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ARTICHOKES : SPANNING THE GLOBE : How a thistle from sunny Spain came to thrive in foggy Castroville

TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

At first glance--or even second glance--this burg doesn’t look like much. Though it is located no more than a couple of miles from the ocean and less than 10 miles from the tourist havens of Monterey and Carmel, it is, in essence, just another Midwestern farm town transplanted to the Pacific Coast.

That, of course, is its charm. Just when you think they’ve paved the entire state, here is a reminder of California’s agricultural history, a reminder of how things used to be. The one main street is no more than a mile long, and what passes for downtown is no more than a couple blocks. There’s a junk store, a bar, a small grocery store, an old office building and a turn-of-the-century school converted into a pretty good restaurant. At the highway end of town, there are opposing mini-malls. Though there is a video store, the last picture show is long closed.

Mainly there is fog, a deep, thick fog that for most of the year rolls in just after sundown and lasts until mid-morning. It’s a fog that blankets the softly rolling hills and turns even the vivid sea-green of the surrounding fields to monochrome.

But to every place there is a purpose. For Castroville, Calif., that purpose is artichokes.

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Roughly 66% of all the artichokes grown in the United States come from within 15 miles of town. Include all of surrounding Monterey County, and that share swells to almost 80%.

How did a spiky plant from the sunny Mediterranean come to dominate this chilly, foggy landscape? After all, if left to its own devices, the artichoke would fairly quickly become extinct here.

It turns out that the fog, a result of the same frigid Japanese Current that makes the nearby Pacific Ocean largely unswimmable and keeps this area from becoming another Silicon Valley, is part of Castroville’s magic. The Monterey Bay environment is perfect for growing buds for market.

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Before it found a home in Castroville, the artichoke industry took root in a sand dune-filled area just south of San Francisco. The Italian immigrant farmers, who had grown artichokes as garden vegetables in the city, were devilish workers, trucking in enough manure and top soil so that they could plant the ‘chokes in sand.

They were also shrewd marketers. “They pioneered their way through strange markets over the United States,” read a 1915 article in Pacific Rural Press, a farmer’s magazine, “and built up an extensive trade by sane business methods and sound management.”

Among their techniques: including recipe booklets in each box of artichokes. The booklets were, said Pacific Rural Press, “an effort to get those who have been preparing buds in the way most popular in America--that of boiling and serving either hot or cold with some simple sauce--to try them in soups, stews, omelets or baked or fried.”

Remember that, until then, almost every artichoke consumed in America had to be shipped in from France. No wonder that the most common ways of serving them were the most ostentatious.

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From the dunes of San Francisco, the cultivation spread south to the more fertile fields of the Half Moon Bay area, just north of Santa Cruz. In 1920, the Pacific Rural Press opined: “High tribute is paid to the Italians, who pioneered the way in an untried country. Head work did much more than hard work for them.”

In 1922, the magazine reported on a $15,000 banquet given in New York by California growers for “competitors and customers who were fed artichokes and artichoke talk. This is something new in the way of selling a vegetable.”

There were roughly 3,000 acres of artichokes planted at that time, and though the fields around Half Moon Bay were better than the sand dunes of San Francisco, there were still problems. First of all, because of the geography of the area, the individual fields were small. And there wasn’t enough water. Finally, shipping was difficult, since there were no rail lines nearby. Artichokes had yet to find a permanent home.

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At that time, the land around Castroville was sugar beet country. Part of the Moro Cojo land grant, it was owned by the family of John Rogers Cooper, a New England merchant who had bought it in the 1820s. Cooper, known by the nickname Don Juan el Manco because of a deformed left hand, had a life worthy of a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. Born in 1791 on Alderney Island off the coast of Ireland, he emigrated to the East Coast in 1816. A ship’s captain, fur trader, financial backer of mountain men and eventually owner of several large ranchos in Central California, he was also the first foreigner to become a naturalized citizen of the United States of Mexico.

Since 1888, the area--rich, black Salinas River bottomland, expansive, well watered and close enough to Salinas for rail access--had been leased to the Spreckels Company for farming the sugar beets processed at Spreckels’ nearby sugar refinery.

But after World War I, when sugar prices headed south, Spreckels balked at renewing its lease. Andrew J. Molera, Cooper’s heir, cast about for new tenants. Molera, a huge man who drove around in a Graham-Paige touring car, specially built for him to get into and out of, had never farmed and in fact had rarely visited the Cooper spread before he took it over. But a friend of his had had luck growing artichokes in Half Moon Bay, and Molera was sure they would do well in Castroville. Moreover, he found he could lease the land to individual farmers at almost triple the rent he had been getting from Spreckels.

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Still, it was a risk for Molera. For decades the Coopers had been absentee landlords, leaving management of the farms to Spreckels. As agricultural historian W.O. Jones wrote, “Rent was paid in advance, and the owners had no responsibility in the administration of their property other than cashing the rent check and paying the taxes.”

Now, not only was Molera assuming full control of the 3,000-acre estate, but he was investing a lot of money--drilling new wells, building houses and packing sheds for the farmers, even supplying the first plants and arranging for the running of the area’s first electric lines to power the operation.

On the other hand, he was shrewd enough to see why artichokes were drawing a premium price. Between the devastation World War I had wrought to the artichoke fields in France, and the United States’ swelling population of Italian, French and Spanish immigrants, there were plenty of people willing to pay plenty for a taste of home. In fact, per-capita consumption of artichokes was higher in the 1920s than it is now.

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By most accounts, the first Castroville-area artichoke farmers were Angelo and Dan Del Chiaro, immigrants from Lucca who had been working in the produce business in Santa Cruz. They leased land from Molera and planted their first artichokes in 1922. The next year they were joined by Dan Pieri, another Tuscan, and Alfredo Tottino and Jim Bellone, both from the Piedmont. In 1924, these five growers joined to consolidate packing and shipping and, with a loan from A.P. Giannini and his San Francisco-based Bank of Italy (later, Bank of America), formed the California Artichoke and Vegetable Growers Corp.

“In those days, they’d work in the fields all day, then pack artichokes (for shipping) at night,” says Alfredo Tottino’s son, Hugo, born on one of Molera’s farms and still farming for California Artichoke (now called Sea Mist).

“Everything was done on a handshake. After I got into the business, my attorney friends would tell me I really had to have a lease. I would ask them, ‘My father has been doing business with these people for 30 or 40 years, all on a handshake, and I’m supposed to ask them for a lease? How do you suggest I do that?’ Eventually, of course, we all got on leases.”

In addition to the California Artichoke growers, there were many independents. By 1927, there were about 50 artichoke farmers on nearly 12,000 acres in Monterey County. Today, there aren’t that many in all of California. Last year, 39 artichoke farmers worked only 8,318 acres in the state--6,410 acres of them in the Castroville area, most of those run by Ocean Mist. This does not indicate a shortage of artichokes, however. Over the last 30 years, productivity has more than doubled. One acre, which used to yield less than two tons of artichokes, now gives more than four tons.

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Silvio Bernardi, whose father, Dino, was one of the local artichoke pioneers, was an independent rancher until he joined Ocean Mist in the ‘70s. “Even in the ‘70s, in this area there were 40 to 45 independent growers,” he says. “Now, a lot of them have either joined forces or gotten out of the business. It just wasn’t profitable, or there wasn’t enough acreage to survive on. Now there are about six major growers.”

Joe Micheli, whose father had also been one of the pioneering independents, joined the corporation at about the same time. “Before, there were 50 to 60 farmers, and we mostly did everything on our own--picked and packed in our own sheds and then brought them up to town to sell and ship,” he says. “Then around 1969 to 1971, everything started changing to centralized packing sheds. It’s lots easier and cheaper, and you have better control of quality.”

“There have been a lot of farmers fading away,” adds Micheli, looking out across the rolling, fog-shrouded fields. “I guess it’s like any other kind of farming. You’ve gotta like the dirt and you’ve gotta like the open air.”

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And the fog?

He pauses before answering: “Well, sometimes with this weather, we don’t see the sun for two or three weeks, but that’s why the artichokes are here.”


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