FREEPORT, Ill. (AP) — Back in 1995, Don Weidman decided to retire. He had farmed all his life and figured he could rent out his ground and live on Social Security. He quickly learned he was wrong.
"You can't even buy groceries on Social Security," Weidman said. "I knew right away I had to find something more."
Then he read an article that said he could make more money per acre growing asparagus than any other crop and decided to give it a try.
"I bought 16,000 crowns to grow on 2 1/2 acres," he said, admitting he had ignored an advisory that recommended newbies start with about a half-acre. "I got them all in, but that was just the beginning."
As it turns out, asparagus is labor intensive. Imagine trying to control grasses and weeds on nearly three acres without the use of chemicals. It can be done, but stock up on liniment and factor in not having a marketable crop for the first two years while the crowns put down roots and acclimate to their new home.
Well, an old farmer never admits he's bitten off more than he can handle. Weidman got a lot of help from his son, four daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so that today, some 20 years after the start-up, they market about two tons a year of one of the tastiest treats of spring: home-grown asparagus.
"If it weren't for my kids and their families I wouldn't be able to do it," said the 91-year-old patriarch. "As it is, I don't know how many more years I'm going to be able to continue."
He's up and out in the field at 4:30 a.m., with daughter Donna Parker, on a jerry-rigged picker. By 8 a.m., the Weidman sorting and packing teams — Paul Parker, Barb Reibel, Lorie Hartman, Julie Zuibma and Doug Weidman — are on site and hard at it so that the marketing group — Craig and Cindy Hoogheem — can get on the road.
"A lot of folks come out to the farm to pick up spears," Donna said. "We also deliver to several groceries and have a regular stand at the Shell station in Fulton and the farmers market on the levee in Davenport."
She said if they had more hours in a day they could pick twice, but by the time they get the early batch in, trimmed, weighed and packed, they've had enough and need to sit down.
"We're having one of our best years ever," Donna added. "We pick the field pretty clean early and by about noon it's warmed up to where new spears are breaking through and we could go out mid-afternoon and pick again."
It's true. This reporter walked the length of their field learning the tricks of their trade, and once back at the gate there were hundreds of one- and two-inch spears breaking ground.
An asparagus field in May has to be a time-lapse photographer's paradise. The family talked about weather and late frosts (a frost won't kill asparagus, but a freeze will,) how they could produce the gourmet delicacy albino spears, how deep the roots go in the soil (about four feet,) when the spears are ripe and when they're too far along, and what happens to the plant during the off season.
"In the fall, everything in the stalks and ferns will go back down in the ground for food for the roots — that's what they grow on," Weidman said. "We put nitrogen on it once a year, but that's about it."
Donna said her dad declares it's their last year every year, and last year they didn't even mow the stalks at the end of the season because he said he couldn't do it anymore, but then it got warm and they were all back at it.
"I would probably sell the patch if I could find somebody that wanted to take it over," Weidman said. "Of course, if a buyer had to hire all the help I get around here it wouldn't leave much for profit, but there's nothing like going out at sunrise and seeing a field full of asparagus spears."
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