CASTROVILLE, Calif. — The colors of California’s desert winter vegetables this season may rival a New England landscape of fall leaves.
Fresh produce wearing hues of greens, reds, yellows and oranges will soon grace retailer shelves and restaurant dinner plates.
Near-ideal fall weather during the growing season will produce some of the best winter vegetables in years, grower-shippers said.
The artichoke season is winding down on the California coast, but it is in high gear in the desert.
October was the biggest artichoke picking month in the desert.
The excellent weather to date should translate to good quantities of artichokes through December, said Michael Boggiatto, president of Boggiatto Produce Inc., Salinas.
Coastal artichoke giant Ocean Mist, Castroville, is growing the desert crop in the Coachella Valley, said Gary Silacci, sales manager.
Leading the winter harvest parade are some winter varieties of bell peppers.
Picking of green bell peppers at Prime Time International, Coachella, started the week of Oct. 26, said Jeff Taylor, a salesman for the grower-shipper’s marketing division, Prime Time Sales LLC.
“We’re also moving out the last of the field red bell peppers and the red, yellow and orange hothouse peppers from Oxnard,” Taylor said in late October.
Prices for bell peppers could be down slightly from year ago f.o.b.s, Taylor said, because the worldwide demand for seed has eased.
Harvesting of green bell peppers for Fresno-based Baloian Farms began Oct. 29, said Jeremy Lane, sales manager.
Desert bell pepper acreage for Sun World International LLC, Bakersfield, has nearly doubled over the 2008 deal and includes green peppers for the first time in many years, said Stuart Musashi, vice president of southern operations.
“We have 57 acres of greens and 130 acres of reds,” he said.
In recent years, Sun World has been planting only about 100 desert acres of red bell peppers.
Peter Rabbit Farms, Coachella, began harvesting green and red bell peppers in late October, said John Burton, general manager.
“The yields are usually a little lower for the fall-winter deal, but the quality is a tick higher because of the slower growing,” he said.
The market for the peppers was excellent through October, with demand exceeding supply, Burton said.
The traditional No. 2 entry in the desert’s winter line up is broccoli.
Brawley-based Five Crowns will be growing and packing broccoli again this winter for Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, said Joe Colace, a partner in Five Crowns.
Ocean Mist also will be growing rapini, also known as broccoli rabe, in the Brawley area, Silacci said.
Salinas-based D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California will follow suit, growing broccoli and broccoli rabe in the Brawley area, said Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, executive vice president of sales and marketing.
Brawley-grown broccoli rabe was introduced last season as iceless, precut and prewashed tips for foodservice.
It carries the company’s familiar Andy Boy label.
Moving the broccoli crop from Arizona to California was strictly a business decision, D’Arrigo-Martin said.
“We’re hoping for better yields in the Imperial Valley,” she said.
D’Arrigo Bros. plans to ship full and half loads from Brawley with smaller loads transferred to Yuma for shipping.
The broccoli harvest is scheduled to begin immediately after the Thanksgiving weekend, D’Arrigo-Martin said, and will continue through March.
Desert-grown broccoli also will be coming from Boggiatto Produce. The start of the broccoli harvest will be about Nov. 30 and will continue through March, Boggiatto said.
Holtville-based Imperial Sales plans to market desert-grown broccoli, but the big change in the company’s inventory this season is the addition of cabbage, said owner Cliff Smith.
Imperial Sales plans to market green cabbage for the first time in more than a decade, he said.
“We’re betting on an El Niño year,” Smith said.
When El Niño conditions are present on the West Coast, heavy rains tend to knock out the Oxnard and Santa Maria cabbage crops, Smith said, and open Texas to crop-killing freezes.
“I hate to wish bad luck on anyone, but we’re just banking on the El Niño,” he said.
Cabbage remains a staple at Vessey & Co. Inc., Holtville, said Jack Vessey, vice president.
The company also markets bok choy and napa, he said.
Boggiatto Produce, as it has for many years, also is growing desert cabbage.
Baloian Farms plans to market desert-grown cauliflower for the first time this season, Lane said.
“We’ve planted sizeable acreage. We’ll be a good supplier,” he said.
Thermal area growers use third-party daily audits to gauge the quality of their produce, Lane said.
The Baloian Farms-Delk Farms partnership ranks No. 1 in leaf lettuce and spinach most of the time, he said.
The company will place equal emphasis on the cauliflower crop.
“That’s our goal to be No. 1,” Lane said. “It shows that we’re achieving our goals when third-party inspectors rank us No. 1.”
Salinas-based Coastline Produce will compete for that top ranking in the desert, but its cauliflower acreage is in the Brawley area, said Mark McBride, sales office manager.
Ocean Mist is another Salinas-based grower-shipper growing and packing cauliflower. The company’s cauliflower deal is grown in the Coachella Valley, Silacci said.
Coachella appears to be the desert’s winter eggplant capital.
The harvest began in October.
“The weather has been exceptional and the markets have been high,” Burton said. “The quality has been outstanding. We’ve had a great growing season.”
Peter Rabbit Farms plans to harvest eggplant until the first frost, which usually occurs in late December or early January, Burton said.
A close Coachella neighbor, Prime Time Sales, also is marketing eggplant again this season.
Prime Time, too, has an outstanding crop, Taylor said.
Coastline has made the commitment to offering customers a year round supply of bagged green beans, McBride said, and the winter desert crop is a link in that supply chain.
The desert harvest will mark the end of the company’s first full year of marketing its bagged green beans.
“Most of the green beans are shipped in a 6- by 12-ounce retail bag pack, but we also have a 4- by 2-pound foodservice carton,” McBride said.
The desert green bean season is relatively short.
Prime Time Sales should ship beans through November, Taylor said.
Peter Rabbit Farms is bringing back green beans for the winter after laying off the commodity last year, Burton said.
Because the beans were planted in two different blocks, the company should have supplies into December.
“We’re scheduled to start harvesting the first block Nov. 9, but the second block won’t start until Nov. 20-23,” Burton said in late October.
The start of the winter spinach season at Baloian Farms is scheduled for late November, Lane said.
As is the case with the company’s other winter vegetables, the spinach will be grown in the Thermal area.
“The area is at a slightly higher elevation than most of the Coachella Valley,” Lane said. “The windbreaks, both natural and tree lines, and the elevation give us a microclimate that we believe is the best growing weather in the desert.”
The spinach harvest for Ocean Mist was scheduled to begin, weather permitting, in mid-to-late November, Silacci said.
Vessey & Co. also is growing spinach on its Imperial Valley acreage, but the company grows the commodity for other marketers, Vessey said.
Due to a reporter’s error. this story originally misnamed Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms’ sales manager Gary Silacci.