Ocean Mist Farms
What do you do when “know your farmer” means shaking thousands of hands to get your artichoke? When all you’re dreaming about is lemon-spiked butter but you’re worried about the provenance of your produce? You do your research, and you make your own choices. Some farmers are drawn to organic farming because of their principals, others by market forces; both groups are ultimately committed to more sustainable practices.
Founded in the early 1920s, Ocean Mist Farms is now the largest grower of fresh artichokes in the United States. Born in “The Artichoke Capital of the World” and home of the Artichoke Food & Wine Festival, Ocean Mist Farms grows organic and conventional produce year-round in multiple growing regions and microclimates throughout California (Castroville, Huron, Oxnard, Coachella and Imperial Valley), Arizona (Yuma) and Mexico. What began as a few men working together as the California Artichoke & Vegetable Growers Corporation is now a fourth-generation family owned, privately held, and 100% vertically integrated business headquartered in Castroville, CA.
Daniel Pieri and cousins Amerigo and Angelo Del Chiaros leased land south of Castroville in 1924 and soon Alfred Tottino, a local vegetable grower, joined their business venture, setting up shop in a tin roofed wood shed at the Del Monte Junction. Beginning with artichokes, they began diversifying, growing broccoli, fava beans, English peas, cabbage, cardone, and fennel. In the early 1980s, the product line expanded even further to include asparagus, cauliflower, celery, green onions, leeks, iceberg lettuce, mixed lettuce, and rapini. In 1983, the Bengard family joined in, bringing approximately 1,800 more acres of fresh produce. In 1995, the operation was christened Ocean Mist Farms. The Pieri-Reasons and Tottino families continue to be involved in Ocean Mist Farms operations.
Today, Ocean Mist Farms employs nearly 1,500 people: approximately 90 people in sales and related administrative positions, approximately 200 in packing and state‐of‐the‐art shipping and cooling facilities, and nearly 1,200 individuals at their affiliated ranches and harvesting operations. People are at the (artichoke) heart of Ocean Mist Farms, and the organization works to make sure that their people are taken care of, from an employee assistance program that includes mental health and legal counseling to providing benefits, savings and investment plans, and professional development opportunities to all full time employees. And this investment in people shows: 48% of employees have been with the company for over 10 years. Ocean Mist Farms also offers academic scholarships, with two of the seven scholarships offered available exclusively to a dependent of an Ocean Mist Farms Affiliate Company employee.
Along with taking care of people, Ocean Mist combines a large-scale growing operation with small-farm values when it comes to choosing environmentally conscious farming methods. While organic growing does not make up the majority of Ocean Mist Farms’ production, it is the sector with most rapid growth: the farm began planting organic artichokes in the 1990s and now offers a range of certified organic produce under the Ocean Mist Organic label, including beets, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, fennel, lettuces, parsley and spinach. The original farm’s Castroville location, with its proximity to the delicate ecosystems of Monterey Bay, has also prompted water conservation and runoff management. Ocean Mist Farms is an industry leader in water conservation, having used recycled water from Monterey County Water Resource Agency, an agency encompassing the Salinas Valley Reclamation Plant and the Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project (CSIP) since 1998. Though the recycled water is three times as expensive as well water, Ocean Mist Farms uses approximately two billion gallons of recycled (treated to drinking standard) water per year in their farming operations. This accounts for about 30 percent of the total water used by Ocean Mist Farms in the Castroville & Salinas growing regions, helping slow the intrusion of seawater into the aquifers by pumping less fresh water out of the ground and allowing the aquifers to replenish naturally. Ocean Mist is also involved in Elkhorn Slough’s restoration projects to restore wetlands and improve water quality running off into the Monterey Bay.
As any farmer knows, water is only part of the growing equation. Ocean Mist maintains soil health and fertility by working crop residue back into the soil, planting cover crops, establishing a robust crop rotation program, and carefully managing irrigation activities to regulate nutrient runoff. Organic crops are treated with natural pesticides like chrysanthemum extracts, and Ocean Mist Farms’ Integrated Pest Management strategy uses biological controls (like ladybugs that munch on aphids), monitoring (using traps and field counts), habitat manipulation (wildflower plantings that attract beneficial insects), and weed clearing to ensure healthy crops. Ocean Mist Farms’ sustainability efforts also include decreasing their carbon footprint (through efficient and tech-enabled machinery and LED lighting in indoor facilities), and working to alleviate hunger and reduce food waste (and donating nearly 12 million pounds of fresh produce over the past 20 years) by partnering with organizations like Ag Against Hunger and the California Association of Food Banks and donating surplus vegetables to local dairies for cattle feed.
But it all comes back to the artichokes, those delicious unbloomed flowers. The artichokes are perennially grown from rootstock, meaning the same plants keep producing artichokes for many years. One artichoke plant can produce up to 20 artichokes per year, with individual stalks able to support up to 10 artichokes! Though artichokes are chock-full of anti-inflammatory antioxidants, their unusual shape and composition can be intimidating to even the California Artichoke Queen (Marilyn Monroe was the first official queen if the Castroville Artichoke Food & Wine Festival in 1949!). Thankfully, Ocean Mist Farms has put together a number of videos that demonstrate various artichoke preparations, from how to prep the woody buds to how to boil, steam, grill, microwave, Instant Pot, bake, and even eat them! With so many recipes to choose from, how can you resist stopping by your co-op for some organic California artichokes?
Photos © Ocean Mist Farms