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The Good Earth

ASPARAGUS SMACKDOWN

Competing pickles, changing climate keep things spicy at Norconk Farm

By Susan Ager

Photo by Larry Coppard

When they married 24 years ago, she figured she’d continue to do her job and he’d do his.

It hasn’t turned out that way. No, both Barbara and Harry Norconk are in the asparagus business, while she still works full-time for the State of Michigan.

They share the worry in years like this, when the spears popped out of the earth a month early and faced numerous killing frosts. They share the work in the fields, especially at high harvest, when Barbara uses up her paid vacation days to help out. They share the sorting and packing work in their giant pole barn—as big, it seems, as a small Home Depot.

But, oh! They compete like prizefighters pickling that asparagus.

They use her recipe in the jarred pickled asparagus sold under their name in the Traverse City area. For home use, though, to keep themselves asparaguised year-round, each cherishes his and her own.

He cuts the bottoms off to fit spears into standard quart jars; she uses the whole stalk in half-gallon jars. He uses three parts water to two parts vinegar; she uses 50:50. Their recipes are otherwise identical, but the smallest variations do make a difference, it turns out, and each is ferociously defensive.

He teases her: “Nobody uses big jars like yours. If you pickle it over 6 inches it can toughen up at the lower end.” She teases back: “But I don’t waste any of the spear.” He says his water-to-vinegar ratio lets him taste more of the dill and garlic. She uses 50:50 because I’ve got the certificate from Cornell University that says you need that for shelf life.”

She says to Harry: “Your way won’t last as long.” He says: “I don’t believe that.” She concedes to us: “He eats it so fast I guess it doesn’t matter.”

My husband (the photographer) and I are the appointed taste-testers. A handful of spears of each recipe have been arranged on plates. We sit around what you might call their harvest table: small and square, in the combined kitchen-living room-office of a small apartment they’ve carved out of a corner of their pole barn.

In the winter, they live in Traverse City, where Barbara works. At high harvest, they stay together here in this pole barn three miles south of Empire, Northern Michigan’s asparagus capital. And the rest of the year, he sleeps here alone, arising at 6 to work on machinery, tinker with parts scattered outside the barn or tend his fields. Often, he sleeps fitfully, anxious and edgy.

In the bathroom are stacked copies of both Vegetable Growers’ News and Smart Money.

Harry Norconk, 64, had just nine acres of asparagus when he met Barbara. Now he’s our area’s biggest producer. “But I’m just a peon,” he says, “compared to those guys in Oceana County. I’ve got just 35 acres, and many of them have 100 or 200, and the biggest guy’s got 600.”

Above: Fresh spears emerge early spring; last year’s pickled asparagus; summer frond growth in the field (photo Barbara Norconk); modern year-round office work. Photos by Larry Coppard.

From Harry’s acreage he supplies a big processor, plus many area restaurants, including the Bluebird in Leland and Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, which prides itself on local suppliers and names Norconk on its menu. He also supplies Tom’s, Olesons and Glen’s markets in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties.

Most years, though, his income from asparagus has fallen short of Barbara’s from her administrative assistant’s job with the state. Worst, he says, was in the first years of the 21st century, when the United States eliminated tariffs on foreign asparagus and Peru planted thousands and thousands of acres. Prices plummeted, and many growers dashed out of the business.

But Harry hung on, cutting and selling firewood, too, for many years. He survived that challenge. Now he has a new one: climate change.

We visit the last day of March, a chilly but sunny day. On our drive to Empire we pass woods still patchy with feathery snow.

Asparagus growers like it cold in March. Alas, a few weeks before our visit, in early March, the weather was summer-like for a week of days and nights—so warm that kids took quick dips in Lake Michigan, so warm that the famed hot dogs made by Louie’s Meats in Traverse City sold out for St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Daffodils and morels popped up early, and asparagus was not far behind. Harry picked his first shoots on March 27—just a handful, just because they were there—and he was astonished.

“We’re a good month, a big month early” with its first appearance, he tells us. “This shouldn’t be happening ‘til the end of April. We’re usually picking by the 10th of May, but this year. . .  yeah, it makes me nervous.

“Everybody gets excited when the snow is gone, but not me. Mushroomers and vacationers might be thrilled when it’s warm in March, but not me.”

On the last day of March, the four of us walked an acre or two for 20 minutes and without much effort found about a pound of early shoots to break off and collect. “You might as well,” Harry says glumly. “The frosts will kill ‘em anyhow.”

Asparagus fields in early spring—even at the peak of harvest—are remarkably unattractive. Let’s back up to mid-summer to see why.

July and August—months after harvest—are when asparagus fields are lush green with the tall, fine-leafed ferns that emerge when some asparagus stalks are left to bolt. Those six-foot ferns, Harry says, draw nutrients into the crowns for future harvests. In the fall, though, he cuts the ferns down to a foot tall. The plant debris collects snow and keeps moisture on the fields. He also plants rye in the fields in the fall as a cover crop. It begins to grow in the spring, but resembles weeds among the dry, dead stalks of last year’s ferns.

Amidst that mess this spring grew very, very, very early asparagus. Growing asparagus is not bright green, as we might imagine. It has a purple tinge, like the color of shadows, and finding it in the late March field wild with shadows on a sunny day was like finding morel mushrooms. We had to squint and tilt our heads for a while but then voila! Once you find one or two, you find more and more.

But the fields weren’t ready for harvest. Harry wasn’t ready for harvest. Before harvest, he mows the fields—mows down the rye and the last standing fern stalks. If timed right, he won’t have to mow off too many emerging spears, but they will take off soon after, growing on nice days as much as an inch an hour.

This year’s weather befuddled him. The shoots came up too soon! He couldn’t figure out when to mow, for fear of the frosts of April that would kill one wave after another of his crop.

Plus, his pickers—eight is all he needs—were still busy in Georgia and Florida with other crops. It wasn’t clear that they could be here when these fields were ready to be picked.

“I’ve never had this happen in 30 years,” Harry says. “Of course we have climate change, but is it for 100 or 200 years, or forever? In any case, if this becomes a trend, it’s bad news, absolutely.”

The morning of our visit Harry had called to check in with a neighbor who grows just 10 acres nearby. “He doesn’t know what to do, either,” Harry chuckles half-heartedly. “Nobody knows what to do.”

But we knew what to do: enjoy the bounty before us.

Settled around the little table, we prepared to dig in to the competing pickled asparagus. We were more than ready for a taste of these veggies that, with a mind of their own, obsess the Norconks’ lives.

Our hands were cold. We had strolled the fields. We had admired around the edges of Harry’s fields his accumulation of vintage equipment from his father’s and grandfather’s farming years on the land (none of it involving asparagus). We had watched Harry demonstrate one of his three picking carts. One picker sits in the middle, simultaneously picking and steering the motorized cart; two others pick from “wings” that extend from the center. We had looked at the industrial scales on which plastic crates of bundled asparagus are weighed before he and Barbara deliver the goods to their clients.

“It took me eight years to figure out a pickling recipe I was happy with,” Barbara explains. Harry says he wanted her to perfect a recipe so people, after tasting it in the jar, would buy 50 pounds of fresh asparagus to make their own. She says she worked on the recipe for his sake alone, then realized others would buy and enjoy it. Other pickled asparagus the couple has tasted isn’t spicy or crunchy enough for them.

Her recipe is the one they use for commercial purposes. Food for Thought produces and packs it, in 16-ounce jars, for sale around the area. (At Oryana it is $10.45.)

Harry says he pickles 24 quarts for himself, which gives him two jars a month to enjoy off-season. Barbara guesses they pickle about 40 pounds a year for themselves. They refuse to buy off-season asparagus from Peru, which Harry describes as “tasteless.”

Earlier on the day of our visit, Barbara had mixed up a beloved dip she makes with the pickled asparagus. She apologized for it having separated a bit in the microwave, saying it won’t do that in an oven. But there’s no working oven or stove in this harvest home of theirs, where their busiest days are so long that dinner is what they call midnight brunch: fresh asparagus cut into half-inch chunks, microwaved for two minutes then topped with butter, salt, pepper and a little vinegar. Minutes later it’s lights out.

But this morning we sit relaxed with mugs of coffee, a bowl of the dip, a bowl of Wheat Thins (best with the dip, Barbara says) and competing plates of pickled asparagus. Diplomats that we are, we proclaim the competition a tie. Later, though, headed home in the car, my husband allows that Barbara’s took a wee edge for him because it was spicier, and I allowed that I oh-so-slightly preferred Harry’s.

That dip, though! It rated five stars from both of us. And we have no clue whose asparagus went into it.

Susan Ager is a former Detroit Free Press columnist who lives in Northport. She fears any preserving that involves glass jars and boiling water but, inspired by the Norconks, may try pickling asparagus. Contact her at  Susan@SusanAger.com.

IF YOU GO:

Norconk Farm is on Aral Road, three miles south of Empire off M-22. A farm stand is open in the season selling fresh asparagus for $2/lb. (Quantities of 25 pounds or more are $1.75/lb.)

The stand, which is often self-service, is typically open May 10 until June 20, but this year the crop could be harvested two to three weeks earlier. Call Harry or Barbara at 231-326-3540 for details.

Norconks’ Pickled Asparagus

Makes 6 half-gallon jars

7 pounds Norconk asparagus

8 cups apple cider vinegar

8 cups water

4 tablespoons canning salt

1 tablespoon mustard seed

1 tablespoon poppy seed

1 tablespoon fennel seed

1 tablespoon celery seed

1 tablespoon caraway seed

18 sprigs of fresh dillweed (or 6 tablespoons dried dill)

3 fresh jalapeno peppers, halved (seeded for less heat)

12 cloves garlic, peeled

Sterilize 6 clean, large-mouthed, half-gallon jars (or 12 quart jars) by rinsing in boiling water. Sterilize lids and rings the same way. Set aside.

Clean asparagus by swishing, tips down, in warm water for 15 seconds. This will cause the tips to open slightly so sand will fall out. Rinse whole spears a second time in clean warm water. Place on dishtowels to drain.

Make the brine by mixing vinegar, water and salt in a pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium.

While brine is coming to a boil, place asparagus spears in jars as tightly as possible, up to one inch from top. (Spears will shrink slightly as they pickle.) In a small bowl, mix the mustard, poppy, fennel, celery and caraway seeds.

To each half-gallon jar of asparagus add 1 tablespoon of the dry spices, 3 sprigs of fresh dill, 1 jalapeno half and 2 cloves of garlic. Carefully pour hot brine into jars to within 3/4 inch of the top. Place lid and ring on top and seal. Place jars in a large pot of simmering water for 10 minutes. Remove and set on a wooden board or dishtowel to cool. Jar lids should seal as brine cools. Asparagus will be ready to eat in 2–3 weeks, and should remain good for a year.

 

Pickled Asparagus Dip

Makes about 3 cups

1 cup diced Norconk pickled asparagus

1 cup mayonnaise (not light)

1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350°.

Mix asparagus, mayonnaise and cheese together. Bake in an ovenproof bowl for 30 minutes. Serve immediately with crackers.

Pickled Asparagus White Chili

Serves 8—10

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound boneless chicken

2 cups diced onion

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

4 teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

3 tablespoons chili powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 cups Norconk pickled asparagus, sliced in 1/4-inch pieces

40 ounces canned Northern beans, with liquid

16 ounces canned diced tomatoes with green chilies

10 cups water

8 ounces shredded Co-Jack cheese

Chop chicken into bite-size pieces, about 1 inch. Heat oil in a large pot, add chicken and cook on medium heat, stirring often, until it is just browned. Add onion and sauté for a few minutes until softened. Add spices, asparagus, beans, tomatoes and water, and cook for about an hour. Just before serving, add cheese and mix well. 

 

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