While heading south on Highway 1 toward Big Sur, the iconic road sweeps past a vast expanse of fallow land straddling Highway 1 just beyond the Carmel River. To the east, contented black cows graze the grasses under the gaze of the Santa Lucia foothills. A handful of small, bright red cabins stand sentinel on the southern edge; a strange, flat truck-like vehicle sits idly rusting away near the roadway. To the west, a few weathered, dilapidated buildings
poke up from wildly overgrown vegetation. From the vantage point of a vehicle on the roadway, there is little visible evidence that this land was once a thriving, profitable farm, tended by three generations of the Odello family. But a short hike up a trail that leads to the aptly named Inspiration Point reveals a vista that shows the land is still marked by what were once neat rows of what is to this day an important cash crop for Monterey County: Cynara scolymus or, the globe artichoke.
Born in 1885, Battista Odello came to America in 1909 from the commune of Nucetto in Piedmont, not far from Turin in northern Italy. He knocked around California for a time, chopping ice for used in iceboxes, trying his hand at gold mining and toiling in a steel mill at Oyster Point in South San Francisco, among other pursuits. In the early 1920s, he leased part of the Palo Corona Ranch, a plot of marshy river bottom land from the Thomas Oliver family. With 13 partners—all Italians save one, a man named Lantz, whose last initial would become part of the brand name, L&O, under which these Carmel artichokes were marketed—Odello groomed the 300 acres and planted the thistle plants he knew would thrive in that environment.
“Artichokes need to grow within sound of the breakers,” he is quoted as having said. His motto, one he passed on to his two sons, Bruno and Emilio, attests to the elder Odello’s Old World work ethic: “If you are honest and work hard, the good Lord will fulfill your dreams.”
The family worked diligently and honorably, and the good Lord kept up his end of the deal. By 1953 the partners had dispersed (some to grow artichokes in Castroville, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Capital of the World”) and the Odello family owned the farm outright; Bruno and Emilio had taken over the reins of management after World War II. According to a contemporary Monter-ey County Herald story, this was now “the smoothly operating, very successful Odello Brothers artichoke ranch.”
Battista passed away in 1963, and the family kept churning out ‘chokes, sending what was then a rare delicacy around the country. “Back then, artichokes were an aristocratic vegetable,” says Bruno’s son John, who still makes his home within shouting distance of the former family farm. “They were expensive and a luxury. During World War II, the government forced us and others to grow row crops instead. The family employed outside labor, “We had around 12 full time employees, plus more at harvest,” Odello says. But this was still very much a family affair. “The whole family would help during harvest. Wives, daughters, everyone pitched in.”
John spent his entire professional life working at the ranch, joined later by his sister Claire; cousins, Pam and Carla; and lastly, his younger brother Michael.
Today, Claire lives in a home with a sweeping view of the former artichoke fields. Fortunately, trees obscure her line of sight to the former ranch buildings that have today fallen into sad disrepair.
“I’m thankful for that,” she says.
All other Odello family members still live in the Carmel area.
Unlike many seasonal Monterey County crops, the Odello artichoke farm was a year-round operation. The plants were staggered in planting, enabling multiple harvests per year. In the days before long-distance interstate trucking became economically feasible, the finest specimens were shipped to far-flung markets via train from the Monterey train station, now the site of Dust Bowl Brewing. They were warehoused in the long, low building just to the north of the station. Some didn’t get that far.
“Local Italians would come down to the ranch and get the artichokes that couldn’t be sold,” Michael says. “Some would barter with fish; some would trade their labor.” Seeing the Odello’s success and recognizing the area as optimum for artichoke operations, other growers planted rows nearby. At the peak, there were around 1,000 acres of artichokes in production around the area, including on what is now the Mission Fields residential neighborhood and the area around the present-day Crossroads Shopping Village.
By the 1970s, the Odello’s property had increased in value so much that the property taxes became prohibitive. The Carmel Pine Cone reported that the land was taxed at the rate of $200 per acre in 1979. The family had seen the handwriting on the barn wall earlier, selling the west side field to the State of California and the east side to actor and Carmel businessman Clint Eastwood in 1996.
“We got taxed out of the artichoke business. Dad [Bruno] quit in 1995,” John recalls. “We had a five-year lease but there was a double flood in 1997 and that was our last year of growing artichokes.” It was the end of nearly eight decades of artichoke production in Carmel. John and his siblings carried on for a time, purchasing artichokes from other growers and marketing the hearts under the L&O banner for a few years.
As one might imagine, developers have been casting dreamy eyes on this plot of prime coastal California real estate for many years. Truth be told, some of those dreamers were the Odellos themselves. Monterey County planners gave them a green light for a 76-lot residential subdivision in 1991, only to have the rug pulled out from their plan by an appeals process backed by the Sierra Club. Today, the land to the east is parkland, and Eastwood donated much of the western side to the state, in part to help alleviate flooding problems that still haunt the Mission Fields neighborhood.
“A is for artichoke—just below abalone and art—in the alphabet of the Monterey Peninsu-la,” proclaimed “A Farm In The Fog” (sic), a story in a 1962 issue of the popular publication Game & Gossip, a spiritual ancestor of Carmel Magazine. Then as now, artichokes were big business in Monterey County. California produces nearly 100 percent of the artichokes consumed in the United States, and around 80 percent of that total come from this county. The Monterey County Crop Report valued the 2018 crop at $53,156,000, with nearly 4,500 acres dedicated to the vegetable.
Oh, and that odd flat truck?
“We called that ‘The Picker’,” John says. “It’s one of a kind and was custom-built by the family. Before we had that, pickers would have to walk all the way to the end of a row to deposit the artichokes in a truck. With the picker we could move through the fields, and that made harvesting much more efficient.”