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Artichokes : Competition is keen in California's artichoke industry as growers argue over whether a green or a purple vegetable is best.

September 17, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

LOMPOC, Calif. — As dusk descends upon this expansive coastal valley, refrigerated trucks begin arriving at the Jordan Brothers Ranch to accept the day's recently concluded harvest.

For the past decade, this has been a fairly standard routine as crates bulging with all the season's traditional crops--lettuce, celery, peppers, cauliflower--are quickly loaded onto the trailers.

But in the past few months, things have taken on a decidedly different tone as this quiet farming area, an hour's drive north of Santa Barbara, has become the front line in the California artichoke war.

The contest pits the long-entrenched Establishment, the Castroville green, against the feisty and flashy Lompoc purple.

At the heart of the issue is a new strain of thistle: a bit more round and tinted with purple.

The coloration alone is enough to generate attention in the normally conservative produce industry. And, predictably, this contemporary-looking vegetable has brought notoriety, some controversy and even a touch of scorn for this family-owned firm.

"There's different-colored corn and peppers on the market. So, why not different-colored artichokes?" asks Steve Jordan, a self-proclaimed "artichoke evangelist," dedicated to the cause of purple.

However, other factors surround this latest agricultural innovation. For starters, there are the Castroville-based green artichoke growers who look at the Jordans as interlopers with a suspect, funny-colored "choke," the affectionate term used by fans of this sturdy-looking vegetable.

For instance, the Jordans' pastel-splashed artichokes not only look different from the all-green variety, but they're coming to market at the "wrong" time.

Normally, the availability of the green multileaved member of the thistle family is sporadic, limited mostly to eight weeks beginning in mid-March and then again, briefly, in the fall. Intermittent supplies do filter through produce channels throughout the year, but size is down and bruising from frost may be apparent.

The Jordans' purple-tinted artichoke, on the other hand, can withstand different climates and grow steadily all year long.

When in peak season, the greens are harvested in and around the cool, misty clime of Castroville, where virtually all of the nation's supply originates.

Yet, as the fleet of idling trucks demonstrates, one of the most seasonally sensitive vegetables will now be dependably available year round from an area 180 miles south of Castroville.

This type of dramatic success is raising concerns at the California Artichoke Advisory Board, a Castroville-based growers trade group, and is also creating some resistance among supermarket produce buyers.

At times lampooned as just so many leaves in search of something edible, artichokes are in fact a major crop in Italy, where more than 136,000 acres are under cultivation. The vegetable is also grown extensively in France, Spain and Argentina.

In the United States, though, the football-shaped vegetables are little known outside of the major metropolitan areas. Annual consumption, at considerably less than one pound per person, is negligible. What's more, last year's crop totaled less than 54,000 tons--nothing more than leftovers in contrast to some other produce counter staples.

Yet, artichokes appeal to this state's farmers because they are lucrative. Retail prices, in the off-season, have reached as high as $2.49 each.

As such, the current system, in place since the 1920s, has served the green-artichoke growers well. But that's all in the process of changing, especially since Rusty Jordan developed a seed from which the plants could be reliably grown each year.

Granted, growing plant from seed would appear to be elementary, at best. Furthermore, a tiny spore is little to fuss over.

However, artichokes have resisted seed cultivation for decades because the resulting vegetables can be wildly different and, in some cases, inedible.

The seeds' unreliability forced large-scale commercial efforts to, in essence, reuse the same plants from one year to the next. After each year's harvest, the growers unearth the artichoke roots, break the system into several sections and then replant the parts individually.

Over the last several years, the Jordans incorporated previous research into their own and were able to produce a hearty, reliable artichoke seed.

They now can just plow their plants under after harvest and replant with seed shortly thereafter. The labor savings alone are enough for the brothers to celebrate, but the seed-borne plants generate 50% more artichokes than its root-stock counterpart.

The Jordans also claim to have fewer problems with fungus or insects and thus need a lesser amount of agricultural chemicals.

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