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"The packing of asparagus had its beginning in this country at Hunter's Point, Long Island, now within the confines of greater New York City. The first packer was William H. Hudson, who put up about 400 dozen tins in 1864. The package used was almost identical with the No. 3 square can of today. The preliminary treatment in the way of cutting and blanching was also very similar to that now used. The processing was different, for the cans were first held in a bath for 30 minutes, then vented, and afterward held for an hour and a half in a bath of boiling water. The industry grew fairly rapidly in New York and New Jersey, but has almost ceased since California became a producer in the early nineties. The real packing of asparagus in California was established by Mr. Hickmott, who began experiments in 1881 but was not very successful until 1890. The distinctive feature of his method was the erection of the cannery very near the asparagus beds, so that the product might be collected and delivered in a perfectly fresh state, as the holding of the product for even a short time greatly impairs the flavor.
"The asparagus produced on the Western Coast has the advantage of unusual natural conditions for growth, as the beds are in the delta lands along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. The soil is of wonderful fertility, light and mellow, so that it may be hilled high to produce long, large stalks. The spring is cool, insuring growth that is not too rapid, each spear being succulent and tender. The stalks are naturally bleached so that they are very white. Even food. officials have believed the canned article to be chemically treated to obtain the very pale color."
The following article on asparagus was handed the writer by a California packer and though evidently written about 1902 or 1903 is such an excellent description of the growing and packing of this commodity that it is reprinted here in full. The author of the article is unknown.
"The islands of the Sacramento will always be the home of asparagus packing, for the climate together with the soil of these islands meets every requirement necessary for the raising of this vegetable.
"Asparagus requires a rich loose loam; a river sediment underlaid with peat soil; or a peat soil.
"Boulder Island on the Sacramento River and all the leveed lands of the Sacramento which were originally overflowed and covered with tule growth are well adapted to the raising of asparagus.
"These islands are of a peat formation, evidently caused by the tule decomposing through the ages. The ground is spongy to walk on, the peat having a depth of fifteen feet or more, and below this is a sediment and then a clay formation. It is supposed that when the Sacramento River is up in flood, Boulder Island raises with the water which would indicate the light spongy formation of the island.
"Irrigating ditches are dug and run through the land and water is pumped out, or flooded in, continually as the occasion calls for, so as to keep the water about two feet below the surface. No fertilizing is required on the majority of these islands.
"The climatic conditions along the Sacramento are peculiarly adapted to the raising of asparagus, as this vegetable is of a mushroom growth and the hot beds of these islands, together with the rich soil, the necessary salt in the irrigating waters which is brought by the tide waters from the ocean, and the gentle sea breezes that reach these islands are all the essential conditions that are necessary for the perfect raising of this vegetable and such conditions will be found in no other part of the world.
"The asparagus grown here is so tender that after canning, the whole stem, or butt can be eaten with as much relish as the tip.
"The land on Grand Island at Walnut Grove, on the Sacramento River is more of a sediment formation, or deposit, than those of Boulder or Statten Islands. This sediment is underlaid with peat which allows the moisture to percolate close to the surface. The loam is rich and loose and the climatic conditions are the same as in other parts of the country, the water is well up on the levees and above the level of the farming land and irrigation is natural. Flood gates are held in connection with the river so that at any time during the summer when necessary, the ditches can be flooded and the land sufficiently irrigated. However,
it is found necessary to manure the asparagus beds of Walnut Grove after the third year to insure a sufficient crop of grass thereafter."
The best seed to sow for asparagus for canning purposes is the variety known as the Connover Colossal, and another good variety is the Palmetta which is the most profitable for market purposes but is very poor for canning unless great care is taken to use only the white spears and then to use them only in the early part of the season.
In planting the seed the ground must first be thoroughly worked up, freeing it of all weeds and clods, or lumps. The seed is then planted in rows, scattered over a width of say, six inches and the rows being about two feet apart to allow the necessary cultivating. Fifteen pounds of seed will sow one acre. The seed must be planted in the spring as soon as the frost is over.
Transplanting Roots: After one year has passed from the time the seed is planted, the digging up of the roots is done by running a 14-inch plow through the field and turning the roots to the surface. They are then picked out of the furrows with a round tinned potato hook and put up in piles of 6 or 7 feet apart. A wagon then comes along and the roots are pitched into it and hauled away to a shed, where they can be kept for two or three months if necessary before being carefully picked over and transplanted.
The roots must be separated and any unhealthy root thrown away using only those that have large healthy bulbs. The stringers of these healthy roots should be as large in diameter as a small lead pencil and about six inches long. If the bulb is on the root without the stringers it will answer the purpose just as well as a full root provided it is not too small and inferior.
Great care should be exercised in purchasing seed, or roots, for if the buyer should not get the variety he has purchased, it will be two years before the mistake will be discovered. The seed should be gathered from grass 4 or 5 years old. Seed from older or younger grass than this will not produce as good results and the seed should be gathered from grass that is known to be productive.
The roots produced from an acre of seed will transplant 60 to 80 acres of roots, though this depends on the closeness of the rows after transplanting. The rows of transplanted roots run parallel to one another and the roots are planted about 2 feet 6 inches apart in the row. The rows are from 9 to 11 feet apart and run the full length of the field. This difference in distance apart is governed entirely by the richness of the soil but in no case should the rows be closer than 9 feet or more than 111⁄2 feet apart. If the soil is not rich enough for this maximum distance it is useless to plant the grass and it cannot be planted closer than 9 feet as the "mounding" later on will require at least this distance.
Before planting the roots, the ground must be thoroughly mellowed and worked as fine as an ash pile so as to thoroughly free it of weeds and insure final success.
A grower on one of the islands gives the following data: 15 pounds of seed sows one acre. This will produce 80,000 roots. In transplanting it requires 3,500 roots to the acre which is figuring the rows at 11 feet apart. To take unbroken ground and put into asparagus will cost about $150 per acre before returns are received.
The usual method followed in laying out the rows when transplanting the roots is to first lay out the starting line the full length of the field. A checker board is then made. This is an ordinary plank 241⁄2 feet long (if the rows are to be 111⁄2 feet apart). Nail a cross cleat in the center of the board and one at each end. This board is now drawn over the field, the cleats describing parallel lines the required 111⁄2 feet apart. To get these lines true, the checker board is drawn over the first slanting line and thereafter one cleat always retracing one of the lines already run until the entire field is laid off in the required number of rows.
Now plow over these rows, making the furrows at least one foot deep, or more, below the surface. The roots are then set 21⁄2 feet apart in these furrows. They are first lightly covered with soil and then buried one foot deep by running a 14-inch plow along the side of the rows and turning the soil over them to this depth.
When the whole field has been planted and the roots covered, it is smoothed over by a thorough harrowing.
The ground is then kept clear of weeds and worked at
every opportunity for the next two years. The tops of the grass are cut off with a mowing machine and the stems hauled off the field and burned. These stems are allowed to grow up until the seed is about ripe and are then cut down which will be at the time of early fall frosts. Care must be taken that the seed does not shed or there will be trouble in getting it out of the ground.
The first year there is no grass cut from the roots, but after the second year there is a light crop and then two months from the end of the second year the rows are thrown over in ridges, or mounds, covering the roots, or crowns, as they are now called. These ridges stand up probably 18 inches, or more, above the ground. The necessary earth to build up these mounds is thrown over the roots from the ground between the rows. The work of throwing up these ridges is accomplished with a disc harrow and plow, care being taken during this mounding not to injure the crown
It will be understood that when the roots have been in the ground for two years after transplanting they have virtually grown into one solid string the full length of the row and this string of roots is called the crown.
After the mounding is completed, a harrow is run in between the rows and the ground is all perfectly smoothed off, using a special harrow the shape of the mounds for the purpose.
This mounding having been done the latter part of the second year, the grass will sprout through the ground during the last four months of this second year and the early part of the third year. A very limited quantity can be cut, however, as will be shown later.
The grass appears above the mounds and the laborer goes along the row with a long pointed butcher knife and wherever a spear appears he probs down into the earth 71⁄2 or 8 inches below the tip of the grass, draws the spear out and throws it into a basket he carries along with him. After the basket is filled he piles the grass from it into one of the boxes which are strewn throughout the field. A light wagon, truck or sled is kept continually hauling the empty boxes to the field and the full ones away to the washing and sorting sheds. When the laborer piles the grass from the basket into