Fresh asparagus, whether it is roasted and tossed with ravioli, made into a tart, a salad or served with eggs, is something we look forward to every spring in California. Once called “the King of Vegetables,” the local fields of Delta asparagus have become harder and harder to find. Thousands of acres of asparagus once covered the Stockton-Brentwood area in soft green spears every spring, but urban sprawl and other crops have steadily replaced them.
In the last 20 years, California’s asparagus acreage has plummeted. At the turn of the 21st century, California growers were farming more than 36,000 acres of asparagus. In 1995, Contra Costa County alone harvested 20,000 acres of asparagus. In 2017, that figure dropped to a mere 1,300 acres, according to the California Asparagus Commission.
The Commission also tells us that the crop has declined so drastically, because imports have made it almost impossible for local farmers to financially compete.
Asparagus is a labor-intensive crop, and it’s hard to be competitive.
A local asparagus grower, Roscoe Zuckerman of Zuckerman Farms in Stockton, relies heavily on direct-to-consumer farmers’ market to sell his product. Local farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture and restaurants make up more than half of his business.
“It’s the only way we have of breaking even,” Zuckerman says. “They give us the opportunity to communicate the freshness of a local-grown product that is harvested the day before market, compared to asparagus that has traveled thousands of miles and is a week old before it hits market shelves.”
Once asparagus is cut the sugars begin to break down and the flavor becomes starchy. That’s why it’s important to get freshly-cut asparagus from your local farmer. Added to the increased costs of producing it, asparagus on average requires nearly 260 gallons of water per pound. With an almost constant drought in California for several years, Delta asparagus has become even more costly to grow.
Growers of California asparagus have had to become more conscious of their production and growing methods to be even remotely competitive. Growing and harvesting asparagus has had to become more efficient, even though it still has to be hand-harvested, hand-sorted and hand-packed.
One strong and positive element that has California asparagus ahead of that of any other place is the state’s standards of production and food safety regulations, which are among the most stringent. Yes, you may pay more for California asparagus, but the superb quality, flavor and safety of the state’s asparagus is a strong selling point.
There are many (myself included) who feel it is important to support the farmers who still want and are able to grow this delicious vegetable. Hopefully, as long as we continue to buy asparagus grown in California to support them, we may continue to see fields of asparagus growing in Contra Costa County, San Joaquin, Salinas and other areas of the state for years to come.
Asparagus coated in breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese and then baked until golden brown and crispy can be made in mere minutes. It can be enjoyed right out of the oven or eaten at room temperature, which makes it perfect for brunch, lunch or dinner, basically any time you’re serving a crowd.
This is also great picnic finger food and a healthy snack any time of the day. If you end up with extra breading, simply place some of the bread and cheese mixture on top of a few tomatoes (cut in half). Roast with asparagus.
- 1 bunch asparagus, rinsed, ends trimmed
- 1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, lightly oil with olive oil.
- Using a shallow bowl (I use a pie dish), combine the breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese.
- In a separate pie dish, add the beaten egg, season with salt and pepper.
- Dip each asparagus stalk, one at a time in the egg mixture, and then roll in breadcrumb mixture until coated. Place on baking sheet in a single layer. Repeat with remaining asparagus
- Bake in preheated 425* oven until tender and golden brown, approximately 7-10 minutes depending on thickness of the stalks.