Among the many casualties of El Nino is the annual Artichoke Festival in Castroville. For the first time since 1959, the event has been spiked.

Well, postponed is more accurate, according to Mary Comfort, manager of the California Artichoke Advisory Board in Castroville, the capital of artichoke production.

"It's traditionally held in September," she said, "but the [festival board] was in the process of moving it to springtime." The festival is now scheduled for mid-May 1999.

What prompted the change were the February dousings that swamped Central Coast fields, drowning 500 acres (out of 9,300) and slashing production of the tasty thistle by a projected 30%. That exacerbated a problem of a lean secondary harvest in the fall, a situation that began shaping up last summer, when warmer-than-usual temperatures prevented the plants from setting properly. Harvesting continued despite this week's showers.

"These plants have taken a beating," Comfort said, but "if people were here right now, they'd see a lot of artichokes being harvested." The weather will truncate the season, which in good years runs through May but this year will taper off by the end of April.

Because the March crop is fairly normal, shoppers haven't seen a huge bump in price.

Other California crops are suffering too. Overall, as previously reported, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has pegged crop-related damage in the state at $107 million.

Barring further El Nino tantrums, however, no long-term shortages of key crops such as lettuce and peaches loom.

"I hesitate to paint a gloomy picture," said Jim Tippett, state statistician with the department.

Strawberry growers, the hardest hit with an estimated $23 million in losses during January and February, "are having a tough time, with serious quality problems," said Vernon Crowder, an agricultural economist with Bank of America.

"Prices have been just as volatile as the weather," said Irvine grower A.G. Kawamura.

Shipments of fresh berries have been slowly building. For the week ended Saturday, growers shipped more than 1 million trays (each containing 11.5 pounds of berries) for the first time this year. For the year to date, they have shipped 3.1 million trays, well below last year's 5.3 million.

Workers slogged through muddy Oxnard fields to pick berries Wednesday. Given February's dumping of 20 inches of rain, the 1 3/4 inches that fell this week felt like "a little speed bump in the parking lot," said Mike Conroy of Conroy Farms.

In the Salinas Valley, prime vegetable territory, the welcome weather break this month allowed growers to begin belated planting of lettuce and other vegetables.

Come late April and May, consumers could see supply gaps, with perhaps a slight price increase for two or three weeks, Crowder said. However, he noted, advancements in transplants and heat-resistant lettuce varieties are helping growers eke more production from fields.

Growers got excited in February in anticipation of garnering lots of lettuce for their lettuce, said Steve Sharp, manager of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Assn. The strong market hasn't materialized.

"We're looking at a $4 [per carton] lettuce market, and [many growers] need at least $6 to break even," he said.

Faced with planting woes, growers followed a couple of strategies. Some planted in Las Cruces, N.M., and Yuma and Wilcox, Ariz. But unduly hot weather heading into May could fry those plants. Others transplanted baby romaine and iceberg lettuce from greenhouses--a tricky strategy that generally results in lower yields.

Paul Cracknell, director of raw material for Salinas-based Fresh Express Inc., the nation's largest producer of packaged salads, said he remains "skeptical as to whether a shortage will happen." If the weather stays manageable in key regions, he said, "supplies should be adequate." Either way, he vowed, his company will not raise prices because it is attempting to establish its brands as packaged foods rather than commodities.

Shoppers can expect melons and some other crops to hit stores later than expected, and this week's rains could thin blooms on cherry and pear trees. But one group of growers stands to benefit: The moisture is helping stave off the need to irrigate citrus trees.


Martha Groves can be reached by fax at (213) 473-2480 or by e-mail at

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