Software keeps asparagus farmers picking longer

Asparagus farmers who have traditionally laid down their tools on 24 June ̵1; St John̵7;s Day, the date after which it is said the vegetable shouldn̵7;t be cut ̵1; may soon be able to extend their harvest with the help of computer scientists.

Researchers at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands are working on a programme that will use data on sugar content to identify the optimum time to stop.

Getting the timing right is vital to the success of subsequent crops. Because asparagus spears are basically stems that remain under the soil without any leaves above, growth uses an enormous amount of energy that has to be stored in the roots from harvest to harvest.

Plants that retain sufficient sugars in their roots survive better and are more productive in the next season, whereas those that are cut too long suffer from depleted sugar levels and are of poorer quality.

Growers can already start bringing the start of the harvest forward by using heating units to warm the soil. However, simply knowing the sugar level isn̵7;t an accurate indicator of how long it̵7;s safe to continue. Although it̵7;s a key factor, the rate at which it changes is more important.

The Wageningen team are collaborating with the Geisenheim Research Station in Germany to develop a computer programme that will make the task more straightforward.

Known as Aspire, it will be tested on ten Dutch asparagus farms during the 2008 season. If successful, the researchers say they hope it will be adopted more widely in 2009.

Image: Harvesting asparagus too late can harm next year̵7;s crop

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