From the Farmer's Tractor
January 24, 2010
How did you get into artichoke farming?
My grandfather immigrated in the 1920s to the U.S., coming all the way to California. He became a partner in an artichoke growing operation in Carmel Valley. He later left that partnership and moved a short distance up the central coast of California to Castroville where he started his own farm in 1940. My father joined the operation in the 1950s, and I grew up working on our artichoke farm with my brothers and sisters.
After returning from college in 1983 I became a farm manager for Boutonnet Farms in Castroville. My father had sold his operation to his cousin and I thought it better to look for other opportunities. My return allowed me to learn to grow other vegetable crops besides artichokes. Since then I have started a harvesting business and most recently began overseeing operations for Ocean Mist Farms. Here, we ship under the Ocean Mist label and also pack private labels for a number of retailers, including Wegmans, Kroger and Markon.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Some of the biggest changes have been in the application of technology - drip irrigation, GPS guided tractors - more precision equipment, to name some examples. In addition, other changes have been in better resources management, which would include more accurate water and fertilizer use through drip irrigation. Increased water regulation has required us to be more informed about our water discharge and what the analysis might indicate for nutrient and sediment runoff.
Of course food safety has become a huge factor in how we document and apply good agricultural practices, monitor our inputs and apply good handling practices at harvest.
How will artichoke farming evolve in the next five years?
I think farming in California will continue to be a challenge for resources including water, land use, air quality and labor. We will have to continue to improve our practices to do more with added regulation and fewer inputs. Also I think CO2 gas emissions will become a bigger and bigger issue for agriculture in the coming years.
For artichokes I think we will see the continuation of better varietal development, transforming cultural practices from the traditional perennial production cycle to annual artichoke crops.
What is your greatest challenge as an artichoke farmer?
The greatest challenge is remaining economically viable. Artichokes as a commodity had a rough time during the recession. Most consumers cut out any discretionary spending even on food. This back to the basics hurt artichoke demand for a while. It seems as though that is improving but making sure there is a strong market for artichokes is always a big challenge.
On the production side, the biggest challenge is dealing with rising input costs (land costs, fertilizer, fuel, etc.) yet not getting a higher price for our products.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
We go out and meet with our retail partners at least annually, usually in the winter, to prepare for marketing the artichoke crop. The peak of production is in the spring, although we produce artichokes all year long, so we can plan for the upcoming crop volume but also address each customer’s needs and wants. By taking a collaborative approach we can suggest times to promote as one of the keys to selling artichokes during peak times and plant accordingly for the rest of the year.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
I mentioned we have utilized technology (like drip irrigation) to conserve resources. We have also partnered with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation to restore wetlands next to some of our artichoke acreage. The wetlands act to buffer any runoff water from our farms before entering the waterways to the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, and they also act to provide wildlife habitat for predators that help control pests, like rodents in the artichoke fields. There used to be a lot of fresh water wetlands in this area but through development they literally dried up. We have seen the value of restoring them especially close to our farms.
Also, we use a blend of recycled water for much of our irrigation in the Castroville area. Because seawater intrusion has contaminated many of the upper fresh water aquifers used for irrigation, 15 years ago a project was undertaken to use recycled municipal water blended with well water, and now some surface water, to use in a 12,000-acre irrigation district in the northern end of the Salinas Valley. This high quality water has been used for nearly all our irrigation needs on artichokes. Lastly, we use a good crop rotation and some cover cropping to maintain the health of our soils.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
Yes, we sell some of our produce through several local grocery stores like Nob Hill, Raleys, Safeway and Save Mart, as well as to local restaurants. In some cases the local grocer will pick up directly from us, whereas the larger local chains will pick up and take the produce to their distribution centers before making it to the local store shelf.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Often times people will see my name and ask me if I’m one of the Pezzinis from the artichoke farm. My dad did some cooking shows with a local chef some years ago. People seem to associate the name with artichokes. It’s nice to be known for something unique and wholesome like artichokes.