WEST HAMLIN, W.Va. -- Driving down a winding country lane to Ware Farm, I had a picture in my mind of a lush, green field, with asparagus popping up in beautiful rows.
I took the final sharp turn and crossed the Mud River, and I started looking for the plots of greenery.
Ray Ferguson, chief asparagus grower, met me and pointed to an ugly, brown, barren-looking spot down the gravel road.
It didn't look like anything was growing in the field that Ray pointed to with such pride.
Ray and his son, Jared, showed me what I originally couldn't see -- slender, purplish green stalks popping up in rows. They were like little gems coming out of the dirt.
"We've been selling from this field for nine years," Ray said, walking between the rows of tender asparagus. It took a couple of years for the plants to be mature enough to produce enough to sell, but now they have 3 acres that will produce 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of produce this summer.
"We can pick for two months this summer," Ray said. He told me the lush plants I envisioned come later, after the crops have been picked, and the plants are left to grow "ferns."
Ware Farm, named for Ray's wife's family, wasn't always growing asparagus to sell.
"We used to raise a lot of tobacco, but I began to see the writing on the wall years ago," Ray said. "Grandma and Grandpa, about 20 years ago, had a one row of asparagus, and we all ate off of it. When that row died, I saw what [prices] they were selling for in the store, and I saw a niche where somebody could do something.
"We started off on a half-acre," Ray said, "and we have 3 acres now."
The plants produce crops for 25 to 30 years, Ray said. Next year, he's adding another acre; this one will be the "Purple Passion" variety.
Jared said the crop isn't affected by a lack of rain in West Virginia's hot summers.
"The roots go so deep, drought doesn't hurt it," Jared explained.
"Once it's mature," Ray added. The young plants have to be nurtured, and Ray and Jared have been careful to treat the "crowns" of the plants with a bit of TLC -- in the first season, stalks can only be picked for one week and then they are left to grow until fall. In the next season there are two weeks of picking, doubling each summer. The crown will continue to grow in the ground after the stalks are picked.
Ray hires young men from the area to pick the asparagus.
"That's what this is all about -- that's as important as the asparagus," Ray said. The wiry, strong farmer showed a soft side when he spoke fondly of the young men who he's "raised" along with the asparagus.
Jared, a junior forestry major at Glenville State College, has been working on the family farm for as long as he can remember. The soft-spoken young man shows an obvious admiration and affection for his father, and Ray glows with pride when he looks at his son and talks about his successes.
Jared said they can pick an asparagus field for an hour, and then go back and pick that same field again.