitt, Andrew Bernholtz, John Bernholtz, Michael Bernholtz and Mary Bernholtz.
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On 210th Street south of Carroll near the Dedam-Willey blacktop is a white house, a red barn, and a few horses. On warm spring days, four young sisters take turns pulling a little red wagon to and from an asparagus field. On Bernholtz Asparagus Farm 1/3 of an acre of land is devoted to growing asparagus to sell to both new and loyal customers.
Mary Bernholtz said before she and her husband, John, began growing asparagus, neither one had ever tasted it before. Now Mary and John and their children work to grow and harvest the crop and enjoy eating their home-grown asparagus quite often for dinner.
Mary describes her family as a "big, active family." Mary is a retired nurse. She used to work in the intensive-care unit at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. Her husband, John, works for the Carroll County Highway Department.
John and Mary's daughter, Stacy Raasch and her husband, Scott, and daughter, Saige, 3, live in Odebolt. They also have two grown sons, Andrew and Michael, and four young daughters, Jaidan, 9, Zoey, 8, Emma, 7, and Mollie, almost 6. John and Mary are also guardians to Donna, who lives in a New Hope group home in Carroll. The number of family members has changed through the years as the Bernholtzes have been a foster family for over 20 years.
Sons Andrew and Michael help with cutting the asparagus, although this year Michael is doing the majority of the cutting. Cutting asparagus is hard work since the cutting is done at ground level with special asparagus knives. Mary said the cutting process can be very labor-intensive.
The asparagus is cut twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Mary said it grows so fast you can cut and come right back and cut it again. She said most people don't realize it can grow 12 inches in eight hours.
At the peak of the season, 150 pounds is cut per day at Bernholtz Asparagus Farm. At the end of the season when the asparagus is "tired," Mary said, only about 15 pounds is cut per day. After the asparagus is cut, it's washed and sorted according to size and length.
The four youngest daughters also do their fair share. They pull a red wagon to collect the cut asparagus and bring it to the garage where it's sold on an honor system.
The asparagus is bundled into a little over 1-pound bundles and placed in a tray with water inside a cooler. Mary said the little girls love to come out to chat with customers, collect their money and put it in the jar, bag up the asparagus, and bring it to the customers' cars for them.
Mary ensures the asparagus is very fresh - all that is sold is cut within 24 hours.
After each spring's harvest, the family works through the summer to prepare the field for the next year. They weed and fertilize the land to give it a healthy start. Green ferns grow big and bushy and are needed as food for the following year's crop. Mary said the little girls and the cats like to play amongst the ferns and explore the bushes. The bushes can grow to be 5 feet tall and so thick, Mary said, you can practically get lost in there. Once, a customer even asked to take some of the greenery to put in centerpiece vases at a wedding.
Several years ago, John and Mary knew they wanted to do "something" with their land, but weren't sure what they wanted to do. They considered growing grapes, and then their minister, Logan Dunham, suggested an asparagus field. John and Mary were unsure of his suggestion since they'd never even eaten asparagus before, but Dunham said he knew of others with asparagus fields and they never had trouble getting rid of it.
The couple also gained advice and guidance from Eldon Everhart of the Iowa State University Extension office. Everhart said John and Mary have a phenomenal crop with the right kind of soil for growing asparagus. Commercially grown asparagus will grow for one hundred years, but can be grown to harvest annually for about 15 years.
To begin their asparagus field nine years ago John and Mary planted 1,500 crowns in rows. The Bernholtzes first crop was a success. In the beginning they sold to Fareway and Hy-Vee, but mostly they've stuck to selling asparagus right out of their garage.
Asparagus grows according to the temperature and humidity. It doesn't grow when it's cold, and when it's hot, it grows like crazy.
This year the season started late because it was cold for so long. During the snowstorm at the beginning of May, the asparagus plants were already 6 to 8 inches tall. Thankfully the snow didn't damage the crop.
Typically the Bernholtzes' variety of asparagus, Martha Washington, is ready the second week of April, but this year the first batch wasn't ready until May 6. The Bernholtzes don't water their asparagus, so it grows according to weather and rainfall. So far this year the crop is shorter, but is coming in very well. Mary said cutting is heavy for about four weeks and then it will die down a bit. She expects they will cut until mid-June this year. She said they usually cut for six to eight weeks total.
The asparagus "seconds," broken pieces, crooked spears, and spears with tops that have started to open up are donated to places like New Hope and Mallard View. Some years the Bernholtzes have donated up to 1,000 pounds of asparagus.
Sometimes bundles of asparagus are also sent to school. The youngest daughters attend Glidden-Ralston Schools and have brought asparagus to their teachers. Mary said when their oldest children were in high school, she would send asparagus with them to school to put in the teachers' lounge.
Mary suggests storing the asparagus in your refrigerator in something that holds a little water to keep the cut ends from drying out. By storing it upright and changing the water every couple days, Mary said, it should keep a week or two in the refrigerator.
At the end of the growing season, if there is any remaining asparagus Mary freezes or pickles the leftover asparagus.
Bernholtz Asparagus Farms puts a notice in the newspaper when the asparagus is ready. Mary said customers come from all over including Hamlin, Jefferson, Coon Rapids, Sac City, etc. She said the news also travels by word of mouth. Many customers stop by when they're in town to buy groceries or go to a doctor's appointment.
Mary said their location is fairly convenient for customers since they are just past the Country Club and on the way to Swan Lake.
Many of their asparagus customers are retired and love to chat. Mary also said that over the years they have gained many regular customers. Some customers come as often as every day or every other day. Many customers pick up a bunch to bring home after work.
Mary said most of their cooking and grilling tips and recipes have come from their customers and Taste of Home magazine.
One of Mary's favorite ways to prepare asparagus is to top her lettuce salad with a few spears of asparagus. One customer shared she adds it to her chicken casserole. Mary said using asparagus in place of spinach to make an asparagus soufflé is especially delicious.
Mary pairs spears of asparagus with grilled chicken to make a complete meal. The foil packets can be prepared ahead of time. Simply pop them on the grill twenty minutes before dinner time.
Place a boneless, skinless chicken breast on aluminum foil in a piece of foil large enough to hold the chicken and a few spears of asparagus (about the size of the chicken).
Place a few spears of asparagus (as many as you would like) on top of the chicken. You can add some sliced onion between the chicken and asparagus if you'd like. Drizzle olive oil over the asparagus and season with your favorite seasoning whether it's garlic salt, sea salt, pepper, etc. Wrap and seal foil. Place on grill.
On a gas grill turn the heat setting to medium, close lid and leave packet on for 20 minutes. Do not turn over. Make sure there are no flare ups.
After 20 minutes take off the grill and open up the foil packet and add a slice of Colby Jack cheese. Close foil packet and place on table.
These days, pickled asparagus is a hot item and is usually pretty expensive. Mary said liquor stores are not able to keep it in stock as it goes out the door as fast as it comes in.
Use a Mrs. Wages pickling packet (available at Bomgaars, Hy-Vee, Fareway, etc.). Follow package directions. If you wish, add jalapeno peppers, whole garlic cloves onions, or peppers, to give it a zing.
Mary and John's four youngest daughters like grilled asparagus so much, if they are outside when it's taken off the grill, Mary said the girls will eat their veggies before they even get in the house.
Use one pound of asparagus and do not remove the ends. Roll asparagus in olive oil, add seasoning. Mary likes like sea salt or garlic salt the best. Place directly on grill. Grill until tender which can be 3-7 minutes depending on how crunchy you like it.
Asparagus Au Gratin
Move over potatoes, here's a twist on a traditional side dish that goes well with everything.
1 lb asparagus, never cut, just snapped
10 oz pkg imitation crab meat
½ cup Cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon ground mustard
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a sauce pan, melt butter, add flour and whisk together. Cook for a couple of minutes, while whisking constantly. Add milk, ground mustard, salt, and pepper. Watch carefully and continue to whisk frequently. Cook until creamy and fairly thick. Off heat, add lemon juice.
Add asparagus, crab meat and Cheddar cheese to sauce and stir to combine. Pour into a greased 9x11-inch casserole dish. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and pour melted butter over top.
Bake uncovered for 45 minutes until hot and bubbly.
If you don't have time to heat up the grill or the weather isn't cooperating, turn on the oven to have roasted asparagus for dinner.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place 1 lb asparagus, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for 10-20 minutes depending on the thickness of the asparagus. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese as soon as it comes out of the oven.