Weather, Uninformed Consumers Pose Problems : Artichokes Not Easy to Grow, Sell
Artichokes, delicious vegetables hiding under unsavory-looking leaves, have been hard to sell because many people don’t know what to do with them.
“People not only don’t know how to eat them, they don’t know what they are to begin with,” says Pat Hopper, who manages the California Artichoke Advisory Board.
Hopper hopes to reverse that lack of public knowledge and acceptance of artichokes despite a budget too small to permit large-scale generic advertising.
Her emphasis is on getting recipes out to the public and getting free publicity for artichokes.
If they have never seen anyone else eat one or have never eaten one themselves, most people won’t try an artichoke,” she says. “We have a two-pronged problem--how to cook artichokes and how to eat them.”
Nibbled Down to the Heart
Traditionally, the entire vegetable is boiled, leaves then are pulled off and tiny bites are nibbled from the ends. Finally, the heart is scraped clean and savored.
One of the industry’s thrusts now is to increase the market for baby artichokes that normally wind up marinated in jars, a segment of the business dominated by foreigners because of lower labor costs.
The small ones aren’t marketed fresh in many stores, so Americans who eat artichokes are used those the size of a softball.
A lot of the baby artichokes--some as small as eggs--are thrown away or left in fields, said Castroville grower Dave Delfino.
“People don’t know what to do with them,” Delfino says. “We have to convince grocers to put them on the shelf.”
Hopper is distributing material showing consumers how to prepare them. She said when the outer leaves and top are trimmed off, the rest of the baby artichoke is edible.
“We’re trying to get away from the idea that big is the only way,” she said. “We’d like to have it both ways.”
“Artichokes are versatile,” Delfino said. “They range from large ones that you can stuff to small ones that you can french fry.”
The reason the Artichoke Advisory Board doesn’t have as much advertising clout as some crop promotion groups in California is that there are only 37 artichoke growers in the state, and they provide the board a budget of just $140,000 a year.
Most Come From One Region
The growers range in size from the 3,500-acre Sea Mist Farms down to plots of four to five acres. They are located in foothills along the Central Coast south to Santa Maria, but two-thirds of the 12,343 acres in production last year were in the Castroville area of Monterey County and around Watsonville in Santa Cruz County.
Even though their numbers are small, Central Coast growers produce virtually all of the artichokes grown in the United States, with 90% of that production coming from Monterey County, said Dick Nutter, the county’s agricultural commissioner.
Artichoke growers are concentrated along the coast because the soil, sea breezes and summer fog provide favorable growing conditions.
But the weather hasn’t been beneficial the past few years, putting artichoke growers in a tight financial squeeze.
Too much rain damaged the crop three years ago, and unseasonably warm summer weather muddled growing patterns the past two years, Delfino said.
The coast’s normal blanket of cool summer fog allows harvesting of two distinct crops--in spring and fall.
But without normal fog in the summers of 1983 and 1984, the plants--some of them five feet tall--turned out most of their ripe artichokes all at once, in the spring.
Glut Hit Market
That shortened the harvest and dumped many more artichokes on the fresh market than could be sold profitably, Delfino said. Consequently, prices tumbled to as low as $5 a carton, which Delfino said was half of what it cost to produce the crop.
California artichoke growers produced 3.3 million cartons of artichokes last year, and 2.3 million of them came off the plants in a six-week period during the spring, Delfino said. Normal production in that time would have been about a million cartons.
But there is hope that this summer will bring normal weather patterns, allowing the plants to produce a fall crop that will let growers financially “start digging out of the hole,” Hopper said.
Weather has so far been cooler, with more fog, Delfino said.
“I hope we’re back to normal weather,” he said.