Teen gives asparagus farming a try

Craig Reed/For the Capital Press Lily Wheaton was the recipient of a Douglas County Farm Bureau Youth Entrepreneur Grant in 2015 that allowed her to purchase 600 asparagus roots and other supplies. She planted the vegetable in May last year and now must keep her crop clean of weeds while waiting for shoots to come up this spring.

ROSEBURG, Ore. — After doing research, Lily Wheaton decided her proposal would focus on growing and marketing asparagus.

Back in early 2015, she was a 17-year-old high school junior who wanted to apply for the Douglas County Farm Bureau Youth Entrepreneur Grant. She explained in her application that asparagus could grow in the bottom soil on her parents’ property near the Umpqua River and that the vegetable wasn’t grown on a commercial scale in the area so it would be easy to market and sell.

A Douglas County Farm Bureau committee selected her application from the three that were submitted.

“Her research, the length she had gone to to put together her application … it was a well-thought-out project,” Matthew Brady, president of the local Farm Bureau, said of Wheaton’s proposal. “There was a uniqueness to her project. Asparagus is not found in Douglas County on any large scale. It was all about trying something new.”

Brady said the grant is available on an annual basis, but the standards to qualify are fairly high so the money hasn’t been distributed every year.

“We’re trying to get young people who don’t necessarily have a farming background interested,” he said. “To give them the opportunity, to help them get started on a small scale.”

Wheaton had estimated her expenses of buying asparagus roots, compost, fertilizer and soaker hoses at $850. As she bought her supplies, she turned in the receipts and was reimbursed by the Farm Bureau.

She purchased 600 1-year-old roots. They included two purple and two green varieties. She planted the roots last May.

She said the roots all put up shoots, but she chose not to harvest any, instead allowing the plants to become more mature. This year she anticipates harvesting lightly, but will track the impact on the young plants.

“Next year in their third year they should really begin to produce and there should be a good harvest,” Wheaton said.

The young farmer said one problem she had to overcome in the plants’ first year was the family’s free-range chickens. They wanted to scratch around the plants. An electric fence put a stop to the birds invading the asparagus crop.

In January at a Farm Bureau meeting, Wheaton gave the group a presentation on her project.

“She’s a very animated and energetic person,” Brady said of Wheaton. “She told us how things were going. She explained the chicken problem and how she dealt with it. She’s doing a good job.”

Wheaton anticipated seeing this year’s asparagus spears begin to shoot up in March. She’s hoping for six spears or more per plant.

She is still considering her options for selling the vegetable — a roadside stand at her home or at a farmers’ market. Her family already sells eggs and chickens from their home so adding asparagus would be easy.

Wheaton also wants to try pickling the veggie.

“I’m really happy the Farm Bureau is doing something like this for young people,” she said. “It’s just cool. It’s definitely a great thing for me to be able to do this. I’m so thankful.”

Selecting asparagus as her project also made sense for her because she likes eating vegetables.

“I do like asparagus,” she said. “I’m not very picky about vegetables. I’ll eat them all.”

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