U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that California produces almost all of the nation's commercial artichokes. But a team of agricultural researchers is working to change that, said Dr. Daniel Leskovar, a vegetable physiologist with Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.
"We're looking at the viability of artichokes as a new crop to enhance Texas agriculture," said Leskovar, who works at the Texas A&M University Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Uvalde. "There have been a few attempts to grow artichokes in the Rio Grande Valley over the past decades, but those were not successful due to the climate there. We're hoping to grow them successfully in this region û and possibly others."
The usually mild winter climate of the Texas Winter Garden region and its surrounding area is conducive to growing artichokes, he said. It also may be possible to grow them commercially in parts of West and North Texas.
Leskovar, who works for Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, and His team have already been successful in growing several artichoke varieties at the Uvalde center. They also have had success with initial trial production on a farm in nearby D'Hanis.
"We planted two hybrid varieties of artichoke on two acres but had mixed results, mainly because we planted one of them out of season and there was a freeze," said Jerry Van Damme of Van Damme Farms. "But we did OK with Madrigal variety we planted on one of those acres. In fact, the buyer wanted to be sure they got all of our artichokes because he said they were superior in quality and taste to the ones he was getting from California."
Artichoke production "is not something producers should just jump into," cautioned Van Damme. "Some [hybrid] varieties can cost a lot per acre to plant, and there are still a lot of things we have to work out with their production. I think it's best to start with just a few acres."
Once the specifics are worked out, producers should be able to plant about 2,200 artichoke plants per acre or about 5,500 plants per hectare, Leskovar said.
"Artichokes would be an excellent choice as an alternative crop for Texas agriculture because they are high in health properties and also have a high profit margin," he said. "They contain strong antioxidants, are a very good source of vitamins C, K, folate, magnesium, manganese, copper and dietary fiber, and they have phytochemicals, which are important in preventing or fighting diseases. And artichoke heads typically sell for one to three dollars each." An artichoke plant can produce six or more heads of different sizes per season, he said. And an added benefit is that the purple flowers left on unharvested plants are sometimes sold for commercial floral use.
"Artichokes have the potential for being a good crop for the Winter Garden and other areas of the state with limited water resources because they are reasonably water-efficient," added Dr. Bill Holloway, Experiment Station resident director at the Uvalde center.
To produce heads, artichoke plants require a cool season and a mild warm season, Leskovar said, and the Winter Garden region provides both.
"The cool season is needed to induce bolting and flower stalk growth to produce the immature flower or head of the artichoke," he said. "And the mild-warm season provides increased radiation and temperature for further head development."
Leskovar and his team, with the support of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center in College Station, are now in their third year of assessing the crop's feasibility for Texas.
Beginning in July 2004, they planted five types of artichokes in a test field at the Uvalde center to see which would fare best. About 800 artichoke plants were planted in a half-acre area. They used plants raised from seeds in containers in the center's greenhouse and transplanted Them in late September. Another planting followed in December.
"Green Globe and Imperial Star types gave the best results," Leskovar said. "These two varieties were considered the best on the basis of yield and water use, along with head size, shape, color, uniformity and phytochemical content."
Samples of the two æwinning' artichoke varieties were taken to Constanzo Farms Inc., a large South Texas vegetable producer and distributor, for assessment.
"The artichokes we saw from the Uvalde center were, in a word, beautiful," said Constanzo co-owner Michael Adamek. "Their quality was as good or better than what we've seen out of California, and so was the taste."
Adamek showed the artichokes to several of his produce buyers and they were "excited" about the possibility of growing them in the Winter Garden, he said.
"If we're able to grow artichokes in this region, that means we can also cut down on the cost of transporting them," Adamek said. "And with the increasing cost of fuel, that can mean a significant savings to the buyer when compared to getting them from California."
Over the past three years, Leskovar's team has continued to refine its research, including looking at subsurface drip irrigation in combination with different nitrogen rates, applying plant growth regulators and devising summer pruning techniques. The team hopes these practices Will extend the early spring harvest and produce a better quality and quantity of artichoke.
They also have been working on improving the artichoke plants' transplant tolerance to drought stress to ensure more successful planting in late summer.
"There's a direct correlation between head quality and an early harvest," Leskovar said. "An increase in temperature during late head development often means a decrease in quality."
Now the team has collected enough science-based crop feasibility data to share with other Winter Garden producers, along with some initial production strategies, he said.
"We already know we can produce artichokes in this region that compare very favorably with the ones grown in Spain and Italy, as well as in California," Leskovar said. "We hope Texas retailers and consumers will see the advantage of buying locally produced medium-to-large size artichoke heads with excellent flavor and freshness. This would be of economic benefit to many Texas producers and help create a new product market to further enhance Texas agriculture."