Asparagus crop developed by U of G researchers decades ago continues to be a game changer for the industry

The growing season in southern Ontario can feature fluctuations in weather.

From heat and frost to floods and drought, crops can be impacted.

Growing asparagus in this part of the province is no easy task, as the crop can not only face climate-related challenges but also can be expected to live for years.

“The thing about asparagus is that we call it a perennial plant because it lives from year to year, so when a farmer plants an asparagus plantation he or she wants that plantation to grow for maybe up to two decades," said Dr. David Wolyn, a professor at the University of Guelph.

Creating a crop that can do just that takes years of research.

According to Dr. Wolyn, it can take 20 years or more to do all the testing on a new crop to make sure it works well in a grower's field.

The Guelph Millennium variety, developed by Wolyn and his team, makes up most of the asparagus acreage in Ontario today. The process to create that now popular variety began in the late 1980s, with the crop becoming available in the year 2000.

For many farmers, this variety was a game-changer in the asparagus industry.

“I still remember an image of Dr. Wolyn walking through our fields scouting for cultivators to take for his research and I believe that without his research and developing the new asparagus the economics would not be the same,” said Tim Barrie, owner of Barrie's Asparagus Farm near Cambridge. “I don’t know if we’d still be here growing asparagus. So we are so grateful to all the parties involved.”

Barrie’s Asparagus Farm is a family affair. Tim’s wife, children and grandchildren, along with friends and employees jump into harvest mode each year to grow fresh produce and local wholesale items.

Barrie says they are appreciative that the asparagus board, Ontario's agriculture ministry and the University of Guelph have all continued to maintain a strong focus on research and development, allowing the best asparagus possible to be available for consumers.

Barrie’s family farm began with his grandfather who had 100 acres of asparagus in Alliston.

“He would absolutely love the Millennium and see the yields coming off. He never saw that in his lifetime," Barrie said. “I think his 100 acres would produce a similar amount as what our close to 25 acres would do, it would be close because the yields are so much higher.”

The Millennium features good yield, longevity and quality, according to farmers. “We were so pleasantly surprised by the yield, the quality everything about it," Barrie said.

Wolyn was recognized for his contributions to the development of asparagus with the Innovation of the Year Award from the University of Guelph.

“Being a plant breeder can be quite rewarding and especially with something like asparagus,” Dr. Wolyn said. “I go into my local grocery store in May and June and I can see our Guelph Millennium there.”

Newer varieties developed at the university include the Guelph Eclipse and Equinox. Additional varieties are being explored that may have the potential to exceed the types of asparagus grown today.