The birds are singing, the sun’s out more than once a week and a telltale stank is rising from toilets all over Germany – that’s right, motherfuckers, it’s Spargelzeit! But before you break out the Hollandaise, you may want to consider a few harsh truths about everyone’s favourite phallic stalks.
I know, what a buzzkill, just tell us where the best Spargelhöfe are and how to cook the stuff so it doesn’t get stringy, etc. Honestly, our food system is so catastrophically broken that every single one of my restaurant reviews could come with a disclaimer about why you shouldn’t be eating this or ordering that. Mostly they don’t, because I’m assuming you’re grown-up enough to make your own dietary choices and a website you turn to for news about Berghain and bestiality isn’t going to sway you one way or another. But when a dish so nakedly exemplifies the economic inequality and environmental exploitation that keeps most of the industrialised world fed, it’s hard to shut up about it.
Last year, as asparagus farms begged for exceptions to Covid-19 emergency measures in order to procure their usual supply of seasonal workers, was the first time many of us realised that a vegetable we’d previously thought of as more German than Angela Merkel in lederhosen listening to David Hasselhoff is harvested almost exclusively by Eastern Europeans. Tens of thousands of them arrive each spring from Poland and Romania, packed into charter buses and housed in cramped cabins. They spend up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week crouched down in the fields, excavating the delicate stalks from the soil in which they’re buried. The lucky ones receive minimum wage (€9.50/hour) for their efforts, minus transport and accommodation costs; on other farms, the pay is dependent on the volume of the harvest.
Despite a glut of articles calling attention to the plight of these workers, despite the laughable incompetence of the laid-off German web designers who were briefly called in to replace them (for a higher wage, übrigens), and despite multiple coronavirus outbreaks at asparagus farms last year, the industry still isn’t treating its Erntehelfer any better. In fact, farmers are lobbying to extend the maximum amount of time they’re allowed to employ seasonal field workers without offering health insurance (from 70 to 115 days, the still-very-present threat of Covid-19 notwithstanding) and, as more Poles and Romanians balk at the gig’s pay and conditions, taking advantage of a government pilot program to replace them with Georgians. All this to satisfy Germans’ demand for a cheap vehicle for sauce and Schinken.
“I thought you were writing about our Spargel. Why do you want to know about our workers?” I pointed out that you couldn’t have one without the other. She hung up on me.
And then there’s the environmental bit. Nearly all German asparagus farms, even bio ones, cover their fields in plastic sheeting to the tune of 7km per hectare, generating tonnes of often-unrecyclable waste each year. They do this for two completely unnecessary reasons. One is to warm up the ground so that Spargelzeit can commence earlier in the year (some farms even go as far as to artificially heat their fields before the proper season starts, thereby producing local asparagus with a greater carbon footprint than the stuff flown in from Spain). The other is to keep out the sun, because, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, German asparagus buyers turn up their noses at a product that is anything less than 100 percent lily-white.
Is there anything you can do about all this as a Spargel-loving Berliner? A few growers around Brandenburg specialise in environmentally friendly asparagus, but people-friendly is another matter. I called up Kirstin Schulze of Hof Havelsee in Briest, a tiny, Demeter-certified organic farm that provides asparagus to restaurants like the Michelin-starred Einsunternull. She was thrilled to boast about her heirloom crop and how it’s cultivated without the use of plastic, but when I asked about how the farm’s seasonal workers were compensated and insured, her tone turned chilly. “I thought you were writing about our Spargel. Why do you want to know about our workers?” I pointed out that you couldn’t have one without the other. She hung up on me.
So yeah, guys, I don’t have any answers for you, besides the obvious: don’t buy asparagus when it isn’t in season, let go of any creepy obsession you may have with whiteness and remember that cheap Spargel comes at a human price. And maybe ask a few more questions the next time you’re at a farm stand. Individual consumer choices usually matter less than we’d like to think, but if enough of us start giving a damn, I have to believe the industry will listen. It worked for vegans and plastic straw opponents, right?
In the meantime, there’s always Erdbeerzeit… eh, never mind.