Lyle Wells has 35 acres planted with asparagus, which he...

Lyle Wells has 35 acres planted with asparagus, which he harvests every few days in cool weather. His family spread in Aquebogue dates back 350 years. (April 20, 2011) Credit: Randee Daddona

Lyle Wells leaned down recently in his field of asparagus and looked at some new shoots, a few inches high and as thick as his finger, poking their way through the dirt and into the air.

It was a sure sign spring, finally, had come to the East End.

Wells, 55, who farms 150 acres in Aquebogue and supplies asparagus to many of the East End's farm stands and several Long Island supermarkets, has become, for many, the touchstone of spring on the North Fork.

His thick green shoots coming up mean that most of the area's farm stands will soon be opening and tourists will soon be flooding out on weekends to crowd the roads and inject money into the local economy.

"Our first crop is asparagus . . . Lyle Wells grows it, and I can't wait for it. It's better than I grow it myself," said Joseph M. Gergela III, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

Spring on the East End is more of an attitude than a calendar date, arriving with the first local crops. Some farm stands have already opened, although most are selling just flowers, baked goods and preserves. And Lyle Wells' asparagus.

At the Bayview Farm & Market stand in Aquebogue, Charlotte Liebert has been working since St. Patrick's Day, a week earlier than her stand opened last year. "It's because the spinach was ready," she said, adding it was really the last crop of 2010, not her first of 2011. "It's planted in the fall, and it winters over."

Her farm stand has a symphony of colors in the hundreds of flats of pansies grown in the farm's greenhouse and sold for weeks in early spring. They also sell fresh Long Island duckling from the nearby Crescent Duck Farm. As the weather warms, the rhubarb will be coming up. "It's been so cold," Liebert said of recent weeks. "By Memorial Day, we'll have strawberries, and the peas will come in in June."

Along with crops come the customers. Jim and Carol Snyder of Lindenhurst have come out to the farm stand for 22 years. "These are very healthy," she said, inspecting a flat of pansies. When the fresh vegetables come in, she adds, the couple come out every week.

Perhaps because of the nature of asparagus -- beds need three years to grow before the first crop can be harvested -- Wells tends to think in terms of years, rather than weeks, when he talks about his work.

He pioneered commercial asparagus planting on Long Island in 1978, when he was working at the Cornell Cooperative Extension research station in Riverhead. "I planted a half acre, then 10 acres; now it's 35," he said. "Other farmers were growing it for their own use, not commercially."

His Aquebogue farm, Wells Homestead Acres, has been worked by members of the Wells family since Colonial times. "We're celebrating its 350th birthday this year," he said.

He expects to fill about 1,000 30-pound crates over the next two months for the local market, and that will be about 10 percent of his asparagus crop. Most of the rest will go to King Kullen, Stop & Shop and other supermarkets across Long Island, with the trucks that bring food to the East End stopping at his farm on the way back to load up.

"It's tricky to decide [how much] to plant," he said. "The asparagus demand has been picking up for the last 15 or 20 years."

He harvests asparagus every two or three days. When daytime temperatures hold steady at 70 degrees and nighttime temps don't drop below 60, he will harvest the fast-growing asparagus daily. His biggest worry now is frost, which kills the shoots above the ground.

For most Long Islanders, spring will turn into summer on June 21, the longest day of the year. For Wells, spring will change to summer when the asparagus harvest ends in June and the zucchini, squash and cucumbers start coming in. That's when he lets the asparagus plants grow tall and fill out, nourishing their roots for next year.

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