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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow A visit to Bill's World

A visit to Bill's World

Bill Burley grows asparagus on 3/4 of an acre outside Huntington. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).
Bill Burley grows asparagus on 3/4 of an acre outside Huntington. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

HUNTINGTON — The van bumps over the railroad tracks as Bill Burley heads north of Huntington, away from the rest of the world.

His van creeps over potholes, driving parallel to the tracks.

Soon the road turns right, crossing Burnt River by way of a wooden bridge.

"People call this ‘Bill's World,' " he says, pulling to a stop beside a field tucked against the hills.

The sun is more intense, beating down at least 10 degrees warmer than in the nearby town.

This is where Burley, 47, spends the majority of his time, tending three-quarters of an acre of asparagus, when he's not at home in the town of Huntington.

"It's not a great big field, but it's enough to keep me busy," he says.

Burley moved to Huntington in 1971, and began working on the railroad at 18.

Then, in 2001, an accident — resulting in a severe neck injury — forced him to leave that line of work.

But he stays busy.

Canning, he says, is one of many hobbies. His specialities are making jams and jellies from wild currants, wild plums and huckleberries, as well as preserving asparagus.

"After being injured on the railroad, it was something I can still do," he says.

All the fruit is local — he gathers currants along the nearby Snake River, and huckleberries in the mountains above Halfway.

But the asparagus is of his own making.

A few spots on his 40 acres sport wild asparagus, but the bulk he gathers from the field.

His wife, Alice, and children helped him establish 2,500 plants in the field to begin his crop in 1997.

"What was really funny — we ordered it and it came in potato sacks," he says.

The rows are divided by deep trenches, which he will irrigate once the temperature warms and the moisture seeps away.

But this year has been different, with cold temperatures lasting into May. Asparagus does best in weather that is 75 to 80 degrees during the day and 60 at night, Burley said.

"You can almost stand here and watch it grow," he says, grabbing a five-gallon bucket and steak knife from his van.

He cuts the crop each day — by hand — plunging the knife blade about two inches deep in the soft dirt to slice through the individual stalk. He only takes asparagus that is six to eight inches tall.

Burley strides down one trench at a time, sweeping his gaze from side-to-side in search of ready plants.

These days he ends up with about four pounds.

"But if it would warm up, I could get 10 to 15 (pounds)," he says.

Only the crickets interrupt the silence as he walks the rows, pausing to kneel and cut a stalk here, pull a weed there.

It takes about an hour to harvest the entire area.

"I just kind of take my time," Burley says.

Part of the field's growth rises high above the eight-inch stalks where Burley has allowed the small asparagus plants to shoot up and fern out.

This helps feed the roots, to ready the plant for another year.

"That's how it gets its nutrients," he says.

In June he quits cutting and lets all the plants fern out.

Next spring he will cut off all the dead stalks, harrow the field, and prepare for another season of asparagus.

Janice Cowan, OSU home horticulture extension agent, said she hasn't heard of any similar asparagus crops of this size in Baker County.

"It's really not done in the Baker City area because our growing season is so short," she said.

After harvesting about half of the day's crop, Burley sets the bucket aside and heads away from the field, moving east toward a thicket of trees.

The sweet scent of willows intensifies with each approaching step.

"I have to show you something," he says, turning onto a wide swath cut through the undergrowth of whitetop.

His riding lawnmower is only a few weeks old, he says, but said he may have already worn it out from his overzealous mowing.

The sunlight cuts out from the overhead branches of Russian olive, willow and box elder trees.

Soon Burley emerges into a sunny clearing bordered by trees on one side, the sluggish Burnt River on the other.

"When they can't find me at home and I don't answer my phone — they know where I'm at," he says, sweeping a hand across the vista.

A slatted wooden path takes off through marshy grasses, ending at the river's edge.

"We call this Beaver Pond," he says, pointing to a sign engraved with the name.

In the flat clearing beside the river, a picnic table and barbecue pit wait for the summer activities to begin.

"This is where I do my Dutch ovens. We have family gatherings here and stuff," Burley says.

There's a future barbecue he anticipates, but so far the date is still up in the air — he must wait until his twin boys, Kevan in the U.S. Marines and Stephen in the U.S. Army, return from Iraq.

"We're looking forward to that next barbecue when the boys come home," he says.

His daughter, Billie, lives in Salem and oldest son, Richard, lives in Reno, Nev.

Burley takes a different path back to the asparagus field, cutting through the heart of the grove. Several other trails — recently cropped close to the ground — snake off to his wife's favorite reading bench and the family swimming hole.

Emerging back at the field, Burley returns to asparagus talk, revealing that he generally pickles the thicker stalks.

"My mom made the best pickles. She gave me her recipe before she got too sick," he says.

His wife also joins in the process, making bread and butter asparagus.

The possibilities are endless, Burley admits.

"There's no bad way to eat it," he says.

Driving back toward town, Burley says his goal is to open a small store — called "House of Burley" — by the Fourth of July.

He recently attended a Better Process School at the University of Washington, becoming certified in glass closures. This allows him to sell the home-canned goods he preserves in pint glass jars.

He will also have his kitchen inspected by Food and Drug Administration representatives.

House of Burley will be a specialty store primarily for visitors and tourists, featuring baked treats, home-processed jams and jellies, asparagus and his book titled "A Faded Memory," a collection of stories from his past.

After entering the heart of town, Burley pulls up to a pink house on First Street. Metal letters above the door spell "Huffman," placed there by previous owners Ruth and Dick Huffman.

"It's still the Huffman place to me," Burley says, opening a side door and stepping into the future store.

The front room floor is laid with linoleum patterned like hardwood, and half assembled wooden shelves lean against a wall.

The back room with its new flooring and paint will be the kitchen, he says, standing about four feet from the wall to show where the sink will be.

Surrounding the house are patches of knee-high grass, with red tulips and orange poppies swaying in the breeze.

In time, the yard will be landscaped, he says.

But not today.

He pulls the door shut and walks away from his future store.

"I just kind of do it at my own pace," he says.

 
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