Heads-Up Crop : Genetic engineering has improved the fussy plant, now grown by only a few county farms.


The winter months in Ventura County are peak season for a vegetable now forsaken by many area growers: cauliflower.

The crop, a cousin of cabbage and Brussels sprouts, has gradually dwindled in this area. David Cook, a salesman with Oxnard farming entity Deardorf-Jackson, said farmers have deemed cauliflower unreliable and opted for more profitable alternatives.

The dry weather of the last few years has made times even tougher for cauliflower growers.

"It used to be that quite a few guys were growing cauliflower around here," said Cook, "but it's a difficult crop to grow. Anybody growing the stuff in a garden will tell you that. And being able to produce it to the point of making money is tough."

That, combined with expensive land costs and high water rates, has left just a few Ventura County growers braving the uncertainty and clinging to their cauliflower production. Deardorf-Jackson is the county's largest cauliflower grower, devoting about 500 acres to the vegetable annually.

"The season here starts in November and will go through to the end of April," he said. "Sometimes early May."

The season begins when greenhouse-grown seedlings, standing two inches high, are transplanted to the field.

Workers sow the seedlings in 5- to 10-acre plots. Harvest comes after about 90 days of maturation. Humidity helps and in recent years, so has genetic engineering.

In older strains of the plant, Cook said, the cauliflower head was dangerously exposed to the elements--a fact that required growers to cover their cauliflower heads up by hand, using rubber bands to hold the plants' shields of leaves in place.

Today, genetically manipulated strains have made that precaution unnecessary.

"The jacket leaves grow up around the head and kind of twist shut at the top," Cook said of the new strain.

As it happens, that's only one cauliflower-related advance made by gene manipulators in recent years. Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle had the idea of tossing broccoli and cauliflower into the gene blender, and now market the resulting hybrid--broccoflower.

The firm grows some broccoflower in Oxnard. The vegetables are light green and textured much like a cauliflower head, but broccoflower tastes differently from what you might expect.

"Surprisingly, it doesn't taste like cauliflower," said Kim Merdan, a saleswoman with the company. "Depending on where it's grown, broccoflower changes in taste. It can have a strong broccoli flavor, while some is more mild. It's really good," Merdan said.

Although Ventura County cauliflower production pales in comparison to other districts, during a short period in recent weeks the crop provided a windfall for area growers.

"For about two weeks in mid-December there was hardly any cauliflower around because of the seasonal decline in the Salinas area and the whitefly devastation in the Imperial Valley," Cook said. "We were the only ones to have it then and the marketing was pretty good for us."

Growers with harvest-ready cauliflower during the volume lull received near-premium prices.

That, of course, meant higher prices at the checkout stand, which have since declined.

"Prices for the consumer have become more favorable and will continue to get better as other districts come into season," Cook said.

What to look for in a fresh head of cauliflower?

"Most of all, you want one that's firm and nice and white, no black spots on it," Cook advised. A "loose head"--not tight and firm--can be an indication it's overly mature or has become dried out.

"People tend not to eat the whole head at once," he said, "so wrap it in a paper towel and then place in a plastic bag and keep it cold."

Cook also offered a preparation suggestion:

"I like it cooked with some other vegetables to make pasta primavera ," he said. "Add in stuff like red peppers, carrots, zucchini and saute with olive oil and garlic. Mix it with some pasta and you have a great, healthy dinner. I even got my kids to eat cauliflower like this--and that was an accomplishment."

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