The coastal town of Empire, Michigan is sprouting some of the finest asparagus spears in the land. We chat with a local farmer and share recipes, of course!
This Traverse Classic was featured in the May 2005 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe today!
It rained last night, which explains the steady stream of cars motoring around the circular dirt driveway at Harry and Barbara Norconk’s farm. After a downpour, asparagus in the Norconk field sprouts as fast as Harry and his crew can pick it. Car after car stops at this roadside attraction: a table nestled into the fluorescent green foliage, spilling over with spears just plucked from the field. The sign says self serve, $1.25 a pound. Shoppers make their selections, weigh the green bundles, and drive off to steam them for supper.
Asparagus has arrived in Northern Michigan and people are hungry for it. The green shoots make their first appearance just after the last of the cold snaps, when the fields are doused with early spring’s mix of drizzle and sunlight. “It’s the first green thing after a long winter,” says Harry Norconk’s 89-year-old mother, Julia Norconk. “Once it’s here, it becomes a feeding frenzy.”
Harry Norconk, a third generation farmer, started growing asparagus in 1978. Back then his entire harvest went to a processor to be frozen or canned, but in recent years he’s found a niche market selling it fresh. While most Michigan farmers still sell only about 15 percent of their harvest as fresh, 50 percent of Norconk’s crop is peddled the day it comes out of the ground at his two roadside stands and to local restaurants.
At the farmhouse, Norconk is bustling to get a pickup bed full of asparagus ready for the 40-minute drive to Traverse City, where chefs are waiting. Norconk quickly covers his load with crisp white sheets then wets them with hose water so the stems will stay cool on their trip to town. He hands his sister, Marilyn Herman, a yellow legal pad with her roster of drop-offs: North Peak Brewing Co., Firefly, Freshwater Lodge, The Boathouse, Amical. All told, Norconk says, the asparagus will be three hours from field to plate.
Norconk’s field is on the edge of the Lake Michigan dunes, on the northern border of Benzie County. The dry scrubland studded with little green soldiers doesn’t seem like the kind of place where such a verdant thing can grow, but in fact, asparagus prefers sandy loam, just a step or two above pure sand in terms of nutrients.
The Lopez family—Sara, Maribel, Alvaro and Manuel—have been pickers on Norconk’s farm for 7 years. They move across the rows in a picking machine, hand-snapping and hand-sorting the spears right in the field. Michigan asparagus is snapped at its natural breaking point, rather than cut like its California counterpart, so the entire stalk is edible—no tough woody end to peel. The Lopezes will pick the asparagus spears as fast as they grow. Early in the season, there may be two to three days between pickings, but as the days and nights get warmer, Norconk’s fields have to be picked every 24 hours. In 90-degree weather, with good moisture, you can watch the asparagus grow, Norconk says, like time-lapse photography—about an inch an hour.
When it’s fresh from the ground, asparagus is the kind of food to revel in with minimal preparation—doused with olive oil and sea salt and grilled, or steamed and buttered and splashed with lemon. Of course, you aren’t properly introduced to the local cuisine until you eat it the way the farmers do, and Julia Norconk is glad to give out her favorite recipe: creamed fresh asparagus on crusty toast with sliced hardboiled eggs.
Norconk’s wife, Barbara, extends the season by pickling the spears. “There’s nothing like a summer night with crackers and cheese and pickled asparagus,” Harry says. He also claims his produce is delicious raw. To prove it, he bends down and snaps off a fat green stalk and offers it with hardy farmer hands. He’s right, it’s grassy and crisp, lush with last night’s rain, tasting of a new shoot, of spring on the rise.
Norconk Farm asparagus is available at self-serve farm stands and at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market. Farm stands open 8–8 daily from approximately May 10–June 20. Two stands: 10004 Aral Road. Drive three miles south of Empire on M-22, turn left on Aral Road, half mile to the farm site. Cherry Capital Equipment, 4200 M-72 West, near County Road 651. The Sara Hardy market is located in downtown Traverse City and is open, in-season, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.