Jan 17, 2012
Ocean Mist Farms adds value to artichokes

Virtually every type of fruit and vegetable has been processed into a value-added product in recent years, as growers and processors rush to meet the rapidly growing demand for the convenience they offer consumers. But one vegetable seems to have been left out: artichokes.

Ocean Mist Farms, the nation’s largest artichoke grower, has filled the void with the industry’s first microwaveable artichoke, a product that may help increase the vegetable’s popularity while offering a new ease in cooking.

The artichokes follow on the heels of demands from retailers and consumers alike asking for an artichoke that is easier to prepare.

“We have received inquiries over the years from both our retail customers and our consumers for a microwaveable artichoke,” said Kori Tuggle, director of marketing and business development for Ocean Mist Farms. “Consumer research told us that many shoppers view prepping of artichokes as the major barrier to purchase.”

Even with consumer and retailer requests for the new artichoke, there was still a question of whether there was a big enough demand for the product and whether it would sell. The company initiated a limited marketing program in northern California retail stores during the spring 2011 artichoke season to test the product among retailers and consumers, and found that there was quite an interest. There was also good industry reception when they released the new product at the Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) Fresh Summit convention in Atlanta last October.

“We received unanimous positive feedback from the industry at Fresh Summit, it being the first of its kind product for the artichoke category,” Tuggle said.

The product also received PMA’s National Award for Innovative Packaging at the convention. The packaging is a key factor in the ease of the new artichokes.

The package features two artichokes that are cleaned and trimmed, essentially bypassing much of the preparation time for traditional cooking methods of boiling or steaming. More than half the preparation time is eliminated, which is particularly important for consumers who don’t have time for preparation or have never enjoyed an artichoke in their lives and don’t know where to begin.

“From the start, we knew we had to make the new pack hassle-free with no preparation, and a short cook time and excellent eating experience,” Tuggle said. “(It) is an opportunity to attract customers that are time-deprived and want a faster way to cook a fresh artichoke, or are intimidated by them because they don’t know how to clean or prep a fresh artichoke.”

Another feature in the packaging is a zip-lock seal that allows consumers the ability to season them prior to microwaving, whether they like their own flavor or are experimenting with new tastes.

“We know being able to give the consumer control of how and what is used to flavor the artichoke would be a key attribute for a repeat purchase,” she said. “The zip-lock feature allows the consumer the chance to season the artichoke to their preference before cooking, so that they use them to their preferred flavoring.”

The artichokes are scheduled for a retail release in 2012, with no current plans for foodservice.

Ocean Mist Farms has been growing artichokes in central California since 1924, when Daniel Pieri, Alfred Tottino, James Bellone and Amerigo and Angelo Del Chiaro created the California Artichoke & Vegetable Growers Corp. in Castroville, renamed Ocean Mist Farms in 1995. Operations are still heavily devoted to artichokes, but the company has branched out into new commodities in recent years including broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cardone, cauliflower, celery, fava beans, fennel, green onions, spinach and several lettuces. Most is sold in bulk; the microwaveable artichokes mark the company’s foray into packaged, value-added products.

The company is a vertically integrated operation, processing and marketing its own stock. The company is certified through the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement, and has a list of good agricultural practices to ensure food safety compliance that include risk assessments, production chain communications, mandatory employee education, sanitation of field and processing equipment, integrated pest management programs and third-party audits. Each of these practices is rigorously monitored by the company as a “holistic approach” to food safety, according to the company.

Food safety begins in the field, with detailed risk assessments of each field prior to planting. Employees also follow standard hygiene practices and verify the sanitation and maintenance of all equipment during cultivation, along with an integrated pest management program that monitors weeds, diseases and insects to decrease chemicals during production. Irrigation water is extensively tested prior to application, and the company continually educates employees in harvest sanitation measures that address cross contamination, food security and hygiene.

Employees in the processing facilities follow good manufacturing processes and hazard analysis critical control points, which includes daily sanitation of the equipment. The company enacted an environmental monitoring program that uses inspections as one way to ensure sanitation prior to processing.

The cold chain is another way the company enhances food safety and quality, and Ocean Mist Farms takes precautions to ensure the chain isn’t broken. Produce is cooled within four hours of harvest and stored at 34˚ F to ensure freshness, then quickly moved to transportation facilities in refrigerated trucks. The coolers have strict sanitation rules mandating the use of disposable gloves for product handling, electric forklifts to prevent exhaust fumes in the coolers and potable water for cooling, according to the company.

“We are continuously looking for innovative ways to extend and add value to what we offer to our customers and consumers,” Tuggle said.

By Everett Brazil III, Southern Correspondant

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