Spring is in the air.
And while the weather may not be completely cooperative, one sure sign that spring is here is rising in fields around the region.
That's right, asparagus season is upon us. The regal purple crowns have broken through the soil, with just enough green spear visible above ground to make it time to cut. Harvest only started last week, and our mouths are already watering.
And it's not just that we're fans of asparagus. The crop symbolizes so much more. Along with tulips, daffodils and cherry blossoms, asparagus ushers in the season that promises us -- usually -- warmer days ahead.
The fields are alive with people and equipment. Daylight hours are longer, everything around us is turning a brilliant shade of green, and we're all in a better mood because of it.
Asparagus brings that first bite of what's to come. Fresh, delicious fruit and produce from the farms and fields of the Columbia Basin and many of our own backyards. Farmers markets will open. Ripe, red cherries will be on the heels of asparagus. And life will be good, again.
Asparagus is also a testament to the staying power of our agricultural community. Washington ranks No. 2 in production of the crop in the nation, even though hundreds of acres have been plowed under and we've lost jobs and production to South America.
It used to be you had only a brief time in the spring when you could enjoy fresh asparagus, and we didn't get shipments of the stuff from around the globe year-round. It was something special that came but once a year, harkening spring.
A neighboring farmer would drop off a lug of asparagus just to be, well, neighborly. We spent spring days in our youth hunting rogue asparagus spears along canal banks, then bringing our bounty to the kind of mom who would blanch asparagus and freeze it or pickle it to preserve the taste of spring into the winter months. It was a treat.
Washington-grown asparagus still is unmatchable and irreplaceable. We all know the shorter distance from the field to your dinner plate, the better the taste of just about anything. That first springtime bite of fresh, tender, local asparagus sets the tone for what's to come.
We have a long history with asparagus in this region, and not all of it is as pretty as the first spears of spring. Canned asparagus played a big part in our area's history, with the last -- and at the time world's largest -- cannery shut down in Dayton in 2005.
Green Giant joined the rest of the packers once based here in moving operations to Peru. U.S. trade agreements had a lot to do with the partial demise of what was at the time a $30 million a year industry for Washington. It has since dropped to about half that. Jobs were lost and fields were planted with crops that boasted a more promising outlook.
But on the heels of that bad news came some good. Gourmet Trading Co., which also has operations in Peru, opened a state-of-the-art packing plant for fresh asparagus in Pasco, creating jobs and a market for some of our region's crop.
Foster's pickled asparagus of Pasco has been going strong since 1984, with double-packs of the product in Costco stores. Other local niche producers have pickled the product as well.
Whether you enjoy it on an antipasto platter or in a Bloody Mary, pickled asparagus should be a pantry staple.
The community has asparagus fever. Barnard Griffin winery had a special kick-off to asparagus season last week and will play host to farmers markets every Wednesday. Florentyna's Restaurant and others will add deep fried asparagus spears to seasonal menus. Schreiber & Sons Farm in Eltopia is sponsoring a tasting of 20 varieties of asparagus this weekend for 40 lucky fans. The list goes on.
But don't be lured by the current abundance of the crop. We've only got about a 70-day growing season here for asparagus, and it has already begun. If you're new to asparagus or have only had the mushy and over-cooked preparations that don't do it justice, try it on the grill with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper. It won't take long to cook, the crowns will get a little crispy and one taste will have you sharing our enthusiasm for Washington asparagus season.