Willamette Chefs Discover Bounty of Fresh, Local Asparagus

By Paul Lieggi, Executive Chef, Willamette University 

Although available year round, fresh asparagus during the peak season is an unmatched delight so this spring, Chef Kiley Davis of Kaneko Commons and I set out to find the best local asparagus for our kitchens here at Willamette University in Salem, OR. We found it during a visit to Kenagy Family Farms, located just 45 minutes south in Albany, OR.

Alana Kenagy harvesting asparagus

Kenagy Family Farms is picturesque (red barn included) and on the sunny afternoon of our visit, it was downright breathtaking.  In addition to its outer beauty, Peter Kenagy, owner and head farmer, is dedicated to maintaining the inner eco-system as well, and utilizes many innovative sustainable farming techniques.  As evidence of his efforts, Peter won the 2004 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s Patrick Madden Award for sustainable agriculture.

As we drove with Peter’s daughter, Alana, out to the asparagus fields, we passed what the Kenagy’s call “No Man’s Land,” or the non-cropped areas around telephone poles and other farm margins. Alana explained how Peter built habitats in these areas to encourage bald eagles and Osprey to build homes there, as these resident birds help keep the rodent population under control.  Their presence every year is indicative of the good environmental health of the farm. The farm is also surrounded by native trees that provide habitat for beneficial insects that keep pest outbreaks low and nesting areas for native pollinators, who aid in crop pollination.

When we arrived at the asparagus field, I was amazed by the beauty of the asparagus and how it grows. This visit was only the second time I have seen fresh asparagus in such large quantities, and it was a sight to behold! Alana used a special tool to cut a sample for us to try. Unlike the woody texture so typically found in grocery store asparagus, these stalks were tender and sweet raw, with no need to be cooked.

Alana then led us to a small area covered with a black tarp to show us something she has been experimenting with  – white asparagus.  Less bitter than the green variety and quite popular in regions around the world, white asparagus is produced when light is denied to the growing plant. Seeing  the set up required to grow white asparagus, we understood why white asparagus is harder to find and more expensive.

We thanked Alana for the samples and the enjoyable and informational field trip. Not only did we learn about asparagus, but we got a lesson in biodiversity and sustainable farming. Over the course of the spring season, we purchased over 400 pounds of Kenagy asparagus and were thrilled to be able to share it with the students and staff for their enjoyment.