Choosing a local fruit or vegetable over an imported one is cause for celebration here in Wisconsin, and asparagus is no exception. With proper cultivation and harvest, this Co-op community favorite grows here from late April until roughly the Fourth of July. Blue Valley Gardens is Willy Street Co-op’s primary source for local asparagus, and it should be available in our Produce department by the time you’re reading this Producer Profile.

Matt Smith and Susan Lampert Smith established Blue Valley Gardens in 1984 when they bought a century-old, run-down dairy farm with the intention of growing good, clean food for their family. Since then, they have expanded to provide a year-round supply of various foods for thousands of Wisconsin consumers at grocery co-ops, restaurants, institutions and the Dane County Farmers Market (DCFM). Matt says, “ I don’t raise stuff I don’t like to eat. With the exception of carrots and beets, I’m not a big root crop eater. It’s hard to put your heart and soul into products you don’t like to eat.”

While finishing high school on Madison’s urban west side Matt realized he liked plants and animals. He hadn’t had much exposure to farming, however, before he sought a Horticulture degree in 1974 at the UW-Madison. Matt’s immersion into the science of plants and farming continued as he worked for several years at two of the University’s farms including the site where long-time Co-op producers Steve Pincus and Beth Kazmar, owners of Tipi Produce, later farmed before that property was sold and cemented into history as Point Cinema.

These days, Matt applies seemingly everything he’s learned along the way to create a balance of diverse crops on the farm’s 36 challenging, terraced acres. Having spent several years experimenting with various annual and perennial crops, Matt says he tends to grow those species that require less maintenance and lend themselves best to organic agriculture by being naturally more resistant to pests and diseases. Falling easily into that category, Blue Valley Gardens’ asparagus grows high along one of the farm’s many sloping sides, over six-and-a-half acres in total.

Life on the farm

On this MOSA-certifed organic farm, the long rows of annual asparagus were cultivated in two rounds over several years. They began producing shoots in the standard four years, which is typical for this species. On average, each plant is expected to produce for up to 20 years and requires only routine care and maintenance, mainly to control weeds and grasses from taking over the beds and choking out the asparagus. As it grows, the plant sends shoots from under its crown beneath the soil. Eventually those shoots break through the dirt’s surface to become what we recognize as asparagus spears. Provided the spears are carefully harvested throughout the growing season, they will continue to send out new, tender shoots from under the crown. However, left too long (as little as two days) spears can quickly shoot up and become an asparagus fern, at which point the plant’s productivity would diminish for the season.

Immediately after harvesting, the asparagus shoots are washed and packed in styrofoam crates that Matt has reclaimed and continues to recycle for storage and delivery of the asparagus. Preferring their ideal design and durability over wax boxes that break down with repeated use, Matt says he’s recovered thousands of these Styrofoam crates from area grocery stores and, according to organic standards, waits one year before re-purposing the crates which would otherwise typically become landfill.

To keep pace with their established crops, the farm’s longtime crew of four women prefer to arrive from their homes in Madison and begin working by 5:00am until about 11:00am during the growing season. Matt says he appreciates their early morning enthusiasm as well as the opportunity for his workers to then make the farm’s deliveries as they circle back to Madison at the end of each workday. In addition to the carbon savings by eliminating a single-purpose trip in and out of Madison, Matt says preserving his time on the farm during the height of the growing season is well worth the cost of paying for their time and transportation expenses.

Resting at the bottom of the valley is the family’s now refurbished home and a historic collection of barns and outbuildings. The large red barn that once housed the farm’s milking parlor has also been repurposed and many of the milking stanchions were cut out to make more room for supplies and equipment. Matt has also installed a walk-in cooler in the building as well as cool storage for root crops.

Keeping it very local

Of his past work with Homegown Wisconsin, a group of farms that mainly grow and transport their organic produce to eager markets in Chicago, Matt spoke candidly. He says that though he appreciated the sales and convenience of sending his produce to Chicago and enjoyed the perks in doing so, he eventually came to the conclusion that he didn’t need or want to continue with the group. Instead, Matt says, “I’d rather sell locally. So, we contacted Willy Street [Co-op], and these people were more like-minded. They shared my political philosophy and my environmental concerns.”

An iconic figure

While he may never be bestowed with as much press as his journalist wife, Susan, Matt remains an iconic figure at the Dane County Farmers’ Market having vended there for decades. There he sells the farm’s many value-added crops including raspberries and oyster mushrooms on the Square and at the winter market. Matt also serves on its Board of Directors and is an enthusiastic supporter of the nation’s largest producer-only Farmers’ Market.

For more information

For more information about Blue Valley Gardens, check out the website at: http://www.mhtc.net/~blueval/.