Spring’s Most Sensitive, and Bountiful, Vegetable

“People say gambling came to New Jersey with the casinos,” laughs Tom Sheppard of Sheppard Farms in Cumberland County, New Jersey. “But gambling came with the first farmers. Out there in the field, mother nature can do all kinds of things to you.”

Tom is speaking from experience, both personal and inherited. He’s been farming his entire life, and his family has been farming in New Jersey since 1688, when four Sheppard brothers started planting about 10 miles away.

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Tom’s also referring specifically to asparagus. Among the range of produce the family grows, asparagus presents unique challenges. It responds dramatically to small changes in air and soil temperature. It also requires patience; after planting, asparagus takes a full three years to mature before it’s ready to be harvested. And the stalks—which sprout straight up from the ground like saplings—have to be individually hand-cut.

The jackpot? A perennial plant that can be harvested annually for up to two decades.

From the middle of April until June, Tom employs a crew of 120 for the harvest. It’s tough work that, in good weather, must be repeated every day. This is another challenge, and payoff, of asparagus: when conditions are ideal, the stalks grow at an amazing rate. Sometimes, when it’s particularly hot, they could almost be cut twice a day. “We’re talking about something that was less than nine inches in the morning,” says Tom, “and then by noon it’s over twelve inches.”

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Despite his current enthusiasm, there was a time when Tom wasn’t sold on joining the family business. When Tom went to Cornell as an undergraduate, he had one thing in mind. “I wasn’t going to be no damn farmer,” he remembers. But the call of the family business—risks, rewards, and all—was too much to resist. Not long after Tom’s brothers Erwin and David Jr. took over the family farm, Tom signed on as well. His brothers’ story had been similar: they had attended Cornell too, then found themselves back in New Jersey, and happy to be there.

“I think we wanted to prove we could do it,” Tom says—prove that the complexities of farming that generations of Sheppards had wrestled with were something they could master too.

They put their degrees from Cornell to use (the brothers represent a suite of complementary skillsets), ushering the family business into a new era. While their father farmed 150 acres, today the brothers farm 1,500. Major crops include lettuces, cucumbers, peppers, and—Tom’s favorite—asparagus. “After a winter off, I’m anxious to get back to it,” he says.

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And the next generation, including Tom’s nephew Brandon Sheppard and his nephew-in-law Fran Hancock, is poised to join them. Tom’s especially excited for this winter, when his own son Alex, a mechanical engineer who’s finishing his MBA, is coming back home to join the team. Until that time, though, Tom’s happy to play the odds, eating asparagus the way he likes best: right in the field.

 “To walk down on the line and grab some asparagus and eat it raw,” he says, “…oh yeah.”

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