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Artichokes - Delicious But Odd-Looking

June 25, 1985

MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) _ Artichokes, those tasty vegetables hiding under funny-looking leaves, are hard to sell because many people do not know what to do with them, growers believe.

That presents a problem for the California Artichoke Advisory Board, whose slim budget does not allow large-scale generic advertising to try to broaden the public’s knowledge of artichokes, most of which are grown in California.

″People not only don’t know how to eat them, they don’t know what they are to begin with,″ said Pat Hopper, who manages the artichoke board.

Ms. Hopper hopes to reverse that lack of public knowledge and acceptance by getting recipes out to the public and by seeking out free publicity for artichokes.

″If you’ve never seen anyone else eat one or eaten them yourselves, most people won’t try artichokes,″ she said. ″We have a two-pronged problem - how to cook artichokes and how to eat them.″

One of the industry’s thrusts now is to increase the market for baby artichokes, which normally wind up marinated in jars - a segment of the business dominated by foreigners because of lower labor costs.

Most Americans who eat artichokes are used to the ones the size of a softball. Traditionally, the entire vegetable is boiled, leaves then are pulled off and tiny bites are nibbled from the ends. Finally, the heart is scraped clean and savored.

Many people have never eaten the larger artichokes much less the baby ones, which are not marketed fresh in many stores.

A lot of the baby artichokes - some as small as eggs - are thrown away or left in fields, said Dave Delfino, a grower in Castroville.

″People don’t know what to do with them,″ Delfino said. ″We have to convince grocers to put them on the shelf.″

That is what Ms. Hopper is trying to do with material promoting baby artichokes to the consumers so they will ask grocers for them.

She says that when the outer leaves and top are trimmmed off, the rest of the baby artichoke is edible

″We’re trying to get away from the idea that big is the only way,″ she said. ″We’d like to have it both ways.″

Delfino said: ″Artichokes are versatile. They range from large ones that you can stuff to small ones that you can French fry.″

The reason the artichoke board does not have the financial clout to advertise as do some crop promotion groups is because there are only 37 artichoke growers in the state, and they provide the board a budget of just $140,000 a year.

The growers range in size from 3,500-acre Sea Mist Farms down to plots of four to five acres. They are located in foothills along the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two-thirds of the 12,343 acres in production last year were in the Castroville area of Monterey County and around Watsonville in Santa Cruz County.

Even though their numbers are small, California growers produce virtually all of the artichokes grown in the United States, with 90 percent of that production coming from Monterey County, said Dick Nutter, the county’s agricultural commissioner.

Artichoke growers congregate along the coast because the soil, sea breezes and summer fog help their crop grow.

But, in a lament familiar to farmers everywhere, the weather has not been right the past few years, putting artichoke growers in a tight financial squeeze.

Too much rain damaged the crop three years ago, and unseasonably warm summer weather messed up growing patterns the past two years, Delfino said.

The coast’s normal blanket of cool summer fog helps even out artichoke growth so ripening can be spread out. That allows harvesting of two distinct crops - in spring and fall.

But without the normal amount of fog in the summers of 1983 and 1984, the plants - some of them five-feet tall - turned out most of their ripe artichokes all at once in the spring.

That shortened the harvest and dumped many more artichokes on the fresh market than could be sold profitably, Delfino said. Consequently, prices tumbled as low as $5 a carton, which he said was half as much as it cost to produce the crop.

California artichoke growers produced 3.3 million cartons of artichokes last year, and 2.3 million of them came off the plants in a six-week period during the spring, Delfino said. Normal production in that time would have been about 1 million cartons.

But there is hope that this summer will be more normal, allowing the plants to produce a fall crop that will let growers financially ″start digging out of the hole,″ Ms. Hopper said.

Weather has been cooler with more fog.

″I hope we’re back to normal weather,″ Delfino said. ″We have to have some very good years coming up. Period. We have to. Otherwise, what’s the use?″

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