McGuffie Bros – New Farm Produce, Asparagus
Every year foodies and connoisseurs look forward to the British asparagus season. It launches traditionally to a fanfare around the end of May, depending on how warm Spring has been, and continues for just six short but sweet weeks.
However, like any spectacular production, the event belies the painstaking preparation and sheer hard graft that has gone on behind the scenes. As the asparagus industry’s back-room boys, that is a view that brothers David and Stephen McGuffie are very familiar with.
In fact, it takes two years of careful cultivation before this most regal of vegetables – not for nothing are the plants called ‘crowns’ - is ready for harvest. Each crown lives for between five and ten years before they are replaced with fresh stock in March. Like a true aristocrat, they demand particular living conditions. Planted too shallow, the crowns send up spindly spears; too deep and the spears emerge late and thick.
“Good soil preparation is absolutely key to the success of the crop,” explains David from the family business, New Farm in Elmhurst, just outside Lichfield in Staffordshire. “We make absolutely sure that the soil is the optimum depth over the crowns and we feed and water them assiduously until long after the spears have been cut, to build up the crowns for the next season.”
One of the key factors in ensuring great quality for next year is how the Asparagus ferns are cared for. Research has proved that feeding the giant ferns until they have turned brown, (usually in November), has a dramatic effect on next year’s crop. The ferns are then cut down at the base, pulverised and rotavated back into the soil. The better the quality of the ferns, the better next year’s asparagus crop will be.
As third generation growers, the McGuffies are expert at extending the season for as long as possible, using polytunnels to bring the first precious shoots to maturity before the main event. They've also been at the forefront of scientific initatives in this area. In 2006 they developed a new technique of warming the soil to bring forward the asparagus cropping. In 2007 they installed environmentally-friendly air source heat pumps to heat an area of the crop, and in 2008 their achievements were recognised, winning a 'Grower of the Year' award in the Science into Practice category. Whilst it's still early days in its practical application, the soil warming looks like it can realistically bring cropping forward by up to 2 months.
“We believe our overall success is due to our ‘hands on’ approach, being very close to our core business and having built a good team around us. Knowing your product helps you to make the best decisions for the right reasons, having a passion for growing and a determination to succeed,” says David.
They have 12 full time staff, but bring in another 150 seasonal workers during the hectic weeks of harvest. As the early summer sun warms the rich, sandy soil, new spears can appear almost overnight. It is then essential to cool the newly harvested asparagus before packing and distributing the day’s crop, which is usually available for sale within 24 hours of harvest.
Before production stops, traditionally on June 21, each crown will yield eight to ten spears, cut when they are green and tender with the tips firmly shut. The McGuffies grow asparagus over 12 hectares, sending about 46 tonnes off to leading supermarket chains each summer.
Today’s shoppers go for slim spears, and are veering away from the fat stalks that used to be popular, says David. During asparagus season there’s no shortage of advice in the media on how to cook it, but David enjoys it raw in salads and advises steaming the spears lightly or cooking them in the microwave to avoid overcooking.
Recently they built a new packhouse to ensure their produce remains as fresh as possible. New Farm also produces soft fruit, particularly strawberries and in 2003 won the Soft Fruit Grower of the Year Award.