Delicious fresh asparagus spears spring into our lives in early summer thanks to years of effort, money and passion from growers and their teams. YANA talked with Andy Allen, whose Norfolk Portwood Asparagus is highly valued by locals, top London chefs, high-flying airlines, luxury cruise ships and even royalty. What does he do to produce such perfection and look after his mental health to withstand the pressure?
My gran had an asparagus bed – around the size of my current office desk – in the family
farm garden. As a boy, she sent me out with a basket to pick it and I loved it. My obsession started then. Eventually I went all over the world to try to find out the best way to grow it. I went to potential buyers and asked them what they wanted and how they’d like it presented. The guys in the wholesale market told me they’d prefer 10 bundles, not 12, in a box – and a better box – and an easy grading system, for which I developed colour coded labels and rubber bands. I put all that together into our brand, Portwood Asparagus.
“Now in our 35th season, we’re processing around 250 tonnes in total from our fields into the packhouse where the team sort and pack up to 25,000 spears an hour, for eight hours a day, for ten weeks. I start work at 5.30am, talking to my wholesale market customers. Every clipboard around this office is a different buyer.
“The pressure is huge. It’s been too dry this year and with late frosts. Costs of inputs and labour have shot up, but we’re struggling to get better prices from our buyers. Getting labour is now my biggest problem. Local people just don’t want this seasonal work. I think the world of the 90 Bulgarians and Romanians who come and help each year. They are a huge support. But I don’t think I can carry on like this and am gradually reducing the acreage of asparagus we grow.
“I think farmers are some of the worst when it comes to seeking the right help when everything gets too much. Working 100 hours a week, being exhausted, and trying to do everything grinds you down. You cannot make good decisions when you are tired. I know this firsthand from when I lost my brother.
“Finding the right person to help with some of your workload, someone to talk to: that can be a lifeline. I’m lucky to have a supportive family. It’s brilliant that any of us have YANA to listen and to advise.
“If you have not already tried Portwood Asparagus, then do. It’s an incredible vegetable. I like mine oven roasted with a slab of butter. You can’t beat it!”
YANA will introduce you to more East Anglian farmers and growers, bringing you fresh flavours of the season and sharing what they do to look after their mental health. In the meantime, to discover more about what YANA does, why and how we work to improve rural mental health, visit our website to see our story and the help we extend to you and those you care about.
- Don’t forget to add asparagus season in your food calendar for 2023.
- Visit Portwood Asparagus online at www.portwoodasparagus.co.uk
To discover more about what we do, why and how – do visit our website where you’ll find more of our story and help we extend to you.
- Find out more about YANA at www.yana.org; twitter @yanafarming; Facebook: @yanahelp.org and on Instagram: @yanahelp1