Julie Vanderpool has always considered herself sort of a picker/gatherer — somebody who enjoys taking in nature while searching for raspberries or harvesting the little gifts a meadow or the woods has to offer.
So when her husband of 18 years, John, first suggested they head out on an adventure to hunt for those elusive, but highly coveted, morel mushrooms years ago, Julie jumped at the chance.
“I usually can’t find the first one, but I’ll find most of them after that,” Vanderpool quipped. “My sister-in-law and I, we’ve always been kind of pickers, too. We’ll hunt down any raspberry bush, any elderberry bush. We love to gather.”
Over the years, as the couple began raising their three children — Ryder, Gunner and Taylor, now 15, 13 and almost 11 years old, they’d often head to a nearby wooded area, park or public access area for a new experience.
“Every spring we’ll say, 'Let’s go,'” Julie said. “Our kids will be searching, and we’ll look behind and they’ve got the mud on their cheeks and they’ve found a walking stick. They love it, too.”
So it wasn’t any surprise to the two of them when a 13-acre piece of property became available, complete with a viable asparagus crop, that Julie would fall in love with the idea.
Looking for a plot of land last year where they could build a new home in the future, they happened across the perfect spot north of Mitchellville and east of Bondurant.
And it just so happened to have eight acres planted with asparagus — a working farm for the past 14 years.
“This just fell into our laps and worked out perfectly,” Julie said. “We had the opportunity to buy this asparagus farm, so we thought, well, why not?”
New challengeFor Julie, it’s a dream come true. She didn’t grow up on a farm, and she and her husband co-own a busy construction company, Narrow Gate Construction. Their days are full, especially in the spring, and that’s when asparagus grows in Iowa.
Yet as their children have grown, Julie began searching for an additional challenge to sandwich in between kids’ activities and work.
“I was thinking, gosh, what could I do. So now, I’m so excited to do this and take ownership in the farmer name,” she said.
Last year, she worked with the previous owners through their asparagus harvest, jumping in headfirst and contributing to the process.
She remembers initially walking the fields, where she came across a bull snake — not something she’s particularly fond of — but even so, admiring the lush grasses and emerging asparagus plants that grow quickly and need to be harvested daily.
She told herself this could be a place to call home.
“They showed me the ropes, how to bundle and what they do to harvest, process and get (the asparagus) into stores,” Julie said. “So this will be our first actual year.
“I love owning my own business, being outside, on my own terms, and what a time to do something in the spring when things are flourishing and beautiful after you’ve been cooped up all winter long.”
Harvest has begunThe cool, wet and windy weather this spring delayed what usually is an early and fast growing season for asparagus.
Julie and John were out mowing the area around St. Patrick’s Day, which is tradition, and even held a controlled burn trial on a small portion of the land to see its effects.
By April 5, the asparagus plants usually emerge, but it took until April 27 this year for the first shoots. The inaugural harvest didn’t get underway until Mother’s Day May 8 — quite a few weeks behind schedule.
“The weather (was) so cold and windy,” Julie said. “We needed some sunny days to get it to pop up.”
Asparagus harvest routinely runs through mid-late June in Iowa, when it’s shut down to allow the plants to sit for the remainder of the summer. “(Experts say) they want the plant to be full grown for three months before frost,” she said.
Julie sells to Fareway Stores in Ankeny, Grimes, Johnston, Urbandale and Altoona and to the Hy-Vee Food Stores in West Des Moines and Ankeny. They’ll use Prudent Produce for farm-to-front door service as well.
“Any local grocery store loves to have a local farmer,” she said.
Despite a late start, the season looks promising. Julie expects about 10,000 pounds of asparagus will be harvested over eight weeks, or roughly 180 pounds per day.
Future plans call for possibly attending local farmers markets with other gems from her farm. While asparagus is the only field crop, they have a number of fruit trees — pear, peach, apple, plum and one cherry tree.
“It’s really a cute farm,” she said. “I’m just so blessed to have it. Every time I go out there to mow, I just say to myself I love this … I can’t believe I have this.
“It’s fun to be out there, one with nature, and feeling like you’re processing something.”
You know when you fill out that paper in elementary school and it asks what you’d like to do when you grow up? “I never would’ve put asparagus farmer,” Julie said.
"But here I am taking a chance, enjoying myself, feeding Iowa.”