CASTROVILLE, Calif. — Make no mistake about it, Bub, this here is 'choke country.
At one end of town is the Artichoke Inn; at the other, the Giant Artichoke Restaurant. In between, a sign spanning the main street claims Castroville as the "Artichoke Center of the World." From under that sign pass fully 85% of all the homely but toothsome thistles grown in this country.
Money and Attention
How better, then, to have a little fun, raise a little money and attract a little attention than to publicly and prodigiously lionize the artichoke?
This tiny coastal farm town 70 miles south of San Francisco has been at it for 28 years, attracting upwards of 50,000 'choke-aholics every September and making its annual Artichoke Festival one of America's biggest crop parties.
Along with the equally popular Gilroy Garlic Festival, Castroville's 'choke fest also is helping to make California the country's most festive farm state, with a cornucopia of crop celebrities sprouting from Oxnard to Dinuba.
Plenty of states have a festival or two to celebrate their top crops--from Washington apples to Florida oranges; some put on a dozen or more pageants. None, however, can match the variety and number of festivals in California, where hardly a week passes without someone celebrating something somewhere, either exotic kiwis or good ol' sweet corn.
"They are springing up all over the place now, to celebrate any vegetable or fruit or object you can think of," said Budd Perez, volunteer booster of a successful Strawberry Festival in, of all places, Prunedale. "You can't hardly find a place without one any more."
The number of California festivals now approaches 100--not counting county fairs or general-purpose "harvest festivals." Eight towns sponsor apple festivals, four celebrate blackberries, and at least 14 fete wine, grapes or both.
Banana Slug Festival
The trend has gained enough attention to prompt parodies in several of the state's more hip small towns. Monte Rio, for example, hosts the annual Banana Slug Festival--the "Slugfest"--and Coulterville sponsors a Coyote Howling Festival, while Forestville and Columbia both honor poison oak.
Elizabeth Poole, publisher of The Paper, an alternative weekly in Monte Rio and the banana slugs' best friend, said the Slugfest began as a joke because other small towns had something to celebrate "but nothing will grow under our (shady) redwoods . . . except the banana slug."
The panorama of agriculture honored in California is remarkable. South Carolina may salute hominy grits and Maine the wild blueberry, but California parties for just about anything that grows on trees or sprouts from the ground--from almond blossoms to zucchini.
Some crops are natural California celebrities--avocados, oranges and dates--but who would have guessed the Golden State also had soft spots for potatoes and cotton and dry beans? Seafood also has been caught up in the trend: clams, crabs, squid and salmon all have their own festivals; three towns champion the crawdad.
Flower festivals also have begun to blossom, with festivals starring lilies and begonias, rhododendrons and daffodils. Festival fever has even hit several cities entirely without agriculture--Pacifica, for example, plays host to the Fog Festival and Sutter Creek celebrates sourdough bread.
Several things account for the flourish of festivals, organizers said. Many are started to raise cash for local charities. Other festivals are thrown by growers to promote their produce.
A spokeswoman at the California Department of Food and Agriculture said the festivals were one factor behind the economic rebound now being enjoyed by the state's farmers, who last year grossed $14.6 billion for growing 530 different crops.
"The festivals are terrifically important to marketing wine," noted Marian Baldy, wine-marketing specialist and agriculture professor at California State University, Chico. "They introduce a lot of people to small regional wines in a very low-key way, away from that intimidating atmosphere so often associated with wines."
Indeed, the Almond Blossom Festival in Ripon has helped California's almond growers crack the tough Japanese market by giving them a cheery, crop-specific event to which they invite important Japanese importers and retailers, an official at the California Almond Growers Assn. said.
The Kiwi Growers of California, meanwhile, believe that their Kiwifruit Blossom Festival in Chico this spring helped further open the domestic market to their decorative South Pacific fruit. California, they note, is not only the biggest state in population, but also a frequent national trend-setter.
The kiwi festival moves to a new town each year, pointing out a potentially prickly problem--California's bounty is so diffuse that some growers choose not to sponsor festivals because they cannot decide where to hold them.