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The Heart of the Matter: Why There is a "New Normal" for Artichokes

It’s all about the heart—in life, in action, and in artichokes.

As I am walked through the trials and tribulations that have led to what the team is calling the “new normal” of artichoke growing, it is made clear that Ocean Mist® Farms and the minds driving it are just that—all heart.

Dale Huss, VP of Artichoke Production, Ocean Mist® Farms“Things change, and in the case of artichokes, they changed for economic reasons,” says Dale Huss, VP of Artichoke Production, explaining that the traditionally perennial category has since become so much more. “Over time, the yields of the artichoke are finite and can vary a lot. They can vary because of weather, or watering, or a lot of other factors.”

This new normal Dale and his team are describing is the execution of a consistent year-round supply of quality, good-eating artichokes rather than the seasonal product of the past.

“We wouldn’t have very much during certain parts of the year because of Mother Nature, being too warm or too cold, or other challenges along the way. It all adds up to the dynamic that has caused things to change and we as growers continue to look for ways to keep that product flowing,” Dale shares. “We want to make sure our customers stay with us, so we do our best to have consistent supply throughout the year because that’s what our customers are asking for.”

Consistent, year-round supply of quality, good-eating artichokes is the new normalSteadiness has never been nature’s forte; therefore our industry has been bred and shaped by its adaptability. Yet, it still surprises me to hear of shifts in what I would expect to be dependable: the sun will rise, spring will come, and, with it, a steady flow of artichokes. But what Dale is explaining makes perfect sense, as not only the seasons but consumers’ tastes have morphed.

When I ask whether it is growers meeting consumer demands or Earth’s whim that has created this new normal, he explains the two are interwoven and linked in the process.

“Mother Nature has dictated that we need to rotate—we can’t just leave artichokes in the ground for 25 or 30 years because the pest populations that are attracted to artichokes in particular take up residence,” Dale comments. “And when you factor in our perennial or heirloom culture, it really adds to the loss of yield. With annual planting implemented the way we do our celery, cauliflower, or lettuce, you avoid inviting issues with pests, cut down crop protection chemicals you use, and it really adds to a more uniform crop and boosts productivity. Hopefully it makes you more competitive, more efficient, and in the end, everyone makes money.”

“Things change, and in the case of artichokes, they changed for economic reasons.”

- Dale Huss, VP of Artichoke Production, Ocean mist® Farms

Taking proverbial lemons dished out by Mother Nature and making them into lemonade or, in this case, a tasty dip—look no further than the company’s Frost Kissed Artichokes. Here, Dale and I discuss how a little too much cold weather, which could potentially have been disastrous to cosmetically-focused buyers and those they serve, gave way to a coveted periodic item. The Frost Kissed term plays for me images of Jack Frost laughingly covering Ocean Mist Farms in a chill, giving a touch of character to an otherwise perfect vegetable.

“I think ‘Frost Kissed’ is the strongest name we’ve used over the years because it paints a picture in a person’s mind about why an artichoke might look the way that it does. We’d been looking at different marketing angles, trying to educate our consumers that just because something may not be cosmetically attractive, the heart is still good. It’s a term people can understand, they can wrap their imagination around it, and they can say: ‘Yes, okay, I can appreciate that.’ It looks the way it does because it got too cold, but the heart is still good, and that’s the most important thing when it comes to an artichoke,” Dale shares.

Employees picking Ocean Mist® Farms artichokes in Castroville, California

Taking a look back at how deeply invested Ocean Mist Farms’ history is in artichokes, it’s no surprise that the company knows how to paint a picture for consumers. Ocean Mist Farms has been growing artichokes in Castroville, California, since 1924 and manages this specialty vegetable with the ultimate goal of delighting its dedicated artichoke aficionados who appreciate its unique look, versatility, nutritional qualities, and delicious flavor.

The traditional seasonality, also known as heirloom, was based in Castroville’s springtime, with a mini-season in November. Today, Ocean Mist Farms grows artichokes 365 days a year in four different growing regions, selecting proprietary seed varieties for each region to cultivate artichokes with superior flavor, color, and shape.

“We’ve become a year-round shipper of artichokes, with growing locations in Castroville, Oxnard, and the Coachella Valley in California and Baja, Mexico. The purpose, as always, is to deliver to our customers a consistent supply of quality, fresh vegetables,” Dale emphasizes.

He explains to me that, since moving to an annual culture, Ocean Mist Farms has built an in-house research and development program that evaluates hundreds of different varieties a year of artichokes for different programs.

Dale Huss demonstrates the freshness of Ocean Mist® Farms Artichokes

“Those annual varieties allow us to spread out our risk. They’re higher-yielding and better-eating than our perennial heirloom artichokes would be off-season. That’s not to say we haven’t focused on really getting a spring-like artichoke, which is when our perennial heirloom is at its best,” Dale says.

These new seed varieties allow Ocean Mist to rotate its ground base with other crops, helping to keep pest pressures down in all that it grows. Over the length of time that the team has been cultivating artichokes in California and beyond, there have been a variety of changes to agriculture production.

A key difference the company cites is increasing costs—of land, labor, inputs, and water—while yields have been constant, even lower, and demand has remained consistent and loyal. Such is the case of the Castroville Green Globe or Heirloom variety, and Ocean Mist Farms has worked to meet that unrelenting demand.

“...‘Frost kissed’ is the strongest name we’ve used over the years because it paints a picture in a person’s mind about why an artichoke might look the way that it does.”

“I think most people in the U.S. are, frankly, quite spoiled,” Dale tells me point-blank. “They expect beautiful and they expect healthy, and that’s what we ultimately do here in agriculture.”

He speaks as both a vested industry veteran with more than 30 years working with the artichoke giant, and as a consumer who once knew nothing of artichokes.

“I grew up in the U.S. Midwest and never even knew what an artichoke was until I came out west—I never ate one! But I met my wife in Spain, got out of the military, wound up getting my degree in plant science in Reno, Nevada, and the Salinas Valley ended up being perfect for both of us,” Dale says. “So we made our home here, raised our kids, and I’ve been working in artichokes ever since.”

New seed varieties allow Ocean Mist to rotate its ground base with other crops, helping to keep pest pressures down in all that it grows

The impression was so strong that Dale can tell me his exact start date—February 26, 1986, in case you wondered. Luckily for us, Dale and much of the vegetable-eating continental U.S. have since broadened their artichoke-eating horizons. Much of that could be attributed to Ocean Mist’s commitment to inspiring shoppers in the kitchen, beyond your standard dip. Dale explains that one of the team’s strongest aspects is marketing its offerings.

“It’s an important part of what we do. It’s what we’re good at, and I think that’s the answer to driving artichoke demand,” he concludes.

And as we all know, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. As long as the heart is good, the game is on.