Agriculture High Value Agriculture Moldova

Asparagus 101

May 30, 2018

Everyone said, “you can’t grow Asparagus in Moldova.”

Coming from my days in the US Peace Corps in Moldova we heard these type of pessimistic comment all the time.

Comments like these were typical; Girls can’t drive, boys can’t cook, basil is only good for religious ceremonies, and you can’t grow “unusual vegetables” in Moldova.

Perhaps these continuous “soviet style squash your ideas” mentality triggered my independent spirit and I wanted to prove them wrong, perhaps I had already calculated that with the right timing and right commercial partners that growing asparagus could be profitable.

Well, for some reason I decided to initiate the first commercial stand of asparagus in Moldova in 2010.

The first big question to solve was how can I get asparagus planting material to Moldova?

Asparagus vocabulary

Crown-Fern-Spear

Crown=asparagus transplant and growth points,  more specifically Bulb is to tulip as crown is to asparagus.

The green foliage on top is called the fern

We eat the spears which emerge in early spring.

Nothing is ever without risk

First I started by bringing in asparagus crowns from the US in my suitcases, (yes, I know I was probably encroaching on some type of customs rules), but actually I had done some research and purchased crowns from a verified source that gave me the proper documents that the crowns were disease free certified planting materials, and I had also received the confirmation from the local ministry that if I was trying something new in my own backyard, then bringing the crowns in my suitcase with papers wouldn’t be a problem.

With spider like bare root asparagus babies carefully packed deep in my leather cowboy boots, the journey began.

 

Small steps before a big start

After a couple of years of experimenting with planting location, sun, moisture, and planting technique, I finally decided that it was time to make a more serious investment. During this time between 2010 and 2012 I had been producing and selling fresh leafy greens and naturally grown vegetables, when I expanded into the restaurant supply sector and saw overwhelming demand for asparagus, I knew that this was my chance. Since this was a new venture in Moldova, I had to base my business plan calculations on estimations of quantity, however I had already collected pre-orders from some of the biggest restaurants in Moldova so I knew I would be able to sell what I produced.

Despite the obstacles to do business in Moldova, my main fear was that I would be producing asparagus illegally. Asparagus was not registered in the “official book of cultivated plants in Moldova. ” This register is a soviet relic that allows the State system to prohibit competition and innovation by forcing farmers to use outdated hybrid varieties that had almost become heirloom because of their prominence.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in rural areas with small family farms, I had heard about this book and the obstacles to growing new varieties voiced by small farmers. It was my job in Peace Corps to provide small farmers with new ideas and options to diversify farm income. However, despite how financially appealing niche market produce might be, small farmers were unable to fight the bureaucracy and layers of government regulation to

Primarily this system was meant to protect the state academic crop research institutes from competition from commercial agriculture suppliers, but the government states that they were trying to protect farmers from loosing money by planting crop varieties ill suited for the region. Gee shucks government, thanks for making sure that I don’t loose money by trying something new. To set the record straight, the Moldovan plant registry did have asparagus wihin its pages however it was not in the horticulture section, it was listed as an ornamental plant. Asparagus in Moldova was actually called “Shadow of the rabbit,” and used in landscaping. Having “rabbit shaddow fern” legally registered by the state, did a great deal to ease my mind, however my hybrid seeds couldn’t pass as a fern heavy ornamental.

No turning back

A couple of asparagus crowns in my backyard would not be enough to pay my monthly student loan payments, so I needed to jump in and go big.

I did a lot of research before buying 25,000 certified hybrid asparagus seeds from a Canadian company.

My precious cargo finally arrived in a packaged the size of a 44 oz big gulp. These 25,000 precious hybrid seeds cost me more than a new macbook.

Planting the nursery

When we finally go ready to plant, we soaked the seeds for a day in water and they were just as beautiful and just as expensive as the rare Russian sturgeon caviar.

Since we were creating a nursery bed of asparagus that would grow the seedlings(crowns) for the first year and a half, we needed to get our planting as precise as possible. After scouring my best resource(the internet) I pulled an idea for a dibble board and had my farm mechanics build one.

Planting 25,000 seeds by hand 10 at a time took 2 ladies 3 days.

Those little suckers take a while to germinate but we were all thrilled to see the first little asparagus ferns emerging from our black cernozoem soil.

Keeping them watered was a challenge, but keeping them hand weeded was even harder. In just two days the weeds could overtake them where it would be hard to tell where the weed end and the asparagus began.

After a year and a half of constant care we finally transplanted.

asparagus nursery, 1 yr old plants

Transplanting Asparagus

Digging out intertwinded asparagus seedlings from half frozen black soil is difficult. Once  they were bagged we loaded them in the bus for the short ride across the Moldovan county to their permanent location in sandier soil.

Digging dormant asparagus crown seedlings in the frozen chernozom soil

a healthy asparagus crown with emerging buds

 

Transplanting and digging them took a team of 7 men 4 days.

Asparagus grows like a spider, central “crown” from where the shoots emerge surrounded by long legs.

 

 

First harvest and sale

 

 

Handing over

 

https://www.facebook.com/sparanghel.moldovenesc/

 

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