We all know those soggy asparagus spears, wrapped in stale white bread, that appear alongside club sandwiches at certain family or community events. Then there’s the dubious smell some time after you’ve eaten it – we won’t go there!
Asparagus can get a bad rep. But despite this, in New Zealand it is a strong & successful, though relatively niche, industry.
The New Zealand asparagus industry incorporates approximately 60 growers with a total planted area of around 820ha – compare this with kiwifruit at more than 11,000ha. Asparagus is grown across the country, though the main growing area is the Waikato; home to over half the total planted area. Asparagus remains in the ground for around 15 years, but takes 5-7 years to reach full production. Like many horticultural crops, growing asparagus requires a significant capital investment to establish the crop, as well as the ability to sustain losses for the first few years until production ramps up. This is a barrier to entry for some participants, as is the specific knowledge required to successfully manage the daily & seasonal operations.
Being a small industry presents several challenges; one being the availability of investment in innovation. Yet, as is the case in many industries, innovation provides a significant opportunity. For asparagus, the key innovation opportunity revolves around incorporating automation into the harvesting process.
Harvesting asparagus is currently very labour intensive, with a high reliance on seasonal employees. These employees manually select & harvest each spear as they walk along a row. Two of the key challenges with this are availability of staff & the quality of the picking job they do. This is where automation has the potential to be a game changer – if we can develop a reliable, accurate & efficient machine, then we can make some great improvements – cost reductions, yield gains, improved quality. For example, picking from 2-8am extends the shelf life; wastage could be reduced by harvesting spears at the exact length desired; and we would have a lower wage bill.
Outside the farm gate, there are many more facets to the asparagus industry, and numerous upstream & downstream participants in the supply chain. The bulk of New Zealand asparagus is consumed domestically, with a small portion of typically ‘second grade’ product going to the cannery (to be reincarnated for the dreaded asparagus rolls). There is a strong export market, primarily to Japan, with lesser amounts to Australia & the USA; the export volume will vary, based largely on exchange rate. This export space present another opportunity to capture increased value – through either differentiating the product, or streamlining the supply chain. Both options have a number of complexities, but with consumers becoming increasingly discerning about the manner in which their food is produced, we are well placed to capitalise on this.
Like most businesses, the potential for continual improvement & the chance to develop a successful operation is what keeps us motivated. This certainly rings true for me with our asparagus business – I’m definitely not in it for the asparagus rolls!
Tim van de Molen is an asparagus grower in the Waikato and is a past winner of the Young Farmer of the Year Contest. Tim will be standing for the National Party in the Waikato Electorate in the 2017 General Election.