Those of us who have had the privilege of trying market-fresh Ontario artichokes likely have Dominic DeFilippis to thank.
“I grew up eating artichokes on special occasions,” says DeFilippis, owner of Top Tomato Foods. “My mom would boil them whole and set us up with butter warmers. We’d pull each leaf off, dip it in melted butter and scrape the flesh off with our teeth. The best part came last – once you cut away the fuzzy choke and got to savour the tender heart.”
In 2005, DeFilippis was inspired to see if he could grow them himself, and he tested a half-acre plot on his family’s farm in Markham, Ont.
“That did well, and then we grew the operation to five acres, but it was not a success,” he remembers.
After carefully reviewing growing practices, the specific needs of the plant, and how best to manage the Canadian climate, DeFilippis and his family attempted to grow them again – and eventually had great success.
“It’s a treat to have a homegrown version of something we can usually only get as an import from California,” he says.
It was not a quick process to be able to raise artichokes successfully in Ontario. It actually took most of a decade of trial and error to refine the entire process. DeFilippis and his staff now start by seeding the artichokes in the greenhouse in late February or early March. Five weeks after germination, they are moved outdoors to harden off. The near-zero temperatures, which mimic a short Mediterranean winter, trigger the process of vernalization and trick the plants into dormancy. The last step is to plant the artichokes out in the field where they proceed to flower. Top Tomato Foods now dedicates 20 acres to artichokes, creating several additional jobs each year. DeFilippis says that as demand increases, they may expand their acreage in future.
“The biggest challenge is the vernalization,” he notes. “Weather conditions are so variable in Ontario and that has a direct impact on this plant. A lot of what we do to grow these artichokes is trial and error and experience, and we have to make tweaks each year based on the weather.”
“The artichoke plant likes water but requires well-drained land. It does not like wet feet,” he adds.
Artichokes are the immature flower bud of a thistle plant that’s native to the Mediterranean and now cultivated in Italy, Spain, France, U.S. (California) and Canada. Artichokes grow on a plant (that can be perennial or annual) that’s between two to five feet high, and a single plant will produce anywhere from 12 to 36 artichokes. The base of the leaves and the heart of the bud (but not always the fuzzy choke) are edible prior to flowering. Top Tomato Foods starts its artichoke harvest during the first week of August.
Family farm history
Top Tomato Foods is a family-owned and operated company whose history spans back 50 years. In 1963, the farm started with 20 acres, with the harvest being primarily distributed to small independent stores and the Ontario Food Terminal. Their acreage and business grew over the years, and today, Dominic and his sons, Vito and Antony, supply large Canadian retailers in addition to continuing to supply small stores – and they still sell produce at the very same Terminal stall they always have.
“The main focus has always been on three main crops of cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, but we continue to challenge ourselves with new crops,” says DeFilippis. “We are now growing coloured cauliflower and zucchini flowers.”
When asked to gauge the interest in exotic/ethnic veggies and fruit in Ontario, DeFilippis relates a story. “We grow what we have named an ‘Italian cucumber,’ a cucumber that we have grown for close to 50 years that is very well-known in a little town in Italy,” he says. “Over the last five years, we’ve had a number of people from different cultures visit our market and be surprised by this cucumber that they have never seen here, but was something they ate frequently in their home country. The name that people might have for this vegetable might be different, but the passion and excitement to find this item here in Ontario is always the same. People are amazed. The ‘Italian cucumber’ has become such a popular item in our market that we sell out quickly.
“Food is often a link to our culture, and being in such a multi-cultural country, many people get comfort in finding vegetables that remind them of their home country and childhood. In addition, food often helps connect different cultures to one another, creating a new common ground for different relationships to flourish from. So it is very nice to be a part of that.”
The company currently has more than 50 employees. Some of have been with Top Tomato for almost 20 years and many for more than five, which DeFilippis is proud of.
“We constantly review our employee programs, training and assigned work to ensure that they are happy and are motivated,” he says. “We implement feedback and reviews to ensure that we are aware of challenges and can make changes accordingly.”
Top Tomato began implementing a food traceability program more than 10 years ago – a robust database of year-to-year crop plans, treatments and harvest. They track every seed planted in the greenhouse, date of transplant field location, growing treatments and harvest details, as well as final destination and date. DeFilippis says this information allows the company to not only be prepared for a traceability incident, but to monitor its crops, investigate challenges and gather information for improvements.
The DeFilippis family horticulture business is more than just a living. It represents a generational connection.
“Farming is a family tradition that my father started, and being able to continue to farm with my children is a very special gift for me,” he says. “Also, being able to grow a large variety of healthy fruits and vegetables for Ontario families to enjoy brings me great pride. Winning the Premiers Award for our artichoke production is a confirmation that the work we do in our fields, day in and day, out is valued and recognized, and it gives us that motivation that you need sometimes. I love to learn, push the limits and do what people say could not be done.”
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