Hugh Harris: Asparagus Trail, Formby Point NT. SD280065

Asparagus Beetle (David Gould)

 

Formby, near Liverpool, was once internationally famous for the quality of its award-winning asparagus grown on the fine, sandy soil of the local dunes. During the six-week season (May – mid June), it was supplied regularly to large ocean liners on the area’s transatlantic crossings.

Formby Asparagus (also the name of the variety) is white at the base and green through the stem with a purple tinged tip. New asparagus crowns are grown from seed which is saved from the old plant. After the first year, the crowns are transplanted into a 20cm deep trench and a ridge 8cm high is piled up around them. The first cutting can be taken in the third year. While tractors are now used to manage the land, the crop is cut by hand.

Until the mid-19th century, this coastal area received considerable supplies of fertilizer in the form of ‘night-soil’ from Liverpool (a sewer system had not yet been completed). This enabled farmers to improve and bring into cultivation the previously uncultivated rear-dune area. This is important as once the asparagus crowns have reached the end of their productive life (10-15 years) the ground is exhausted. At the height of production some 200 acres were under cultivation.

Only a small proportion of land is used to produce Formby Asparagus by traditional methods and, due to the short season, supplies are limited. The Formby Civic Society and the National Trust (who own Formby Point), are involved in schemes to protect this traditional product as only a couple of producers exist.

Land use

  • START (Beach car park, Victoria Road): sandy dune section. Broadleaf woodland.
  • Open pine woodland and an enclosed pine plantation. Dune grassland. A very sandy section where the sand dunes meet the path.
  • Broadleaf woodland. A fenced agricultural field. Pine woodland. A recently planted asparagus field which is part of the National Trust's Sandfield Farm. This field is tenanted to the Brooks family, who own Larkhill Farm, with the aim of continuing the asparagus-growing tradition on this land. This demonstration project also gives a first-hand view of how the asparagus cultivation areas of Formby would have looked in years gone by and how asparagus cultivation changed this landscape.
  • Open field and enclosed field. Heather grows here with other plants typical of dune heath. The field adjacent to Larkhill fields is part of Larkhill Farm which is one of the few places where asparagus is still grown in Formby. The sandy soil and climate of this area are ideal for growing asparagus as it needs well-drained soils and open sunny fields. It is a high-maintenance crop that needs regular weeding and very careful harvesting, tasks which are still carried out by hand today as they would have been a century ago.
  • An enclosed pine plantation and small field where asparagus may be seen growing in the months of May and June.
  • A small area of woodland and open field, where more remnants of asparagus cultivation can be seen. Pine woodland. FINISH Beach car park, Victoria Road).

The economics of asparagus growing

Asparagus was a long -term investment as cropping could not take place until the third year after sowing. It was also a highly seasonal crop with a cutting period restricted from late April to mid-June. Productivity ranged from 0.5 to 1.0 tons per acre. After 10-15 years the land was left exhausted and had to be left fallow. Asparagus growing was a form of shifting cultivation, constantly requiring new fields. Abandoned fields are common on the Formby coastline, often recognizable by their ridge and furrow pattern and old boundary hedges. The decline in asparagus farming locally is attributable to the shortage of new land, labour-intensive nature of the industry and the loss of the small-freight facility on the railway. Also, new supermarkets demanded an all-green stem which encouraged cheaper importation from abroad, especially Spain. A further problem was the arrival of the destructive Asparagus Beetle (Crioceris asparagi).

Acknowledgements: The National Trust, Sefton Council and Philip Smith.

HH@MBAN/05/2018