Rod Philip has lived just north of Palmerston all his life and his family has had associations with this bit of land since 1923. Rod’s parents took ownership in the 1950’s and Rod took over from them.
It seems the farm has had many “lives,” but currently Rod grows about 4.5 hectares in asparagus and raises cattle on the remaining 100 hectares. The Shag River meanders through the property and ensures that the soil where the asparagus is grown is rich and fertile. It is a silty, loamy soil with a bit of quartz in it that helps hold the heat – something that asparagus needs to grow and boy when the soil heats up does it ever grow!
The season is short but intense, and Rod and his partner Nicola Holmes have got the operation down to a fine art, especially their cool chain process. They pick in the morning, wash, hydro cool to take the field heat off the spears, chill, grade, pack into plastic bags, label as necessary and keep chilled until the product retails either at the farm gate, the Otago Farmers Market, some restaurants or sometimes through direct marketing to city businesses or such like.
The spears grow very quickly and can get past their best quickly, so over the growing season a high degree of vigilance is needed. Rod and Nicola talk of the “flush” when the asparagus grows very quickly for a short few days. They have to keep cutting during the season to ensure the spears keep coming. After the final cut the plant has done its job for the season and the spears are left to grow up to fern. The asparagus crop has very little waste, but a local pig farmer benefits from seconds and off cuts.
Palmerston Asparagus is the southernmost commercial asparagus farm in the country. Rod got into growing asparagus in the early 1980s when the government was encouraging farmers to diversify away from sheep farming. The cold ensures a winter dormancy that invigorates the plants and kills off any unwanted bugs. Occasionally they experience a few slugs. But the main concern for an asparagus farmer is weeds. The ground is well maintained – ploughed and worked to keep weeds at bay.
Rod buys his plants from a specialty breeder from Lincoln, Canterbury. Most plants last between 12- 15 years but Rod ekes his out to last considerably longer than that. He uses herbicides for weed control and tries to keep these to a minimum. They have no need for insecticides. Rod holds a Growsafe certificate which he renews every five years. He is very aware of the withholding periods for the sprays he uses. While Rod is currently experimenting with more organic type sprays, something his partner Nicola is especially keen on, at this point he primarily feeds the plants with a variety of fertilisers- they need a lot of potassium.
Rod and Nicola employ 22 part time staff at the peak of the season. The work is demanding and they are constantly refining their mechanisms for picking the spears. Workers get regular breaks and they accommodate flexible start and finish times to allow parents to drop off children from school etc. Finding staff for picking and packhouse operations is usually straightforward even though East Otago has never been a horticultural hub.
Over the years Rod has explored several different markets for selling the asparagus that he grows. He has exported fresh to Japan, sold further afield to Southland, Central Otago and Canterbury, and also sold to a factory freezing vegetables. However the present model of retailing all the crop works very well and the pride that he and Nicola take in offering a product that is as fresh as possible ensures that customers keep flocking to them. Certainly when I was visiting there was a steady stream of cars pulling in – and without exception everyone stepping out of those cars was visibly excited about the product.
Rod is only at the market for 4-8 weeks a year but he is very eagerly awaited. Again there is noticeable excitement around the market when the asparagus is due to arrive back! Rod’s stall is well presented with asparagus being sold in 500gm or 1kg packs and graded into thin, medium and thick spears.