GREEN SHOOTS Tommy Conroy cutting some asparagus on his farm in Louisburgh.
It is amazing to see such an exotic farm as this, on the outskirts of Louisburgh, a small seaside town in the west of Ireland. Surprisingly, the owner is not a doctor, a philosopher or a magician – which you would certainly expect to be the case 2,000 years ago, when the farm’s speciality vegetables were used in the Middle East as a diuretic and as an aphrodisiac and as an offering to the gods.
No, the owner is a local person, known in some circles as Tommy the Builder. Tommy Conroy was a builder for 20 years but an accident, causing a spinal injury, lead to a quest for a new career.
At this point he read of asparagus growing in former years in the garden of Old Head Hotel, Louisburgh, and decided to do some research. It intrigued him, and he thought he would like to experiment with a career in that direction.
He asked advice of agricultural experts, all of whom advised extreme caution or even told him to not consider it at all. This of course made him more determined than ever to do so.
He ordered 3,000 plants from Holland, and they soon arrived, with instructions. It was difficult to do the planting, what with his spinal injury, and so Tommy’s friends, family and neighbours volunteered.
It takes four years for the plants to mature and reach full production. They then last from 15 to 20 years. Tommy has used all-male plants, so that the energy of the plant is not diverted into reproduction, and instead produces robust stems.
Asparagus do not like too much water and need good drainage. They need a pH-neutral soil and plenty of nutrients, Tommy says, as they are hungry plants.
He has developed his own system of fertilising them, using seaweed, used coffee grains from local restaurants and cafés, and his own compost in what he calls a circular system, so he does not have to buy in any fertiliser. The enhanced flavour, he says, is exceptional, and far superior to the product available in the shops, which is mostly imported from South America and Spain, taking at least a week to arrive in the supermarket.
Tommy will pick his fresh every day and is busy now lining up customers from local restaurants and hotels for next year, his first year of mature production.
In Syria, asparagus may have been used for therapeutic purposes, but in their Irish incarnation they are used exclusively as a gourmet delicacy. We are lucky to have such a delicacy to hand!
Author, poet, entrepreneur and regular Mayo News contributor Sonia Kelly, who is now in her late 90s, founded Cloona Health Centre in Westport in l973.