What foods come to mind when you think of the Delta? Pears? Crawfish? Catfish? Salmon? Fine Delta wine? How about succulent, flavorful asparagus? That’s the Delta flavor highlight of my childhood.
Asparagus was a signature crop of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1970s. Delta asparagus was known for its great quality and flavor.
The first commercial crop of asparagus was grown on Bouldin Island (now bisected by Highway 12 between Rio Vista and Lodi) in 1892 by Chinese farmers working in local partnerships. A small asparagus cannery was soon established on that Island, just west of Little Potato Slough. In 1900, canned asparagus was first shipped east from the Hickmott Cannery. By 1910 about 1,500 Chinese workers lived in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, half in a “Chinatown” near the cannery at what became known as Terminous (10 miles west of Lodi). Asparagus acreage increased by three and a half times from 1918 to 1930.
The asparagus harvest required large amounts of hand labor which was initially provided by Chinese immigrant workers, followed by Japanese, then by Filipinos after the Spanish-American War in 1898 created a preferred immigration status for Filipinos. Most Filipinos entered the U.S. at San Francisco, and perhaps three-fourths quickly headed to Stockton’s “Little Manila” seeking work in the asparagus fields. In 1930, there were more than 350 asparagus camps in the Delta with about 7,000 harvest workers—5,500 of whom were Filipinos. Later, asparagus growers turned to Mexican workers.
Each asparagus spear was individually hand cut, using a long asparagus knife expertly plunged into the soil to sever the spear below the surface. It was important to cut the spear low enough underground so that some of the fibrous lower end of the spear was included, as it helped preserve moisture during transit. But cutting too deep could damage the main “crown” from which the spears grew each year. The same field was walked every few days during the spring harvest season as new spears continually emerged.
“They moved across the light, loose soil, teams of men, bent low, moving steadily as a tide. The men probed the soil with long steel knives, found the tender shoots, sliced them cleanly. The workers were covered, protected, head to foot. Straw hats worn low across the face. Bandanas across the mouth, tied behind the head. Shirts closed to the highest button. Pants stuffed into boots, or even taped to them. Often the peat soil would swirl around the men and the fine dust would invade their hair, noses, even their throats. Still the men moved forward, gathering the green stalks.” (Richard Hammer, “From the Philippines to the Delta,” The Stockton Record)
Before the use of tractors in the 1910s and 1920s, cut asparagus spears were picked up in the fields with a horse-drawn asparagus cart carrying asparagus “sleds.” The sleds full of asparagus spears were transported to a shed and were rolled inside, where the spears were washed, trimmed, graded, and boxed in distinctive “pyramid” wooden crates.
After the shift to tractors, a modified small tractor was set in the deep furrows of the asparagus field—which kept it running straight—the throttle was set, and the operator, sometimes called the ”sled boy,” trotted behind the unmanned tractor picking up the cut spears and putting them in the sleds on each side of the tractor.
In 1919 Thomas Foon Chew moved Bayside Cannery—at its peak the third largest canning company in the U.S.—from the San Jose area to the Delta town of Isleton, on the Sacramento River. Chew devised and built innovative asparagus handling and canning equipment which became the prototypes for modern canneries. He was called the “Asparagus King.”
In 1927 the Western Pacific Railroad built a rail line from Kingdon, near Lodi, about 10 miles west to Terminous to serve the surrounding 55,000 acres of Delta farmland. The other large asparagus stations of this era were on the Santa Fe Railroad tracks at Holt (on Roberts Island, 5 miles west of Stockton) and Middle River (5 miles further west near the Contra Costa County line). With the development of railroad “ice cars” (such as the Pacific Fruit Express car exhibited at the San Joaquin County Museum) the emphasis shifted away from canned asparagus to fresh asparagus and acreage again increased significantly.
By the mid-1980s the local asparagus crop had declined due to competition from growers in low-wage countries, such as Peru and Mexico. Californians in the know argue that imported asparagus doesn’t come close to the flavorful fresh Delta asparagus that is increasing hard to find in the Bay-Delta region….
You can see historic asparagus equipment and learn more in the 9,000 square foot “Innovations In Agriculture” exhibition at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum in Micke Grove Regional Park (between Lodi and Stockton). The exhibition tells stories of the intensive agriculture era by focusing on six crops with which the county is identified: truck farming, dry beans, walnuts, cherries, canning tomatoes, and asparagus.
See related story, “Cuttin’ the ‘Gras, Then and Now” by Rich Turner.
David Stuart recently retired as the executive director of the San Joaquin County Historical Society. Previously, he directed the Sacramento History Museum, the Sacramento Science Center, and museums in Ventura. His family settled in the Delta in 1860.