Asparagus is a picky plant: It requires specific soil, it takes years to establish a crop, fields are susceptible to disease and harvesting is labor-intensive. For those brave enough to grow it, asparagus has historically supplied farmers with an early-season cash crop, but imports from South America, Mexico and California have made the arrival of local asparagus less of a rite of spring and instead a seeming example of how local products cost more.
The result of the extended season, cheap imports and the plant’s finicky nature means less local asparagus. According to the USDA, Oregon’s farmers plant 75 percent fewer acres than they did 20 years ago. All these forces work in concert to change the way asparagus tastes or at least how you perceive the vegetable should taste.
Fresh asparagus is a sweet vegetable, about 4 percent natural sugar. Once picked, stalks convert that sugar to starch, and the longer asparagus waits in transport or sits on a shelf, the more fibrous, less sweet and more acrid it becomes. Thus, the two-week-old asparagus you buy at a store and keep in the fridge for a week becomes the baseline for how you think the plant tastes: slightly bitter and chewy. Once in a while, through planning or good fortune, you find the real deal — fresh, crisp and sweet, reminding you how asparagus ought to taste. The asparagus available at most farmers markets is delivered soon after harvest — often within a day, so the flavor will never be better unless you head out to the field with shears and a pot of simmering water.