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A Kinder, Gentler Artichoke

Steve Jordan works with varieties that make the edible thistle ever more accessible.

Photo: Toni Gauthier

By Susan Caba

Steve Jordan has a passion for artichokes—but not the familiar spiky, leather-leafed variety. His 'chokes are jewel-like globes, fat and heavy in the hand, amethyst or celadon, tight-skinned and subtly textured. Or they are tiny ones—little dark purple tulips with guarded hearts—that tempt you to have your way with them, warmed and tossed in garlicky olive oil.

Jordan, '70, has been growing artichokes since 1986, when his brother Rusty claimed the first U.S. patent on an artichoke variety. (The brothers split their farming operation but still collaborate in a seed business.) In 2001, Steve Jordan, working with French and Italian cultivars, began hybridizing artichokes that resemble cabbages, round with soft leaves and a flavor more buttery than those commonly stocked at supermarkets. He holds several patents for these artichokes and others he discovered.

Baroda Farms, owned by Jordan and his wife, is located an hour north of Santa Barbara, Calif. Its signature artichokes are the Lyon (pale green) and the Fiore Viola (deep purple), as well as the miniature, plum-colored Fiesoles, which are almost entirely edible because they are harvested before they develop the fuzzy choke that guards the heart. Baroda is the second largest commercial grower in California, which produces virtually 100 percent of the U.S. artichoke crop. But the 470 acres Jordan devotes to artichokes is a minuscule patch compared to the 7,000-some acres cultivated by the largest grower. His annual production of more than 200,000 cartons is a fleck among the more than 4 million cartons—all containing the familiar Green Globe variety—produced by others.

Purple artichoke
Toni Gauthier

He comes from an agricultural family. One grandfather and both great-grandfathers cultivated lemon and orange groves in Riverside; his father sold farm equipment. After graduation, Jordan intended to start a vineyard but "got distracted by the vegetable business."

Many commercially produced artichokes are perennials. A single plant produces flower buds (the part we eat), which get harvested before they reach the bloom stage. A plant typically produces good buds for up to 10 years. New plants commonly are propagated from cuttings of existing plants—essentially dividing a parent plant. In the field, that's a rough, machete-driven process.

By contrast, the Jordan brothers started growing artichokes from seed, treating them as annuals. This allowed them to extend the growing season and produce artichokes beyond the normal spring harvest. He says the industry has been converting to production with annuals.

What sets Jordan apart from other commercial growers, besides color and variety, is the extent to which he has invested in laboratory-grade tissue propagation. At Baroda Farms, lab director Susan Cooper-Smith presides over the process in a 4,200-square-foot laboratory, where technicians with steady hands and keen eyesight shave nearly microscopic particles from a single stock plant. The particles are placed in test tubes of sterilized growth medium, meticulously labeled and nurtured through a series of ever-larger tubes until they produce roots and are transferred to an adjacent greenhouse for hardening off (acclimating to outdoor growing conditions).

From the greenhouse, the fledgling artichokes—all genetically indexed and logged in mind-numbing detail—are transplanted to a field called the "foundation block." There, the lab staff monitors their development, marking better-than-average plants—those with a rich color, a desirable shape and substantial heft—with little yellow flags.

The cycle is repeated, using tissue from the best of this foundation stock. This time the fledglings are planted in "nursery blocks," to see how they do in larger numbers. Only those that pass muster at that stage proceed to patenting and eventual field production. The process—from the hand-planting of fledglings to the harvesting of buds, including picking once a week and sorting by size in the field—is extremely labor intensive. The journey from cultivar in the lab stage to the bowl of melted butter on your table? Jordan says it can take at least six years.

Susan Caba, a 1997 Knight fellow, is a freelance journalist.

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