Members of the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario (AFO) will receive a distribution at year’s end, thanks to the growing success of Fox Seeds, a for-profit corporation established as an arm’s length trust. Seed sales are up 15 to 20 per cent from a year ago. The University of Guelph’s asparagus breeder Dave Wolyn is supported financially by the association to identify new cultivars that are superior yield producers while being resistant to foliar diseases.
“This is a very strong program,” says Bernie Solymár, AFO executive director. “We’ve just named Guelph Equinox, a new cultivar that in early trials is producing yields that are 50 to 100 per cent more than our standard Guelph Millennium.”
While seed of Guelph Equinox won’t be widely available for another three to four years, the research findings are astounding in that Guelph Millennium has been a standard bearer for more than a decade. Yields of 7,000 to 8,000 pounds/acre are commonly achieved with Guelph Millennium.
“Guelph Millennium tends to be a variety that puts up a lot of spears in the first four weeks of the season then tapers off,” explains Solymár. “We’re looking for production strength in the mid to late season.”
The results of the breeding program have caught the attention of asparagus growers in the states of Michigan and Washington where the majority of acreage has been planted to Guelph Millennium in the last few years. But perhaps the biggest source of pride for AFO is selling asparagus seed to Europe, particularly Germany where asparagus is the king of vegetables. White asparagus is prized in their culinary culture. However, the younger generation is not fussy about peeling the vegetable and is turning to green asparagus because of its taste and health benefits. Every year, there is about five per cent growth in the green asparagus market in Germany, a significant statistic given that 20,000 acres are under cultivation.
AFO is negotiating a deal with a European distributor to have “boots on the ground” for sales in Germany, Portugal, Russia, Poland and the United Kingdom as well as other E.U. countries. Two of the association directors, with the support of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies’ Rapid Response Program, are travelling to a major German trade show in November 2016 to forge new relationships and assess further opportunities.
Meanwhile, sales are robust in North America with both Guelph Millennium and the newest 2016 release of Guelph Eclipse. Exhibiting thicker spears than Guelph Millennium and excellent tip quality, Guelph Eclipse is commanding a 10 per cent premium seed price of $1100 U.S. for 20,000 seeds.
The seed business is a bright spot in the dynamic asparagus industry. Ontario’s asparagus growers are experiencing tighter markets for second-grade asparagus because Michigan’s processing industry has shrunk.
Despite these challenges, Ontario’s asparagus acres have increased from 2700 to 3200 acres in the last two years.