Perhaps more than anyone, Hugo Tottino is at the heart of today’s artichoke industry. Born in September 1926 on Molera Road near Castroville, California, he has never strayed from his roots for long. Castroville was the scene of his grade school education before he attended Salinas High School. After he graduated in 1944, he continued his studies and “played football” at Hartnell (it was called Salinas Junior College at the time) briefly before being called up by the Navy in November that same year. After serving in various Pacific ports such as San Francisco, Pearl Harbor, Guam, Saipan and Bikini, he was discharged in July 1946 and returned home.
It was his intention to continue with his education at the JC but, as he tells it, “the registration line was too long.” Randy Barsotti, a partner in California Artichoke and Vegetable, spotted him standing there and asked Hugo to come work for them. Randy’s argument must have been convincing because after two days of school, Hugo started work at California Artichoke and Vegetable (now Ocean Mist Farms) and has been there ever since. Today, he is one of the partners but back then he started working the docks.
“We received the artichokes,” he explains. “We’d tell the growers all to get there in the morning (they got to know that) because then we’d start setting up the orders. We’d unload ‘em and then start loading all the trucks. After we load all the trucks, then we’d have to load all the [rail] cars. Everything went by rail car. So, then we’d have to load all these cars and we’d stay ’til we finished for the day. It might be 6 o’clock it might be 9 or 10. Depending on how much work we had.”
Five rail cars at a time would be parked on the spur located directly in front of the old shed. “We’d load all those five cars in one day and we’d have to wait for the switch to come,” Hugo continues, “the train would only come at certain times. They’d pick those up, put more back in. Then we’d load some more. Then we’d blow ice up on top of the car. We used to load a lot of straight cars of artichokes in those days. And it was a bigger box. I remember 504 boxes to a car.”
When he wasn’t working at the shed, he was working his family’s farm. As he explains, “I stayed there only during the artichoke season. That was from after Labor Day until the end of the artichoke deal—say the end of May—and then I would go to the Ranch.” It was a 40 acre-spread where he grew artichokes, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. “I liked artichokes,” he says, “and got lucky. We hit a couple of good years—so from there, I stayed in the artichokes.”
During the 1950s, many of his neighboring farmers were going out of business. Heeding some sage advice from his father, he bought existing leases whenever possible. He picked up partners and continued to expand his business. In 1955, when existing canneries were not offering decent prices for artichoke product, he was instrumental in forming Artichoke Industries to process artichokes.
Asked if he had any advice for today’s young growers, Hugo responds, “I cannot believe how fast it’s changing. It’s just a complete different ballgame. We’ve seen changes…this computer is bringing more and more…they have to be aggressive to stay on top of so many different problems. Then you have market and you don’t have prices; and, yet, there’s always someone there that will take your place if you leave. Things are tough. That’s why a lot of them are getting so big…to stay in business.”
“You know, I want to stay in farming — I love it,” he continues, “but conditions are changing so much. Look at your cotton farmers today. Look at even your great America — your corn, your soybeans, and all that. I always love to say people will go to a bar and spend $4 or $5 for a drink or $10 for a bottle of wine but they don’t want to pay $2 for a head of lettuce or a melon or something like that. That’s my point. That’s the way it is.”
Hugo foresees other changes in the artichoke industry including continued improvements in the seeded (annual) varieties. He says it may take a little time but such development is important because of their higher yields and lower growing costs compared to the Green Globe (perennial) variety. In addition, value-added packaging of artichokes, which should shorten preparation and cooking times, is on the horizon, too.
When asked the “high point” of his career, he reflects a moment and says, “I’ve made so many good friends and partners, particularly [compared to] to today’s deal. I had partners on a handshake — no papers, no anything — and everything was 50-50 or whatever it was and I never had a [formal] partner agreement. Today, if you don’t have a lease or go to three or four different attorneys, it’s a different ballgame.”
Hugo is fit and thankful for his good health. In addition to daily walks, his advice is to eat more fruits and vegetables. “I grew up in a house where we had a lot of vegetables and fruit,” he says, “and I honestly believe that people don’t have enough. They say 5 a day, I say even more. Not because I’m a grower — [but because] it’s good for you.”
“Eat more fresh artichokes, too,” he grins. “Naturally, I’m prejudiced. I love artichokes. I always have.”
He also adores his wife, Dolores, to whom he’s been married for nearly 50 years. He loves his five children and nine grandchildren. And he cannot imagine the possibility of retirement.
“I wouldn’t know what to do without work,” he says. “If I retired, I’d die. I go down there every morning six days a week. I’m down there by 7 a.m. and they let me do more or less what I want. I enjoy that. I really do! A lot of people don’t like to get up to go to work. I enjoy it — I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve been awful lucky.”