In the first segment of our Faces of Farming miniseries, we meet vegetable farmer and VP of Artichoke Production Dale Huss. Dale explains what it takes to get all of those vegetables from the fields to our front door
ND: So in particular, I want you to tell us a little bit more about artichokes. I talked a little bit earlier about some of the special nutritional features of artichokes, but I have to admit, I've never actually seen one growing in a field. I have no idea what that looks like. What's involved in growing an artichoke? Is that a really long season crop? Is it seasonal, sort of like pomegranate? How does that work?
DH: Actually, things are changing in the artichoke industry because they have to, because of the increasing cost, and the pressures that are being felt by every farmer, rancher, grower, out there. What's happening with artichokes is that 20 years ago, the plants were perennials, and by that I mean we would prepare a field, take cuttings from crowned sections of existing plants, and we'd move them to a new field and we plant those. And from the time they were planted until the time harvest would start would be usually about 6 months. But because they're in the ground for as long as they are, we have problems beginning to build up in those fields with pests. And especially in the last 10 years, where it's been warmer and drier than normal, we've had increasing pest pressures, and we can't escape them unless we rotate with other crops. And so our new culture, and Ocean Mist being the leaders in the artichoke industry, we evaluate some 700-1,000 different individual selections of different artichokes every year, looking at a lot of different things. But these are annual varieties now, and so they'll go in the ground as transplants, small plants at maybe 4-6 inches high, and by the time they start harvesting, they can be as tall as 5 feet. In the summertime, the season is much shorter and usually production is in the four to five months and by going to an annual culture, we do a few things. Number one, we rotate with other crops, meaning we can get away from some of those pest pressures that just seem to nag us throughout the growing season. And we also increase our yields pretty significantly, so it allows us to be more efficient from our growing standpoint.
ND: What do you think some of the misunderstandings or misconceptions that people have about what's going on at farms?
DH: Well here, you're talking about a vegetable operation like ours, the first thing people who don't really understand how their food is produced, the first thing they're going to see is how many people it takes to bring that food to their table. You're going to see the amount of hand labor it takes because in order to harvest cauliflower, in order to harvest lettuce, in order to harvest artichokes, it requires a lot of hand labor. So you could be looking at 20-30, in some cases in our brussel sprout crews, maybe 80-100 people out harvesting those crops. So that's the first thing they're going to see. But if they dig a little deeper and they really want to understand — for instance, in my case, I'm managing maybe 400 different fields with maybe 15 different crops being grown in any of those fields at any given time, all of them requiring different water, irrigation, and fertility regimes. And then if you dig even a little deeper, you get an understanding of the planning it takes to even get us to that point. We sit down with our sales people twice a year and we ask them what kind of volumes we're going to need. And if they say we need 70,000 a week of head lettuce — I'm talking about cartons — then we have to plan to get that and have that for him at a consistent basis throughout the year.
ND: Farming is obviously not an easy way to make a living. It's hard work, it's long days, big risk and not great margins — what keeps you in this profession, year after year?
DH: There's no greater feeling in the world than having a great crop on a great market. There's no worse feeling in the world than having a lousy crop because you screwed it up. And so, that's it. It's that risk-reward and that challenge that just keeps you going. And it's one of the things that really attracted me to agriculture and farming — if you want to work hard, you can be successful. The harder you work, the more successful you can be. We're not talking 8 hours, we're not talking 10 hours, sometimes you're talking 14, 16 hours a day. Oh by the way, artichokes don't stop growing because it's Sunday. And they don't stop growing because it's Christmas. And I mean, don't get me wrong, we don't usually work Christmas, but at the same time, we work a lot of Sundays. And so that's the risk-reward, and that's the trade-off. But if you work hard and you're paying attention to that crop, chances are you're going to be more successful more times than not. The other side of it is, and I'll be honest with you Monica, you got to have a short memory. Like in the last couple years the mark's just been terrible. And so even though you're working hard, you're just losing. And so, all it takes for somebody in agriculture is to have a couple weeks where all of a sudden, you have some good markets and some good crops to go with those good markets. And all those weeks of kind of loss and misery are forgotten and you're looking to the future and you're looking for hope because you know darn well things can change in a hurry, and that's what you're in it for. And that's what makes it exciting.