First cut of the season: Asparagus sprouts in N.J.

New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher visits the Grasso Girls Farm Market in Mullica Hill to mark the start of the growing season for strawberries and asparagus.

With the promotion of New Jersey farm produce one of his many duties, New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher declared Thursday that he was “delighted” to be standing at a farm stand in Mullica Hill.

In the weeks ahead, Fisher can expect to announce new delight as he stands in a blueberry bog, a zucchini patch, a cornfield, a peach orchard, a tomato field, or a cranberry bog somewhere in the state, announcing the emergence of each new crop onto the market.

But Thursday morning, surrounded by farmers, sales clerks, reporters, local officials, and tables laden with produce, Fisher seemed genuinely pleased to be at the Grasso Girls Farm Market in Gloucester County. He was there to mark the emergence of New Jersey’s asparagus and strawberry crops.

“Jersey Fresh asparagus is coming in every day,” he told the cameras, and then pointed out the gleaming red “Jersey Fresh strawberries” selling for $5 a quart. This family-run farm stand, which opened for its 2017 season just last week, would soon be “going into high gear,” he announced.  

So, too, will the industry that gives the Garden State its nickname. New Jersey grows $367 million worth of agricultural products each year, Fisher noted, with $9.5 million of that coming from asparagus, usually the first crop to emerge each spring. The state is the nation’s fourth-largest grower of asparagus, which was selling for $1.79 a pound this week at Grasso Girls.  

“So look for the ‘Jersey Fresh’ brand,” Fisher urged consumers before inviting elected officials and members of the Grasso family, who farm 567 acres in Gloucester County, to make remarks. After Mary Lynn Shiles, who helped start the farm stand, marveled at how brisk business was in just the first week, her brother, Fred Grasso, said, “Let’s cut asparagus,” and they escorted Fisher onto a wooden farm truck for a photo opportunity.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Grasso murmured anxiously as he climbed onto the tractor seat.  Heavy rains were due Friday, he explained, and since rain damages this fragile crop, his crew of 25 had to “cut” — not “pick” — a double amount Thursday.

Minutes later, Fisher and the Grassos arrived at a seven-acre field on Wolfert Station Road. Fred Grasso handed him a long-handled, V-shaped asparagus knife and showed him how it’s done. “Choose spears about seven inches high,” he explained, and grasped a slender green shaft poking out of a foot-tall row of sand, “and you put your knife two inches below.”

With a quick jab of the knife and a tug of his hand, the spear pulled free. Fisher then bent over and cut a dozen spears in similar fashion as cameras clicked and whirred.

“That’s the same tool we’ve been using for at least 80 years,” marveled 88-year-old neighbor Vince Gangemi Sr., who was watching from the edge of the field. “I know because I was using something like it when I was 5 or 6 years old.”  His sons went to school with the Grassos, Gangemi said, and “my father knew his grandfather.”

Asparagus spears emerge from underground roots about one foot wide and can grow three inches a night in warm weather. Fat spears come from new roots, thin spears from older, Grasso explained, “but they all taste the same,” and for retail sales must be cut by hand.   The growing season lasts about 2½ months.

On the ride back to the stand, Shiles, 52, explained that the Grasso family began farming in the county in 1926. She and her sisters and female cousins got the idea for a stand in 2002, she said,  “but none of the boys” — the men of the family — “wanted anything to do with it. So we said, `The heck with you,’ and named it `the Grasso Girls.’" After it turned into a real moneymaker, she added, “the boys got mighty interested.”

Back at the stand, Shiles and Grasso’s 87-year-old mother, Lucy, served up a standing lunch of asparagus and ziti and asparagus quiche, followed by strawberry shortcake.  “She makes dinner every Sunday for the whole family — 15 or 20 of us,” said Mary Kay Grasso, a cousin and retired schoolteacher.

“Most people don’t know how wonderful it is,” she said, “to be a farm family.”