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An Ode to Asparagus and Local Food

Empire’s new tradition aims to restore an ancient one

May 26, 2004 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The Empire Asparagus Festival not only celebrates a tasty vegetable, it also promotes a delicious concept: Locally grown food.

EMPIRE — Last Saturday residents of this tiny village celebrated the return of spring and all things green with a good old-fashioned farm festival. The odd thing is, 2004 is the first year of what intends to be the annual Empire Asparagus Festival. This village of less than 400 people along the northern Lake Michigan coastline launched the tradition for a lot of reasons, including having fun. But the festival also hopes to redefine Empire as a place where farming belongs and where good local farm foods will always be.

Although asparagus is hardly the top crop in this area around northwest Lower Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it is the first crop to emerge after more than six long months of winter. Those tender stalks of green and purple hues, reaching up out of the bare ground for a blanket of hollandaise sauce, are reason enough for Empire residents — already known for bowling on the village’s snow-packed main street in winter and taking a community dip in icy South Bar Lake every February — to throw a party.

So Empire effectively declared its love and commitment to local foods and family farming with an “Ode to Asparagus” poetry contest, a cream-of-asparagus soup feed, and special items — like sesame tempura fried asparagus and whitefish with white morel mushrooms and asparagus spears — on the menu of a highly popular downtown emporium, The Friendly Tavern. Notwithstanding a number of poems about how pee smells after eating asparagus, the village’s new, old-time farm festival is a harbinger of a positive change for those rural areas that celebrate, rather than give up on, local farming’s bounty.

The festival draws attention to the fundamental role farming plays in the area’s treasured rural lifestyle, said festival organizer Ashlea Turner, by sharing the pure joy of breaking the winter food blues with freshly picked asparagus from a neighbor’s farm when it is perfect and plentiful. One of those neighbors, 88-year-old Julia Norconk, sees this joy every day of asparagus season, which runs from mid-May to late June, when cars arrive virtually non-stop to buy fresh-picked spears from her son Harry Norconk’s roadside stand south of Empire on state highway M-22. “It’s the first green thing in the spring, and they’re after it,” Ms. Norconk said.

Her son was in the middle of downtown Empire this weekend selling asparagus and visiting with people like Darlene Gray of Benzie County, who says she always stops at the Norconk Farm stand to buy asparagus on her way to visit her sister over the Leelanau County line in Empire. “If my sister is coming my way, she brings some to me, and if I’m going that way, I bring some with me.”

Resurrecting Local Foods
It’s this local connection and seasonal special-ness that the Empire Asparagus Festival can strengthen for farmers in the area, whether they produce asparagus, potatoes, or cherries. That’s because Empire’s new festival bucks a trend that, since the 1980s, has seen communities across the nation giving up on local agricultural economies ravaged by depressing global market conditions that range far beyond asparagus. Even Empire Township’s existing master plan, now under revision, accepts the conversion of farmland to new uses; it lists rural character as a priority but does not plan on farming being a vital part of the township’s future.

The asparagus festival, however, signals a change in this local perspective. It is a first crucial step toward growing new market alternatives for local farms stuck in a global marketplace that pays little for high quality foods.

Empire is not alone in wanting to turn back towards a viable local farm economy. Leaders in Michigan and across the nation are taking stock of farming’s value to local landscapes and economies. They are emphasizing the marketing of local flavors to new consumer tastes, rather than simply producing more volume for glutted mass markets. In the process, they are generating new initiatives aimed at reconnecting local farms with local markets. Last year, for example, the state and family farm groups launched a Michigan food marketing effort that put more of the local land’s bounty, such as in-season asparagus, on the shelves of Grand Rapids supermarkets that in the past typically imported their stock from Washington State and Ontario, Canada.

Such initiatives are triggering other new ones. For example, this year northwest Michigan will have its own local food marketing effort, dubbed Select a Taste of Traverse Bay: The 2004 Guide to Local Farm Foods. Produced by the Michigan Land Use Institute, the guide, which will be published in mid-June, will help families, chefs, vacationers, and others find and buy from more than 140 local farms that offer everything from artificial-hormone-free beef to goat sausage, potatoes, greens, pickled asparagus, and cherry pies. Select a Taste of Traverse Bay will also be searchable online and will add new farm listings over time to serve as a constantly updated local shopping resource.

Local Marketing Earns World-Class Prices
The Norconk operation is one of the farms listed in the new Traverse area food guide. Located just south of Empire, the farm is now busy harvesting 40 acres of asparagus and marketing the tender stalks at two roadside stands, at the Traverse City Farmers Market, and to some 15 restaurants and two grocery store chains in the area. That’s a big change from five years ago, when Mr. Norconk still sold 90 percent of the crop wholesale to makers of canned asparagus. He made the switch to direct, fresh marketing when imports from Peru and Brazil flooded the canned market and lowered prices to levels American farmers could not compete with.

“It was either change modes fast, or look for another job,” Mr. Norconk said. The old mode was to simply grow asparagus and ship it off to the big market. The new mode, he said, required him to “jump in with both feet and started selling fresh asparagus anywhere and everywhere.”

Now Mr. Norconk sells his asparagus fresh for local consumption, which involves a completely different approach to marketing, from making sales calls around the region to coordinating deliveries at dozens of destinations. The risk has been worth all the extra wrangling with delivery schedules, vehicles, and paperwork. Mr. Norconk said his farm now sells 40 percent of its annual crop to local fresh markets, with hopes for more in the future as more people recognize and demand the taste of fresh-picked local asparagus.

His price for fresh asparagus ranges from 95 cents to $1.25 a pound, depending on the outlet. That’s as much as twice what the global, canned asparagus market will pay this year, and as much as three times what it was paying when the market was flooded and American farmers could only get 42 cents per pound.

Growth Market?
If chefs in the area thought more about local foods, or heard more about it from their customers, they could double or triple the amount they use, said Mr. Norconk. That’s the kind of business that can keep him and other farmers going, say economists looking at the potential for local food marketing to revitalize agriculture. It can also boost business for local distributors who need larger volumes if they are to develop a local market orientation and make local food transactions that both make sense and money for buyers and sellers.

Mr. Norconk hopes local appreciation for fresh asparagus grows to the point that every restaurant in the area features asparagus dishes during May and June.

That future may already be arriving in Empire.

Frank Lerchen, manager of The Friendly Tavern, says he has occasionally served local asparagus as a side dish but has not generally featured it on his menu during the spring. “But if we get a good response to the entrees we’re doing for the festival this weekend, we could in the future,” Mr. Lerchen said. “Our customers will let us know. If they like it, we really don’t have much choice but to do it again.”

Patty Cantrell directs the Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture Project. You can reach her at patty@mlui.org. To receive notification of the arrival of the Institute’s Select a Taste of Traverse Bay local farm food guide, enter your email address in the Subscribe box on our home page.

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