British Asparagus has brought Olympic track cyclist Becky James on board to promote the vegetable this year as the first spears of the season arrive at wholesalers and restaurants.
The double world champion and two-time Olympic silver medallist will promote asparagus year round, focussing on its health credentials and offering serving suggestions and tips on how she enjoys cooking asparagus when she trains.
Growers are hoping that the campaign, as well as in-store retail promotions, will generate excitement in the start of the British season and help drive sales throughout the season, which ends in late June.
Last year there was a feeling among some in the sector that retailers did not do enough to publicise British asparagus. Among them was Andy Allen of J W Allen & Sons in Norfolk, who expects to cut the first of his early polytunnel-grown asparagus in the first week of April.
Allen said: “We would like to see the retailers promote English asparagus more and make more of it when it comes along. As one of the first British crops of the year it is a good opportunity to fly the flag for British produce.
“We only saw a very slight increase in sales last year and that was because we feel the retailers didn’t get behind it or promote it enough, which was sad.”
Rather than discounts, the grower would like to see more in-store promotions on asparagus this year, focussing on “flagging it up, showing it’s here, displaying the union jack.”
As part of this year’s marketing campaign for British asparagus, run by PR firm Pam Lloyd, growers will also work with Bill’s restaurants and founder Bill Collison to promote the crop.
Seasonal specials at the chain’s 70+ restaurants will include UK-grown asparagus and a media relations campaign will promote Bill’s British asparagus recipes to media.
In addition, special deliveries of British aspargus will be made to top chefs throughout the season to generate excitement and discussion on Twitter.
Growing conditions for asparagus have been “quite favourable” this season, according to Allen, who explained: “We’ve had a nice cold winter with a succession of frosts, which is good for the modern varieties.”
He added: “Normally we’d expect to gain two weeks of extra cutting by using polythene but sometimes it doesn’t make a huge difference.”
One grower that the technique has made a big difference to is Wye Valley Produce in Herefordshire, which was the first British producer to harvest this year.
The Chinn family, which runs the fruit and vegetable business, began sending asparagus to wholesalers two weeks ago, with wholesalers French Garden Bristol and Gilgrove generating excitement on social media by tweeting about their first deliveries of the season on 9 March.