Texas artichokes fill locally grown niche

01/14/2014 02:28:00 PM
Vicky Boyd

UVALDE, Texas — Daniel Leskovar isn’t out to dethrone Castroville, Calif., as the artichoke capital of the world.

What the plant physiologist and director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center in Uvalde hopes to do is find high-value crop alternatives — including artichokes — for the region’s vegetable grower-shippers.

“When you produce local foods, the quality becomes an important attribute for the consumer,” Leskovar said. “And they seem to like the taste and the flavor of the Texas-grown artichokes, and I think, in particular, because of the freshness.”

He also said he views artichokes not necessarily as a stand-alone crop but as part of a mix of locally grown produce items that grower-shippers can offer their customers.

Jed Murray, who with partners Miguel Ortiz and Mike Miller, own MO Produce LLC, Rancho Viejo, agreed.

“It’s a good value-added item for us. It’s a niche and there’s not a big window of time. But it allows us to deliver local produce to the Whole Foods-type of people. And Texas customers are extremely loyal to Texas growers, so they want to see Texas product when they get the opportunity.”

Texas artichoke packingCourtesy Texas A&M AgriLifeCrews at MO Produce LLC pack artichokes from nearby Rancho Viejo fields.MO Produce’s artichokes, grown near Rancho Viejo, start in late March after California’s Imperial Valley and end in late April or early May before the Castroville region starts in earnest.

For more than five years, Leskovar, university colleagues and MO Produce have worked together to fine-tune production and handling practices.

“He’s gotten to see his research put onto more of a production scale rather than a half or 1-acre trial,” Murray said of his 18-30 acres of artichokes.

In return, Leskovar has helped with fertility recommendations and quality standards.

MO Produce also hosts one of seven sites this year with variety trials, looking at how several artichoke varieties perform in different growing regions of the state.

Earlier trials showed that Imperial Star and the improved green globe were best suited to Texas’ Winter Garden and Rio Grande Valley. But Leskovar said he believes other varieties, including some from Italy, also may have a place.

In addition, the plant physiologist has a small artichoke breeding program where he’s crossing varieties with desirable characteristics to try to make them even better.

Leskovar's work is being funded in part by a specialty crops block grant administered by the Texas Department of Agriculture.

One of the challenges with growing artichokes in Texas is spring and summer heat, Leskovar said. Warm temperatures can speed choke maturity, quickly pushing them over the top.

“The quality of the head is really dependent on the day-night temperatures,” he said. “When you get close to the summer, you get rapid growth, so you have to be careful in not pressing the maturity stage.”

Murray said the grower-shipper spent two to three years finding the best ways to harvest and pack artichokes.

“It was a learning experience,” he said. “All of our crews were new to this. Now are customers are saying we’re getting our packs down and the quality is improving.”

The artichoke deal also has opened other doors for MO Produce, Murray said. Austin-based Whole Foods approached the grower-shipper this season about producing 50 acres of organic cabbage, kale, collards, beets and onions.

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