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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Castroville Artichoke Festival and Farm Tour 2008

This year Stacy joined me at the Artichoke Festival in Castroville. Again, the day was beautiful, with a clear blue sky, temps in the mid seventies and a light breeze just when you needed it.
We saw artichoke and vegetable art, known as the Agro-Art Competition, checked out the luscious food booths with all types of artichoke specialties, listened to some great bands, and even caught a belly-dancing presentation.

This year, for the first time we caught the bus for the farm tour. It turned out to be much more interesting than I thought it would be. Times are different, and artichoke packing has come a long, long way since my grandfather's day. What used to be done in a big wooden barn, (the packing shed) on the ranch property close to the fields is now done in the field with special tractor-truck setups that aide in sorting, sizing and boxing the chokes on site. Then the chokes are immediately trucked to the refrigerated storage areas at Ocean Mist headquarters.

It still takes people to cull and sort the artichokes into their boxes, so the basic methods have not changed since I can remember. Artichokes are labor intensive, no doubt about it. The industry is now just that--industry--not just small farms, but people are still at the heart of the process. No machine has yet been developed that can quickly review and sort for size, shape, and quality like a human can.

But, believe it or not, the most dramatic strides seem to be in the way they protect the chokes from pests. The biggest enemy is a specialized little moth that only lived on weeds and thistles indigenous to the California coast. But, when the Italian farmers arrived and planted artichokes in the Castroville area, turns out the little moths found their heaven on earth! The Italian farmers had never seen these particular little moths before and first tried using pesticides, with little headway. Now, they've abandoned the pesticides, which didn't work because though it might kill the moths it didn't kill their larvae hatching and feeding inside the safety of the artichokes. The moth-larvae-moth cycle was never broken. With the help of scientific research and moth psychology, the industry has worked out a method that turns the little moth's mating habits against them. Yep, girl-moth pheromones are synthetically reproduced and put in little bait stations filled with water at the ends of the plant rows. The poor guy-moths never knew what hit 'em. They drown in their own love. This cuts the numbers of moths mating, thereby cutting the numbers of little larvae growing inside the chokes...without pesticides!

We learned more on the tour, too--about new hybrid varieties of artichokes and how they're planted and grown in different climates so that we can have chokes in the market longer (I still like the taste of the Green Globe I grew up with). And we learned about the way the industry is working with the water treatment authorities to help stop seawater encroachment in the area's wells.

I highly recommend the Farm Tour if you have a chance to go to the Artichoke Festival. It was a hoot, and the tourists were amazing--out in the fields with their cameras clicking away.

It gave me a chance to share my past with Stacy, too. I pointed out my grandfather's old homestead out in the fields, (now gone) and told her how I remembered him tinkering with his own Caterpillar tractors in the big ol' tractor shed. The packing barn was mostly off limits to me when I was really little, but I remember it's sounds and smells really well; rich dark earth, artichoke parts and leaves everywhere, old wood and lichen smells, truck exhaust, gasoline, pigeons flying overhead and cooing like crazy, and all the people in their sweatshirts and gloves sorting the chokes and putting them into wooden crates. The pigeons really fascinated me, and I always wanted to go for a ride on one of the tractors. (Dad obliged occasionally, driving us to town and back.)

Now that I know why those old barns are gone, it's not so hard to understand. Progress, even for an old-fashioned looking, labor intensive flower bud, marches on.

Artichoke Festival Parade

Next year, I'm going to sign up for the bicycle exhibit. I have an old fat-tired Schwinn that I'd like to clean up and ride in the parade. Talk about a nostalgic trip!

And here are some cool rockin' videos to watch on the Ocean Mist website...from cooking to harvesting, learn more about my favorite bud! www.oceanmist.com/video/

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