Farmer bets on crop’s resilience

By Gabrielle Hovendon
NNY Business

Paul T. Haldeman kneels next to hillside beds on Zoar Asparagus Farm in Rodman. Photo by Amanda Morrison.

Ask Paul T. Haldeman why his 50-acre farm is lined with rows of asparagus and the answer is simple.

“The fact is that this is the Tug Hill, and it’s a harsh area,” said Mr. Haldeman, owner of Zoar Asparagus Farm in Rodman. “We’ve tried lots of vegetables and other things, and it wasn’t profitable any other way. After about seven years of experimenting we came up with the conclusion that the only thing that would work was asparagus.”

A retired Army officer, Mr. Haldeman purchased his farm in 1996 and named it after the 19th-century village of Zoar, which once stood on the same spot in Rodman. Since then, he has experimented with a number of different crops, including cherries, blueberries, carrots, potatoes, and even a cone-shaped Siberian berry. He settled on asparagus largely because it can outgrow the damage — up to 100 pounds of produce a day — inflicted by hungry deer and rabbits.

So far, the commitment has had a slow pay-off: Asparagus requires five years to mature between planting and harvesting, and the farm only had five acres of harvestable beds last year. That didn’t stop Mr. Haldeman from selling nearly all of his produce last summer, though, and between this summer and the next he’ll have an additional 20 acres in rotation — an increase from thousands to tens of thousands of pounds of asparagus.

While that amount represents only a fraction of the asparagus imported from countries such as Mexico and Peru, Mr. Haldeman said that the vegetable has a much sweeter taste when taken fresh from the farm.

“The only way you can survive right now in asparagus is to find local, small, fresh markets,” he said. “We’re not competing on volume, we’re competing on quality and freshness.”

To achieve that quality, Mr. Haldeman has embraced permaculture, an agricultural approach modeled after natural, sustainable ecosystems. His asparagus is organically grown, nurtured with natural manure and free of chemical herbicides and fertilizers. Nearby, 20 acres of maple trees provide calcium-rich ash for mulching the asparagus beds, while 400 black walnut trees attract birds to prey on asparagus beetles and provide oil that can be converted to biofuel.

Because most asparagus beds only thrive for two decades before needing to be replanted, Mr. Haldeman has placed his rows 12 feet apart, a tactic that he hopes will provide more space for the plants’ large root structures and lead to longer lives.

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