Texas growers eye artichoke market

Uvalde_California has long had an arti-chokehold on the spiny-leafed vegetable industry in the United States.

The unusual-looking vegetable, used in dips and salads or eaten alone with melted butter or mayonnaise, is a finicky grower. It finds the consistent climate in the northern part of the Golden State to its liking, but almost nowhere else in the United States.

Now Texas is trying to break California's dominance, or at least make it work a little harder for it.

A Texas A&M University researcher and a commercial grower in southern Texas are on a quest to use the area's Winter Garden region, with its cool wintertime temperatures, to grow artichokes comparable to California's finest.

"Our goal is to provide another product for the Winter Garden area to enhance the local economy," said Daniel Leskovar, a professor of vegetable physiology at Texas A&M's Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Uvalde, about 80 miles west of San Antonio. The Winter Garden region already produces cabbage, onions, carrots and broccoli.

While Leskovar, who has experimented with artichokes for three years, has no illusions that Texas could ever really grow as many artichokes as California, he said the heads grown here can be "as good or better" than those from out West.

"We're not trying to compete with California in terms of the production cycle because they have the climate," he said.

California has artichoke weather year-round, but the Winter Garden area averages 65 degrees from September through May, providing plenty of harvesting time and the perfect weather for the plants to thrive, Leskovar said.

Still, some are skeptical.

"God bless them," said Pat Hopper, manager for California Artichoke Advisory Board in Castroville, the self-proclaimed "Artichoke Center of the World."

"These guys in Texas don't know what they're in for" with the sensitive plant, Hopper said. "I would wish them luck in finding a market in Texas. Texas is not one of our best buyers of artichokes."

But Jerry Van Damme, a partner of a farm in D'Hanis, disputes that claim. Last year, Texas' H.E. Butt Grocery Company, whose retail outlets are known as HEB, bought all 600 cartons of artichokes he harvested, Van Damme said. He hopes to double his harvest next spring.

"They wanted more of them," he said. "They said that the consumer, getting feedback, was telling them how much better the flavor was. They're not as big, but the flavor is better, the hearts were better."

HEB spokeswoman Dya Campos said the grocer plans to buy Van Damme's artichokes again this year.

California is by far the nation's biggest harvester of artichokes for sale.

The 2002 USDA census, the most recent data available, showed that California has 83 farms that harvested more than 7,700 acres of artichokes. Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Arizona followed, each with fewer than five farms.

In Texas, the plants are grown first for six to eight weeks in a greenhouse, then planted in the ground. Greenhouse-nurtured plants are also used in California, said Richard Smith, University of California Cooperative Extension Farm adviser for Monterey County, and that method opens the door to success in more markets.

But California also grows perennial artichoke plants, which require a year-round cool climate that Texas doesn't have, Smith said. The perennials stay in the ground for up to 10 years and generally produce a higher quality artichoke head, though they are more expensive to maintain.

"If they have a market and they're closer to that market, it could really work out," Smith said of Texas' efforts.


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Texas A&M program: http://uvalde.tamu.edu

Elizabeth White, AP Writer © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.