To some, spring means rainy days and flower blossoms. To others, it means the asparagus is ripening.
In the Creston Valley, Sutcliffe Farms is the largest asparagus producer in B.C., with 100 acres of the prized vegetables. Customers come from all over the Kootenays to enjoy the harvest, which quickly sells out by mid-June.
The family business has decades of history behind it, originally started by Art Sutcliffe.
Beginning in 1948, Sutcliffe experimented with many different crops to determine what grew best in the Creston Valley. Eventually, he planted a small five-acre plot of asparagus and watched the crop thrive. Over the next 10 years, he continued to grow asparagus and expanded the crop to 30 acres.
In 1973, Sutcliffe’s 19-year-old son Doug purchased the 135-acre cattle farm next door. He worked alongside his father on both of their farms. After two years, he had sold the cattle and converted his grain fields into asparagus.
In the year 2000 after his father’s death, Doug took over the operation, alongside his wife Dianne and their three sons – Kenton, Connor, and Brett.
While asparagus is the most plentiful crop, the family also grows canola, alfalfa hay, timothy hay, and sweet corn.
Once planted, it takes four years for asparagus to establish its roots and reach maturity. The crop is sub-irrigated by Kootenay River adjacent to the farm. The rich, fertile soil of the former flood plains provide native minerals and unique growing conditions that produce perfect asparagus spears with a taste incomparable to the imported varieties.
Typically, picking season for asparagus begins around the first of May and continues for six weeks. However, the colder temperatures this spring have caused a later start date than usual.
“We’ve been getting 30 to 40 calls a day asking if we have asparagus, and we have a good supply,” said Sutcliffe.
“People have even driven over from Castlegar or Cranbrook to check if we’re open.”
Once the asparagus is ready, the picking process is quite unique. Workers lay down on pallets pulled by a slow-moving tractor. As it rolls forward, their hands move quickly along the ground to pick the stalks.
This year, about 50 seasonal workers are on the fields with room to hire more.
Andrew Blair has returned to Sutcliffe Farms to pick asparagus every season for the last 11 years. He enjoys the work, even though it looks back-breaking to bystanders.
“My office space is quite literally the mountains,” he said.
“I get to wake up every morning and relax on a farm. It’s a different lifestyle, and once I found this, I absolutely fell in love instantly.”
Once the asparagus is picked, Blair will move on to the cherry orchards and other fruits as they ripen.
Located at 1252 Indian Road, Sutcliffe Farms is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 250-428-2734 for more information.
Asparagus can also be purchased at the local grocery stores and Creston Valley Farmers’ Market.
For job opportunities, visit sutcliffefarms.com/employment.html.