Asparagus farming in Scotland overcomes cold climate
One of Scotland's most specialist farmers talks about his delicate crops
When Sandy and Heather Pattullo began replacing their potato and cereal fields with rows of asparagus, few locals even recognised the new crop. Now asparagus is one of Scotland’s most eagerly awaited vegetables, writes Hannah Ewan
In 1985, Sandy Pattullo’s New Zealand cousins told him asparagus was the easiest thing they grew. With such an endorsement, he began expanding his asparagus crop from a garden vegetable patch to several acres. In practice, Patullo found growing asparagus at his Eassie Farm near Glamis hard graft. He remains one of only a handful of Scottish farmers growing the vegetable in this chilly climate.
With ten acres, Eassie Farm is one of the country’s largest, and arguably most successful, operations. It wasn’t always so. Pattullo remembers the reaction from his industry contacts when he first started selling his asparagus: ‘I rang a wholesaler I knew back then and he said: “Asparagus? Neeps and tatties, that’s all I need!”’ So he was forced to turn to the fruit markets, and accept whatever price they offered for his valuable crop.
Things are very different now. As a wet and cold May proves an asparagus farmer’s nightmare, the farmhouse phone rings with chefs and wholefood shops desperate for as many bunches as he can send them, while Pattullo wills his neat rows of spears to defy the chill spring wind and emerge from the soil. Locals turn up speculatively, hoping to buy bundles from the Eassie farm shop where the Pattullos sell half their crop. ‘They’re crying out for it,’ says Heather, who fields most of the urgent phone calls. ‘We could take a lorry to Edinburgh and empty it.’
Pattullo’s second crop, sea kale, is one that still provokes blank faces even among enthusiastic food lovers, and requires equally careful conditions for success. Growing such delicate crops comes with a certain amount of risk. When a season is a matter of six weeks, time lost to bad weather can be crippling. ‘There’s always the risk of ending up with nothing,’ Pattullo admits. ‘Some years we’ve not got 50 per cent of what we budgeted for. Asparagus needs temperatures of 12 to 15 degrees, and it just stops growing when it’s wet.’
While Scotland’s wet weather can cause problems, he also credits the climate with the glowing praise lavished on his asparagus, including a testimonial from Michelin-starred chef Tom Kitchin that branded it ‘as good as anything you can get elsewhere in Europe, if not better.’ Pattullo responds to this with characteristic modesty: ‘We like to think we make a good go of it.’
‘It takes a bit longer to grow,’ he continues, ‘which might be part of the flavour – it gets more time in the sun. We do have to make allowances for the Scottish climate to some extent: we don’t get the same yield, for example, so I plant more acres than southern farmers would, in hope that we can supply the market.’
Asparagus is at its peak straight from the soil. ‘When sea kale and asparagus are in season we eat them every day,’ says Pattullo. ‘We never get sick of them.’
‘I think of asparagus all year, even when it’s not growing – you have to have the passion for it. Farmers I know who grow it might also grow potatoes and other crops, but asparagus is the one they love.’
‘Sea kale would have been in all the walled gardens of the 19th century,’ Sandy Pattullo explains, ‘but it fell out of use in the twentieth.’ When he started growing it in the 1980s, there was one other UK sea kale farmer. Nutty, sweet and succulent, the shoots are labour intensive and expensive to grow.
Supplying supermarkets ‘killed’ the other UK grower: ‘Every time he sent produce over, the supermarkets said he had to do it cheaper,’ says Pattullo, who turned down early offers to supply the big stores in favour of London’s Covent and Borough markets, and direct relationships with restaurants.
Overharvesting of wild sea kale in the 19th century led to a total ban on picking it, and without ‘thongs’ cut from the roots of existing plants it must be grown from seed, a process that takes years. If Eassie Farm ended production, it would be difficult for other commercial growers to begin from scratch.
Despite sea kale being a native British vegetable, to try it most people will need to make a very seasonal trip either to Eassie Farm, or to a handful of restaurants that make use of it. London’s River Café takes several boxes a week during the short season, generally January to March, and in Scotland you’ll find it on menus at The Kitchin in Edinburgh, Perthshire’s Monachyle Mhor and Little’s Restaurant in Blairgowrie.