Asparagus: Beyond Millennium

Posted on Friday, May 18th, 2012

Asparagus is a plant with a pace all its own. On a hot day the stalks can grow six inches, yet it can take up to twelve years to develop a new variety at the University of Guelph’s Simcoe Research Station.

Why such a long wait? Dave Wolyn, a professor in OAC’s Department of Plant Agriculture, explains that asparagus takes about three years to establish itself before its yields can be harvested. Years four, five and six of the trial’s life are used to study and measure before the research starts again to compare the best of the preliminary trials at multiple locations, taking another six years.

All that waiting is worth it, though. The time and effort Wolyn and his team have put into developing better asparagus has already paid off with the Guelph Millennium variety. Guelph Millennium was named Seed of the Year in 2005, recognition for the sustained high yields and quality of the variety, and  now comprises more than three-quarters of the Ontario market. Better yet, this cool climate variety from the University Guelph has become popular with producers as far away as Michigan, Washington state, and the UK.

Guelph Millennium has also gained popularity for traits the team didn’t select.  While sandy soil is ideal for most asparagus, explains Wolyn, Guelph Millennium has thrived in heavier soils, allowing producers to expand into land that was previously unsuitable for asparagus and avoid replanting in exhausted soil.

“In Michigan they’ve had to replant in the same soil,” he says. “With Millennium, growers can move into virgin soil that wouldn’t have been considered ideal for asparagus before.”

Dave Wolyn poses in an asparagus field
Dave Wolyn in an asparagus field.

Wolyn and the other asparagus researchers at the Simcoe research station, including graduate students from as far away as Iran and Saskatchewan, have got their hands full during the perennial’s peak season. Planting, pollinating and harvesting are all done in spring, and, with the enthusiastic plant’s rapid growth rate, the tender stalks must be harvested daily for about six weeks. Ontario asparagus growers, who now produce more than the local market demands, will likely finish harvesting in mid-June this year.

The success of Millennium isn’t the end of the University of Guelph’s asparagus story, though. Wolyn, who has been breeding asparagus since 1988, is now focused on improving quality by developing varieties that maintain a tight spear tip, a long harvest lengths, and tender texture.

“We want to push quality limits as high as we can go.”

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