Pioneers unearth a winner

TASMANIAN White Asparagus has claimed a win in the Unearthed category in this year’s Delicious Produce Awards, which celebrate the best produce Australia has to offer.

Richard and Belinda Weston and partners Tom Barham and Jenna Howlett formed Tasmanian White Asparagus in their effort to be the first and only farm in Tasmania

to grow and harvest the premium variety of European white asparagus.

They are about to harvest and distribute their first lot of white asparagus after what’s been a decade in the making at Tom and Jenna’s  Brighton farm.

The Unearthed category recognises farmers “challenging the status quo and finding new ways to produce innovative, high-quality, nutritious, flavoursome food in an environmentally sustainable way”.

Mr Weston said to be the first Tasmanians to win the category was a terrific honour for their work.

“We always said one of the things that would be nice is to get a bigger industry going in Tasmania in the future.”

He said the impetus for their interest in white asparagus was a conversation with renowned chef Luke Burgess, who had travelled the world and had his own Hobart restaurant called Garagistes.

Mr Weston successfully applied for a Nuffield scholarship in 2012 and embarked on a three-month trip to the Netherlands and Germany to study white asparagus, including looking at the right soil for growing asparagus.

On his return, Mr Weston and his wife, Belinda, attempted to grow asparagus on their Brighton property but had issues with harvesting.

In 2017, the partnership with Tom and Jenna developed as they had the right soil for growing and they planted 34,000 white asparagus.

Tom and Jenna’s 4ha of farmland has sand-like soil which allows the vegetable to be harvested and grown correctly.

“You remove the soil around the spears with your fingers when it pokes through. You can’t do that with a clay-like soil,” Mr Weston said.

White asparagus is grown sheltered from sunlight to prevent it  from producing chlorophyll, which turns plants green.

“We are also trying to make sure the area we are farming is left in a better condition than we found it,” he said.

Last year was their first harvest, which Mr Weston describes as fairly successful.

“It was an incredibly wet year, whereas this year we have the opposite and it’s incredibly dry.

“We are currently irrigating and hoping for a big jump in production this year by 1000 to 2000 kilos.

“We’re hoping for about 5000.

“The demand is there – we’ve just got to produce the goods now.”

They plan to employ 12 people doing field work and another six in the packing shed during harvest. Last year they only harvested for three to four weeks, being careful not to over-harvest, and this year they are hoping harvest will go over six weeks.

“We’ve got a lot of pressure on us from some of Australia’s best restaurants,” Mr Weston said.

“It’ll be good to hit the five-tonne mark with this harvest. A good paddock of white asparagus can produce around six to 14 tonnes, which is the optimum.

“We don’t know where we stand at the moment and we are doing everything we can to get to that point. But every paddock is different and every country is different.”

There are currently no other white asparagus growers in Tasmania but there a few in Victoria and NSW.

With harvest happening this month, they are hoping to distribute up to five tonnes in Tasmania and the mainland.

Mr Weston said their point of difference was that they brought in proper European varieties.

“The difference with these asparagus is the flavour and the spear shape and these European varieties get to a good size,” he said.

They are looking to grow

three different varieties of white asparagus, AAA white, AA and A.

The AAA white variety is the largest and ranges from 20mm upwards. The AA variety is between 16mm to 20mm and the A is 16mm and under.

They are about to plant another 20,000 of a fourth variety.

“I was fortunate enough to spend time with some of the best growers in the world and one of the things I learnt in my studies was the amount of care they’ve taken to breed their special varieties.”

Mr Weston describes a white asparagus as sweet-tasting with an earthiness and bitter aftertaste.

“With green asparagus, it’s a burst of sweetness but it hasn’t got that earthiness, so it’s a slightly different profile.”

Chefs around the country are eager to work with the new produce with white asparagus being a very niche and sought-after element in top-end restaurants.

“The traditional and German way is done is with a burnt butter sauce, eggs and ham and hollandaise,” Mr Weston said.

“It just presents beautifully. It’s one of those things you can put on a plate and it can be the hero of the dish.”