Only 1,000 acres of rhubarb are cultivated in the United States. Of these, TMY Farms in Valley Center accounts for 60 acres--which makes Mike Howarth one of the largest growers of Cherry rhubarb in the country. He is one of only two commercial growers of the crop within the state of California.
Southern Californians have Luther Burbank to thank for an early strain of Cherry Rhubarb which he brought from New Zealand in the early 1890s. Because of his efforts, Orange County became one of the main centers of rhubarb production in the United States.
When Orange County began sprouting condominiums though, much of the original rhubarb root stock was lost to development. Luckily, the hardy plants can survive up to 20 years, and Howarth was able to purchase some of the remaining Cherry rhubarb stock from the Cleugh Brothers, former growers in Orange County.
Rhubarb is thought of as a fruit, although it is technically a vegetable. Some plants can grow to about 3 feet tall.
Oregon and Washington harvest their cold weather varieties in early spring, but the North County climate has allowed Howarth to harvest from September through June.
From the 5 acres of rhubarb he first planted in 1983, Howarth hopes to expand his operation to cover most of the hilly, 100 brush-covered acres adjoining his fields. He points to an aerial photograph of his property. "Pretty soon, the hills behind us will be covered in rhubarb," he says, a note of excitement in his voice.
"Our Cherry rhubarb is more tender and sweeter than northern varieties. And our longer harvest time gives us an advantage over northern growers."
TMY's freshly-picked, pesticide-free rhubarb is shipped all across the United States.
Rhubarb is a perennial, rich in vitamins A and C, potassium and calcium. To best preserve rhubarb, place it in a plastic bag in the vegetable bin, and it will keep fresh up to a week, says Howarth.
TMY's 4-pound gift pack of Cleugh's Cherry Rhubarb costs $19.95 by mail order, shipped by second day air. Howarth markets his rhubarb at San Diego area farmer's markets for $1.39 a bunch. Freshly-baked rhubarb pies cost $7.79 apiece.
TMY Farms of Valley Center, Inc., P.O. Box 244, Valley Center, CA 92082. Calls: 749-4504. Phone orders accepted. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for recipes.