2000s Archive

How To Tame a Wildflower

Originally Published September 2000
In the big-time world of California corporate farming, an Italian chicory tamer is turning weeds into gold.

In 1988 Lucio Gomiero arrived in Salinas, California, with a scheme that some might have called crazy. Here, in the same soil where huge corporate growers reap profits harvesting produce that looks uniform and acts predictably, Gomiero proposed planting radicchio, the wild child of the lettuce kingdom.

Fifteen years ago, few Americans had even heard of radicchio. But Gomiero wasn’t going to let that stop him. And what about the fact that Salinas farmland was some of the most expensive in the world? “We came looking for 20 acres,” he says with a broad smile. “We could only afford one.”

Gomiero had a hunch that Americans would be seduced by radicchio’s sophisticated, Italianate bitterness. And standing in a motel parking lot with no land, no machinery, and no workers to his name, he decided that Salinas, which had the infrastructure to ship refrigerated produce to any part of the country, was just the place to grow it.

Gomiero’s gamble has more than paid off. Helped by the simultaneous growth of the prepackaged-salad industry, which began using radicchio for color, his one acre soon turned into dozens. Today, European Vegetable Specialties, the company he formed with an Italian grower, Carlo Boscolo, and two local farmers, John Tamagni and Dennis Johnson, is the largest producer of radicchio in the world. It cultivates not only Chioggia radicchio (the most well-known variety, with white- veined purple leaves and a cabbagelike head) but more Treviso (the loose-leafed kind that Americans are just beginning to know) than any farmer in Italy.

Of course, risk-taking has long been a part of the region’s heritage. In the 1940s, the idea of vacuum-cooling lettuce so that it could be shipped as far away as New York seemed like a fantasy—remember Steinbeck’s Adam Trask losing his fortune on the notion in East of Eden? But by the end of the decade that was the innovation that had transformed this coastal valley into the Salad Bowl of the World. In season, fully 80 percent of the nation’s lettuce comes from Salinas. At the Growers Ice Company, near the edge of town, enormous 12-prong forklifts place hundreds of cases of iceberg and romaine lettuce at a time into massive cooling chambers that chill the produce to 34°F. So many 18-wheelers wait with engines idling to transport the lettuce that the ground underfoot literally rumbles. It would seem there is little room left for risk-taking.

And so, in an environment devoted to the principles of agricultural sameness and where volume and efficiency are everything, it is very strange indeed to hear someone expounding on the individuality of a vegetable. But up a flight of stairs from the loading docks, in the offices of European Vegetable Specialties, amid salesmen talking of airfreighting pallets and harvest managers punching up satellite images of storms forming over the Pacific, Gomiero is likely to be found holding forth on radicchio’s unique personality. “Ah, radicchio,” he sighs, like a parent who is not quite displeased by the scrapes his child gets into, “it is so temperamental.”

His explanation of why this is so begins with a blue flower that grows from a weed that can be found in climatic conditions as diverse as those of New York State and those of the Mediterranean basin. This is chicory. Over the centuries, through selection and breeding, chicory has led to numerous varieties of radicchio, among them the round Chioggia that is used in salads; the longer, tapered Treviso that is most often grilled; and the pale, Bibb-like Castelfranco.

“They all look very different,” says Gomiero, “but if they went to seed they’d all have blue flowers.”

What makes radicchio temperamental is that even when it’s been bred for specific objectives, it’s not completely domesticated. Because it’s always trying to revert to its wildest stage, it can sometimes form a head that’s too loose. At other times, it may not form a head at all. It may even bolt—shooting up a flower stem—prematurely, resulting in a plant that cannot be harvested. For a niche operation like European Vegetable Specialties, it is vital to avoid such irregularities. And that’s why the seed quality is all-important and the number of U.S. growers so small. “With radicchio you don’t have large seed companies that can guarantee you any outcome,” Gomiero says. “We base our operation on the fact that we produce our own seeds.”

Gomiero learned about radicchio seeds the hard way. When he asked farmers in his native Veneto for seeds, he was rarely denied a handful. But these seeds never germinated. Unbeknownst to Gomiero, the farmers had been careful to pass the seeds through an oven before handing them over. Now he understands why. Seeds that could produce crops of regular size, head tightness, rib thickness, and coloration were the legacy of families that, generation after generation, had selected the best of their plants to provide seeds for the next year’s crop. In plant-breeding circles, this is called “mass selection.” To the farmers in the towns of Chioggia, Treviso, and Castelranco (which, after all, give the radicchio varieties their names), it is quite a bit more personal. “I was asking them for the work of their fathers and grandfathers,” says Gomiero. “They weren’t about to give that away.”

Gomiero eventually hooked up with Carlo Boscolo, an old friend whose family also grew radicchio. Still, the seeds from the Boscolo farm, though bred for uniformity, had to be selected to produce radicchio that could flourish in California. “We discovered that in summer, Chioggia and Treviso can actually grow better in Salinas than in the Veneto,” says Gomiero. “But other varieties didn’t work here at all. Within two or three years, we’d figured it out.”

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