New Jersey Dispatch: Asparagus Farms

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20090501-asparagus2.jpgIf you’re anything like me, you have a pretty solid stereotype of a New Jersey farmer in your head—a windswept looking guy with an advanced degree in engineering who farms his 14 certified-organic acres along with his beautiful, college professor wife. They’re Slow Food members, world travelers, and gastronomic geniuses. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. Not much though.

Then I visited Katona Farm in Crosswicks, and was forced to re-think the whole notion of farming in New Jersey.

I mean, these folks farm sixteen hundred acres and grow soybeans for Perdue (the chicken producers, not the university). Drive up to the place and find yourself in a slice of Iowa somehow plopped into the Garden State. Steel sheds, grain elevators—even a large combine. Walk into the farm store between tax time and Memorial Day, and you’ll see asparagus.

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Not a few bunches, but crates full of the stuff. Katona Farm has fifty-five acres of it planted. The idea that agriculture here can be more than a novelty is a novelty in itself.

Walt and Betty Katona bought the place back in 1950 when this was as rural as you could get in the Northeast. The area grew around them but they kept farming asparagus, tomatoes, corn, and soybeans. Soon, they became an unusual hybrid—a local farm that grew in wholesale quantities and thrived near big cities. When they go to the post office, the clerk shouts “Asparagus ready!?” Then they go back home and pick enough to supply a supermarket chain or two.

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A bit south of Katona was Berry Best Farm in Southampton. This was a stereotype breaker too. A small white barn with a tray of asparagus and a self-service cashbox stood on a tiny road next to a grazing pony. Spring flowers bloomed and game birds pecked away in the fields across the road. It was too Vermont to be Vermont. A perfect tiny farm not all that far from the New Jersey Turnpike.

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My final stop of the day was Byrne Farm in Wrightstown. This was a large produce and garden shop in front of a fifty-five acre farm. There, a bit of asparagus was part of a large display of preserves, baked goods, and garden items with lots of empty spaces waiting for fresh picked produce. Formerly known as “Robson Farm,” the Byrne family bought it last year and planned to sell both their own and other local farmers’ produce. The family—which consists of mom, dad, thirteen children, and even some grandchildren—is committed to offering local farm products to local people.

If you want to visit an asparagus farm, you can’t drag your feet. A few weeks from now, most of it will be gone, and by June 1, it will only be a memory. Then, all you can do is wait for tomato season.

Katona Farms, Inc.
355 Ellisdale Road, Crosswicks NJ
609 298-3342
Mon. through Fri., 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Byrne Farm Market
505 Rt. 537, Wrightstown NJ
609-758-2068
Open daily

Berry Best Farm
302 Isaac Budd Road, Southampton NJ
609-859-3634
8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (but not manned when I was there)

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