Oct 6, 2011Haygrove Brit Tour: Day 2
Day two our our tour finds us at Cobrey Farms, the UK’s largest asparagus operation. Grower John Chinn estimates that his farm grows 27 percent of the UK’s asparagus crop, with 1,000 acres in the ground. He planted his first asparagus in 2003. The farm also grows blueberries, rhubarb, potatoes and some grains. “In terms of profit,” Chinn said, “asparagus is certainly our key crop.”
With the use of high and low tunnels, Cobrey Farms is hoping to be able to provide the UK with asparagus from mid-February to November. “By putting the Haygrove Tunnel over the asparagus, basically we’re trying to recreate Peru,” Chinn said.
“The hope is to be harvesting in the third week of February and hope to be still harvesting in November,” he said. “Whether those are the same tunnels or different tunnels, you’ll have to come back and ask me.” The Cobrey Farms’ team is measuring Brix every week by taking 20 samples per designated plot. They are tracking Brix to see if they’re able to get a continual crop of asparagus off of one field. “The agronomist thinks our sugar levels will be too low,” Chinn said.
He went on to say that he’s still in the learning phases of growing asparagus in tunnels, such as finding just the right ventilation system for his asparagus, experimenting with low tunnels within high tunnels, figuring out proper irrigation management and measuring carbohydrate levels to see the effects of the tunnels on the asparagus. In addition, Chinn — and other UK growers — are facing similar issues to growers in the United States: tightening regulations on areas such as crop protection and water use. Plus, since no one’s really grown asparagus in tunnels before Chinn, there’s not a lot of understanding among regulators and others about what Chinn is doing. For instance, weeding is done by hand because “there are no chemicals we can use inside poly tunnels because nobody’s grown asparagus in poly tunnels.” They also manage pest, such as asparagus beetle, by hand — going through the tunnels and pinching them off. “There’s an awful lot to learn,” he said.
Chinn’s latest experimental plot includes a custom-made low tunnel with a unique ventilation system that includes holes at the top to let air move. Those holes are covered with another layer of plastic with vents running down the sides of that layer to let air in and out. When it’s warm, the two layers expand, allowing air to flow between them. When it’s cooler, the two levels contract, keeping the warmer air inside the tunnel.
With use of these tunnels and extending his season, Chinn is able to receive higher prices for his off-season asparagus. What’s more, he said, his asparagus is selling in stores at exactly twice the price of Peruvian asparagus — and it’s hard to keep up.”If you can stick a Union Jack on fresh produce, people will buy it,” he said. “And my opinion is that people will pay for quality if we can produce it.”
These packs for Marks & Spencer are sold, from top, as “spears,” “extra fine” and “tips.” The tips make up about 30 percent of the sales; extra fine makes up 20 percent of sales; and spears make up about 50 percent of sales. “Asparagus tips are worth two-and-a-half times the rest of the asparagus,” Chinn said. The prices he receives wholesale for his asparagus in the autumn season is double the wholesale he receives in the off season. “The supermarkets have a vested interest in keeping the same products on the shelves as long as possible,” he said. “So they must be behind you.”
Marks & Spencer has been working with Cobrey Farms in development of the autumn season asparagus market. And so far it’s been a beneficial relationship: “We’ve been selling out. We can’t supply enough,” Chinn said. “Other supermarkets are already ringing us up to see when they can get some.”