When a new asparagus variety was introduced in Ontario almost 20 years ago, no one, including its breeder, had any idea of the transformative impact it would have on an entire sector.
Launched in 2000, Guelph Millennium marked not only the start of a new millennium — but also a new era for Ontario’s asparagus growers.
Now, a career’s worth of asparagus breeding work by Professor David Wolyn has been named Innovation of the Year by the University of Guelph.
Why it matters: Guelph Millennium now accounts for 95 per cent of Ontario’s asparagus crop, grown on 3,800 acres by just under 100 growers. It’s also the predominant variety in Michigan and is increasingly grown in Washington state.
“Guelph Millennium is the reason for a viable asparagus sector in Ontario,” says Bernie Solymar, executive director of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario (AFO). “Dave has won a number of awards for Millennium, which speaks to the importance of that variety to the Ontario industry and also to the Michigan and Washington industries.”
So what has made Guelph Millennium such a game changer? According to Solymar and Wolyn, it comes down to three characteristics: yield, hardiness and longevity.
The variety has shown double the yields of those previously grown in the province, and because it was bred in Ontario for cool-climate growing conditions, it also has a winter hardiness that previous varieties did not.
It’s this hardiness that also contributes to its longevity. Before Millennium, an asparagus planting might have lasted 12 to 14 years. Today, there are two-decade-old Millennium fields that are still yielding well.
“We are one of the coldest climate areas for winter survivability and our data shows it (Millennium) has higher adaptability and freezing tolerance,” explains Wolyn, adding he had no idea of the impact the variety would ultimately have. “I didn’t (imagine the impact); we were just focused on providing Ontario farmers with something good.”
Following in Millennium’s footsteps are two other promising varieties, Guelph Eclipse and Guelph Equinox. Commercial trials of Eclipse, for example, have consistently shown it to yield higher than all other competing green asparagus varieties, including 20 per cent higher than Millennium in research trials.
And breeding work is still ongoing, with a greater focus on disease resistance now that yields and longevity have increased, including a project funded under the current national AgriScience cluster for horticulture.
“What we’re doing now in the cluster is what will be after Eclipse and Equinox,” Wolyn says, adding that asparagus breeding is a lengthy process since the plant takes about four years to establish before it produces a significant crop.
Early trials for Eclipse, for example, started in 2002. Seed is now available to growers through Fox Seeds and Equinox will be available as of next year.
Fox Seeds was created in 2012 as a trust by Asparagus Farmers of Ontario to sell seed from varieties developed at the University of Guelph. It will be assuming responsibility for the breeding program once Wolyn retires, says Solymar.
Unlike other crops, taste doesn’t factor into the asparagus breeding equation as consumers don’t differentiate asparagus by variety the way they do apples, for example. According to Solymar, consumption is on the rise — and the crop has benefitted from its first-to-market harvest position in the spring and rising interest in local food.
“We are seeing an increase in consumption and interest — it’s the first vegetable of the season so people look forward to it, and the local factor is definitely significant,” he says.
The organization has stepped up promotions, developing recipes and using in-store taste-testing to focus on the crop’s nutritional benefits and versatility as a main dish and not just side.
And Ontario’s changing demographics offer future opportunities for consumption growth; Solymar says AFO has applied for funding to help promote asparagus to new Canadians from Asia, South Asia and the Middle East and adapt dishes from their cuisines to include asparagus.
“Overall, to the Ontario industry, (the award) speaks to the importance Dave’s breeding has had and he has so many varieties coming down the pipeline, it’s really exciting to see what’s coming in the future,” he says.