Asparagus

May 31, 2015

In the spirit of our penchant for obvious and not-so-timely reminders, we note that May is asparagus month. Fresh, asparagus is a favorite for most true foodies, and by “fresh” I mean picked this morning or at least yesterday. That makes asparagus an inherently local food as well. We’ve been in asparagus season here in Michigan for the last three or four weeks, and with a bit of luck we will have two or three weeks more. So reminding people that this is the time of the year to be on the lookout for asparagus may not be entirely futile.

The first pick-up for Thornapple CSA will be on Wednesday of this week, but I must advise expectant members against looking for asparagus in the first weekly share. You don’t just plant asparagus in January or February with the idea that you will be eating it in May. Asparagus needs a good 3-4 years to be in harvestable condition, and some say you should really not expect much for seven years. 35 years ago when I came to Texas A&M as a newly minted faculty member, lots of us thought of the place as a temporary stop on the way to a position at a more attractive place. My colleague Dick Becka used to say, “Living in College Station is not so bad; it’s the thought of dying here.” Some of the newcomers came around to the idea that A&M was actually a pretty good place to work, while others resigned themselves to the limited mobility of the increasingly tight job market for university faculty. We would recognize this transition in an individual’s attitude by noting whether or not they were planting asparagus in their backyard garden. Anyone who puts out asparagus expects to be around for a while.

As a result, asparagus DOES NOT appear on the list of vegetables that you can expect to get from your participation in the Thornapple CSA. We did put out some asparagus at Appleschram a couple of years back as an experiment, but it hasn’t really taken. One problem is that it’s hard to keep people out of it while it get’s established. Casual visitors easily convince themselves that they have stumbled on an unknown treasure trove. They yield to the temptation to help themselves to a few stalks, thinking that it couldn’t possibly hurt anything.

This is an instance of a collective action dilemma—a problem theorized in the 1960s by Mancur Olson. I met Mancur Olson once in the hall at 1616 “P” Street in Washington, DC. It probably would have been less than a year before he died, but I suppose that this is too much a tangent even for the Thornapple blog. A more accessible version of the problem was formulated by Garrison Keillor for one of his A Prairie Home Companion monologues. It’s called “The Living Flag”, and it was popular enough that it was one of the stories celebrated in the 25th anniversary collection. But that’s all I’m going to say here. If you want to hear how Keillor explains collective action dilemmas, you can go to this link.

The long and short of it is that we are at least a year or two behind in getting asparagus established for distribution in Thornapple shares. This will not, however, deter our farmers Paul and Chelsea from providing a sumptuous helping of salad greens, and maybe some kale and radishes. Yum. In the meantime, look for asparagus on the menu at any appropriately hip or “local” eatery, or find some at the produce section in your local market. It may not have been picked yesterday, but it will still be pretty damn good.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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