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Asparagus a tasty vegetable vanguard for fresh, local, Ontario produce

If the robin is the first visible sign of spring, Ontario asparagus provides a much-anticipated and flavourful vanguard for the province’s wide variety of fresh, locally-grown vegetables.

Asparagus Processing
From left, Gladstone Shakespeare, Toussaint Henry, Joe Koteles, Paul Fody, Kathryn Dzsudzsak and

“It’s the first vegetable to come off the fields,” says Joe Koteles of Koteles Farms, like his migrant workforce, ‘excited to get going’ after a slightly delayed start to the 2022 harvest season.

With asparagus, there is often no comfortable ‘easing into things’, and while Mother Nature dictated the season was a little later than typical, as of May 11th, it was a challenge to keep up.

“It’s crazy right now,” said Koteles at that time. “It’s growing like the banshee.”

Ideally farmers will enjoy nice warm temperatures, cooling off during the evening and overnight says Koteles, which leads to both higher quality and a manageable pace. But if the temperature creeps above 26 degrees Celsius, asparagus can grow as much as an inch per hour. With cooler temperatures earlier in the season, the plant sent up tips and stopped.

“Once the sun and heat finally came, she just popped. Everything is coming all at once.”

The family farming operation was founded by Joe’s grandfather Julius Koteles Sr., who emigrated from Hungary in the 1940s, and continued and expanded by his father, Joe Koteles Sr. They began farming asparagus on 38 acres south of Tillsonburg in the 1980s when Joe Jr. was attending college in Ridgetown, encouraged by his son’s enthusiasm for a new crop.

“My dad just needed someone to say, ‘yeah, do it,’” Joe recalled.

That farm was eventually sold, the family concentrating on tobacco for the next decade. In conjunction with an exit from that commodity, the family returned to the crop around the year 2000.

“He put the asparagus back in and I just kept adding to it,” said Joe, who currently farms 124 acres along with his son-in-law Ernesto Graham near Five Points, north-east of Tillsonburg.

It can be a challenging crop, but Koteles enjoys being kept on his toes.

“When it flushes, you never have enough people. You are constantly trying to catch it before it stretches too high.”

As well as Secretary/Office Administrator Kathryn Dzsudzsak, Koteles Farms employs several seasonal locals and 80 Jamaicans through the temporary foreign workers program, who Joe keeps in touch with throughout the year.

“They treat me like their little sister, little sister or their mom,” laughed Dzsudzsak.

“I enjoy the people who work here,” Koteles added, underlining his respect for their commitment to furthering their broader financial circumstances. “They leave their families and come here and give their families a better life.”

Koteles opens harvest in May, concluding July 10th in order to preserve the long-term health of his plants. The balance of the summer and fall are spent in crop maintenance, and the winter in preparation for the oncoming craziness each year seems to bring.

“At times, it’s nerve-wracking, but to be honest, all-in-all, it’s a good life,” he summed up.

It’s also handy to have an ample supply of a vegetable the entire family enjoys, with Joe’s daughter Ashley regularly posting recipe options on the farm’s Facebook page.

“What isn’t good with asparagus?” interjected Dzsudzsak, laughing, of a range of culinary suggestions including boiled asparagus with cheese, bacon-wrapped on a barbecue, in soup, as a featured ingredient in bruschetta or salads, spears on their own with steak, or stuffed inside chicken and barbecued.

“Anything, anything you do with asparagus is my favourite,” Koteles concluded with a smile. 

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