There’s no trace of snow on the valley floor, the Mariners are playing baseball again and the days are getting longer, which means just one thing.
It’s almost time for asparagus.
One of the Yakima Valley’s rites of spring is the annual asparagus harvest, which typically starts in early- to mid-April, depending on weather and other factors.
For lovers of the spear-shaped vegetables, spring is the time to get their fix of the fresh stuff, whether it’s just a side dish, a fried snack or even in tamales.
Here are a few things to chew on while you wait for asparagus to show up at the vegetable stand.
Washington is one of the nation’s largest asparagus growers
A quarter of the nation’s asparagus crop was harvested in the Evergreen State last year. Farmers here produced 21.1 million pounds of the vegetable that year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That puts the state in third place behind California and Michigan.
Within Washington, Yakima County is the second-largest producer, behind Franklin County, with 1,915 acres according to the most recent USDA Agricultural Census.
You don’t have to plant it every year
Asparagus is a perennial plant, typically grown from a crown with the first edible spears coming three years later. A typical asparagus plant can produce spears for 10 or 11 years, said Jon Nishi, a Mabton asparagus grower.
In 2016, Washington asparagus farmers were averaging about 3 tons per acre, but Nishi notes that some varieties can yield up to 5 tons an acre.
This year’s harvest is expected to be a bit late because of the wet, cold winter this year, said Norm Inaba, a Harrah aspargus grower.
It takes quite a few people to harvest
During the harvest, one person typically works two acres, Nishi said. And harvesting involves walking through the field and cutting the individual spears.
It is one of the more specialized areas of farm labor, Inaba said. Cutters have to be able to measure 8 or 9 inches with their eyes, as well as make sure their cuts don’t damage spears that are coming up.
It’s also hard, grueling work.
Cutters are paid either by the hour or piecework, typically working about four to six hours a day, avoiding the hotter part of the day.
It takes about 1,800 people to harvest asparagus statewide, and finding them has been hard in recent years, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. When the canning industry left the state, so did a lot of the experienced asparagus cutters.
Asparagus tamales are a thing
Los Hernandez Tamales in Union Gap has been making asparagus tamales for 15 years, due in part to a lark experiment. June Hernandez, one of the owners, said she had bought asparagus to take home for dinner, but decided to mix it with corn masa and make it into a tamale for lunch.
It tasted pretty good, but she and her husband, Felipe, continued tweaking the recipe, trying different types and ratios of cheeses to asparagus before settling on pepper jack, which gives it a bit of a spicy bite.
The recipe is a secret, but Felipe Hernandez said he goes through about 2 tons of asparagus when they are producing tamales.
People come from as far as Northern California and Montana to get some of the more than 30,000 asparagus tamales they make each spring.
But like McRib sandwiches or pumpkin-spice lattes, asparagus tamales are a seasonal thing since they’re made from locally grown asparagus. They usually run out about July or August, depending on the weather.
If tamales aren’t to your liking, Major’s Burgers in Yakima offers fried asparagus during the season, while Stokes Burger Ranch in Sunnyside fries asparagus year-round, relying on locally grown frozen vegetables during the off-season.
It really does make your urine smell funky
It’s a problem asparagus eaters have dealt with for centuries, that foul odor that comes when they relieve themselves after a meal. Even Benjamin Franklin noted the effect and suggested the Royal Academy of Belgium find a way to convert the “disagreeable odor” into something more pleasant.
While some people say they can’t smell a difference, scientists say it is there, and an acid in the asparagus is the culprit. When it is digested, the acid breaks down into sulfur-containing compounds, similar to the ones that give skunk spray its pungent smell or are used to add an odor to natural gas.
The gene sequencing company 23andMe did a 2010 study of people who say they can’t smell it, and found that they have a genetic mutation that blocks that particular smell from their brain.
But for asparagus lovers, the odor is a small price to pay for enjoying their favorite food.
“Who cares?” Felipe Hernandez said.