HEREFORDSHIRE is fast becoming one of the key areas for growing asparagus in the UK with one of the largest producers based in the county.

John Chinn grows a massive 850 acres at Cobrey Farms in Coughton, near Ross-on-Wye, and uses up to 700 people, mostly east Europeans, to gather it in.

The British asparagus season started this week and lasts for six to eight weeks.

Last year Mr Chinn’s acres brought in 850 tonnes of asparagus – this year he predicts he’ll get more than 1,000.

He started the venture in 2003 with 100 acres and has built up the acreage to become one of the major growers of asparagus in the country.

The sandy or light soil around Ross is ideal and he puts in about 10,000 crowns to the acre, hoping they will crop for 12 years.

The cold winter has been good for asparagus, producing a better flavour in the spears, but Mr Chinn said the cold and windy weather in recent weeks had packed the top soil hard just when the crop was pushing through, causing some to lose their shape.

Extra care has to be taken in sorting in the pack house to get the quality and different grades right for the supermarket shelves. Staff pack, wrap and label two packs of spears every two seconds – more than 100,000 packs a day. The team starts at first light and from picking to delivery to major supermarkets takes just 24 hours.

Cutting asparagus continues daily through the season and Mr Chinn said they could not manage to grow so much if they could not rely on east European students to come to Herefordshire to cut it. They were nearly all at university and were here to earn money to pay for their education.

Cutting the crop has to stop at midsummer to allow the asparagus to grow tall fern, essential to next year’s crop. As the fern dies back it feeds nutrients back into the plant and then is cut back and cultivated into the ground to add more fertility.

The Asparagus Growers’ Association say the total value of the retail market in the UK is £18.2 million, up 15 per cent last year and consumers ate nearly 7,500 tonnes of the spears. The size of the British crop has increased by 84 per cent in five years.