The Asparagus Capital

asparagusMany acres of farmland surround the town of Aiken, South Carolina.

Even within the city limits, several plots consisting of only an acre or two are rotated throughout the year with corn, soybean and cotton crops. But few people realize that less than a century ago, Aiken was known as one of the “Asparagus Capitals” of the United States.

From the mid-18th through the mid-20th centuries, cotton was the South’s predominant crop, and Aiken was no exception. Just before the Civil War,  cotton comprised nearly 60 percent of all American exports. The phrase "King Cotton," made famous by then-Senator (and future Governor) James Henry  Hammond, implied that European industry depended heavily on southern cotton. Hammond owned Redcliff Plantation in Beech Island, Aiken County.

Enslaved people provided the majority of labor for cotton cultivation. Hammond, along with scores of other plantation owners, hoped that buyers of southern cotton would fight against the blockade enacted by Abraham Lincoln’s federal forces. Southerners were certain that their cotton exports were so crucial that Europeans would surely back the South in the event of a civil war.

Looking for New Crops

But by 1865, the outcome of the Civil War had planters looking at their commercial ventures in a new way. Farmers broke their dependence on cotton, desperately trying to locate another “King” crop. A variety of crops could thrive in the warm, sandy soil of Aiken. The first reference to asparagus being grown as a commercial crop in South Carolina can be found in a 1903 pamphlet called Asparagus, its Culture for Home and for Market. According to the pamphlet, the crop was first grown commercially in Charleston, where farmers produced a specific variety called “Palmetto.” It was cultivated especially to flourish in the southern climate, and soon this specialized variety spread into Aiken, Williston and Bamburg Counties. By 1918, the Clemson University Department of Agricultural Economics reported that the state had about 1,100 acres of asparagus under cultivation. By 1937, this number increased to 8,700 acres.

The asparagus, which belongs to the lily family of plants, has edible stalks that develop from a “crown” set about one foot deep in the soil. Once a crown is planted, it takes about three years for it to grow a strong enough root system for the first asparagus harvest. Then, depending on the weather conditions, a stalk can grow a full ten inches in one 24-hour period.

Asparagus stalks are harvested for six to seven weeks in late spring. After the harvesting season, some spears are left to grow into ferns. The ferns produce bright red berries during the summer that provide nutrients necessary for a healthy and productive crop the next season.

Area residents enjoyed their share of fresh asparagus, but most of it was sent to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. From the 1920s through the mid-1950s, asparagus was gathered daily and shipped by train to its northern destinations. Shippers often wrapped the delicate spears in Spanish moss gathered from the live oak trees that abound in the city. Asparagus was even processed in a cannery in Allendale, about 50 miles from Aiken.

Flourished for Three Decades

The crop flourished commercially for almost 30 years, until production slowed in 1953. World War II may have lessened the workforce available to farm the crop, or perhaps the marketing success from the California competitors was more effective than South Carolina’s. It is also possible that the varieties grown in Aiken and surrounding areas were more susceptible to diseases that weakened the crops.

Although several farms near Aiken still grow asparagus, the reign of  “King Asparagus” is over.

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By 1918, the Clemson University Department of Agricultural Economics reported that the state had about 1,100 acres of asparagus under cultivation. By 1937, this number increased to 8,700 acres.

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