Spearheading Biodiversity

Cowhorn cultivates Biodynamic asparagus

Cowhorn Biodynamic asparagus. ##Photo provided

By Barbara Barrielle

In Southern Oregon, Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden is known for being “green,” Biodynamics to be specific. But the Ashland area winery is greener than ever, when adding farm-fresh asparagus to its fine reputation.

For owners Bill and Barbara Steele, their lives didn’t always revolve around plants. In fact, the two moved to Jacksonville from Wall Street to start farming and establish their vines. They planted Rhône varietals in 25 acres of the 117-acre site. Eventually, the couple focused on wines that expressed the land’s terroir. So far, they’ve succeeded spectacularly.

Although Cowhorn’s latitude lies somewhat south of the Rhône, the growing season in Southern Oregon is shorter, and the terroir better reflects Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with benchland next to the Applegate River, sparse rain and rocky soils that don’t hold much water. Grenache, Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne have earned Cowhorn recognition with an almost cult-like following.

And yet, the Steeles are not only Biodynamic winegrowers; they farm produce, too. Adhering to the guidelines established by Rudolf Steiner, the Steeles apply the sustainable philosophy to cultivating asparagus.

When initially joining the Southern Oregon community, they noticed how asparagus available at local produce shops and co-ops originated in Mexico, California or Washington, but none from Oregon.

Bill recalls his thinking: “I could leverage my vineyard equipment when it was not needed by planting asparagus in the same row configuration as the grapes. There was a hole in the market and no local competition, so we would not harm any local farmers.”

He adds, “Our asparagus is totally cut in the morning, three days a week, processed and bundled by noon, and can be on the plate by dinner Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday.”

By filling a need using equipment otherwise idle, the Steeles operate the largest asparagus farm in Southern Oregon, delivering at least 8,000 pounds a season and earning “a little cash flow” while the vineyards are pruned and prepared for bud break. Even at this significant amount, the Steeles don’t come close to satisfying the demand, easily 11,000 pounds a season.

At the Medford Food Co-Op, Steve Swader, the produce and facilities manager, represents a serious Cowhorn asparagus fan. “I can’t think of enough adjectives to describe Bill and Barbara’s asparagus: fabulous, tender, sweet.”

Swader continues, “I have people asking about their asparagus as soon as the sun comes out after winter. Then they walk in the door of the Co-Op, see it, and they just light up. I can’t say enough good things about the Steeles.”

At a recent owners’ meeting, the Co-Op served a raw salad with the Cowhorn asparagus to rave reviews for its flavor and freshness. See recipe below.

In Ashland, at the long-standing New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro, chef/owner Charlene Rollins uses the Cowhorn asparagus in many dishes, including the first course of her prix fixe menu. She tosses the asparagus with extra virgin olive oil, salt and her Palestinian-sourced za’atar spice and serves it with a half-artichoke and charcuterie.

Cowhorn asparagus also stars in Rollins’ vegetarian entrée: tortellini stuffed with truffled sheep cheese in a citrus-lemon broth with herbs, butter sugar-snap peas, broccolini and asparagus.

At Cowhorn, the commitment to responsible biodiverse farming doesn’t end with wine and asparagus. The Steeles cultivate truffles, maintain cherry orchards, grow lavender and are known leaders in the field of worm castings. They grow worms in 500-pound bins of table scraps used to make “worm tea,” a natural fertilizer that boosts active microbiologic activity after 24 hours of fermentation, helping develop nutrient-rich, healthy soils.

Cowhorn also features the only Living Building Challenge-certified tasting room in the world, which means it has met standards of negative carbon impact that far exceed LEED or any other comparable environmental or “green” building certifications. As Bill points out, their certification remains consistent with the brand, which, at Cowhorn, is truly “green” and delicious. 

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