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AutoSpar "Development of an Automatic harvesting System for white and violet Asparagus" is a research for the benefit of SMEs type of project supported by the European Comission.

Asparagus is one of most nutritious vegetables. It is known,amongst others, for its high content of folic acid, Vitamin A, B1, B2, B3 and C. Due to its costly cultivation (first harvest three years after plantation), the manual harvesting (3 to 5 Euro/kg) and the very short harvesting time (9 to 11 weeks in April and June), asparagus is one of the most expensive vegetables in Europe. Depending on the season, prices can reach up to 10 Euro per kilogram (consumer prices). With 35 to 50% of the production cost, harvesting cost represents an important share which offers considerable potential for reduction.

There are three types of cultivated asparagus: white, violet and green. The exposure time of asparagus to sunlight determines its colour – under sunlight the white asparagus turns first violet and then green. The cultivation methods applied determine the colour. Green asparagus (2% of the total cultivated asparagus in Europe, 98% in the US) for example is grown above ground and tastes most similar to the ”original” wild asparagus.

The cultivation of white (98% of total cultivated asparagus in Europe) and violet (mainly France, <1% of total) asparagus requires the construction of asparagus dams (formed earth dams) to ensure that the plant is not subjected to sunlight. The difference between white and violet asparagus is just the harvesting time. While white asparagus is usually harvested when the first cracks appear on the dam surface, the violet is harvested when the tip is just peeking through dam surface (the sunlight turns the tip violet). Thus the harvesting of violet asparagus typically follows 1 to 2 days later than that of the white one.

However, in order to identify better the full-grown white asparagus and to reduce the number of harvesting times, over 80% of the white asparagus is today grown under black foils – thus harvesting takes place when the asparagus tip peeks 0,1cm to 3cm through the dam surface. The foil prevents the colour change but on the other hand requires more sophisticated equipment for its removal.