Jerusalem Artichokes by Greg Clarke

The Jerusalem Artichoke has found a new home in the dairy paddocks of Victoria's southwest. It is most closely related to the sunflower and was first grown in North America. There is no clue to its origins in the name, and it may be reasonable to suggest it was given its title by a clutch of friends who, having met in a village inn to anoint the name, spent far longer on the task than planned.  It is pretty safe to say the agenda of the meeting obviously allocated more time to ale and mirth than geography and botany. Russell Johnstone and Jayne Olds grow Jerusalem artichokes on five hectares at Scotts Creek in Victoria's southwest. They share land with local dairy farmers Peter and Kerry Rowe. Russell and Jayne also work on the 210-head dairy. Along with Jerusalem artichokes, the pair grow purple cauliflower, broccoli and other vegetables as the opportunity arises. When the artichokes leave the farm, they are trucked to a depot in Werribee and then transported to a supermarket's processor in Sydney where they are packed and sent to the supermarket's stores. "The Jerusalem Artichoke isn't from Jerusalem and it isn't an artichoke either" says Russell. The couple don't know anyone else growing Jerusalem artichokes commercially in Australia.

Although the Globe Artichoke is the best known artichoke, the Jerusalem variety is nothing like this. While its bloom resembles a sunflower, it is the edible tuber that is harvested. Russell and Jayne started growing this root vegetable commercially last year in traditional dairy country, where the fetching valleys are greener than envy. For Russell, it's a long way from home. He was born in the UK and completed an apprenticeship on the family's Cheshire farm before setting out to see the world in 1988. When he first arrived in Australia, he was lured to a large cropping property in the wheat belt of Western Australia. The work there was profitable and Russell bought a campervan and set a course for Darwin. He put the brakes on at Ord River in Western Australia's Kimberly region and "spent a lot of years up there working on fruit". Russell moved to Tasmania in 2000 and worked as operations manager for a corporate garlic farm. He got to know Tassie and struck a friendship with a buyer from a large vegetable wholesaler. "He always spoke about the one product - Jerusalem artichokes - he'd love someone to come along and grow on a commercial basis," Russell says. "I did a lot of research into them while I was in Tassie. It was hard and very expensive to come across enough seed to justify being a commercial grower. So I put it on the backburner." The flame was serendipitously ignited when Russell moved to Victoria's southwest in 2005. Just after arriving in the state, Russell and Jayne leased 4.8 hectares at Simpson and planted their first vegetables - a hectare of garlic and some purple cauliflower. And then he stumbled across his next venture. "I saw a lady with Jerusalem artichokes for sale at a local farmers' market," he says. "I went past her stall several times and nobody seemed to have bought any. At the end of the day I approached her and said I'd buy a dozen bags. "We got chatting. She said 'we've got heaps growing wild in a block at home. If you want any I'd dig them for you'." Two seasons ago, Russell and Jayne bought about 120kg of tubers from her (tubers bought via the internet cost from $12 to $30 a kilogram).

Aim to grow the perfect plant for your conditions so it won't be as susceptible to pests and diseases. Russell has plant tissue analysed with BioAg Australia to identify strengths. He purposefully picked heavy ground to grow the Jerusalem artichokes - the tuber stays a little whiter and cleaner in heavy ground and will clean well for sale. For home vegie gardens, spray a mix of milk and bicarbonate soda on your vegies to help keep bugs and moths away. One word of warning from Russell: once planted the Jerusalem artichoke can be difficult to control. Jayne, Russell, their artichokes and other vegetables quickly outgrew the Simpson property. "We started hunting around for more acreage to fulfil what we wanted to do with our vegetables," Russell says. They shifted down the road to Scotts Creek and now work on nearby land shared with farmers Peter and Kerry Rowe. "We approached Peter and Kerry in November last year," Russell says. "We started growing artichokes in the December." Russell and Jayne also work on the Rowes' 210 head dairy farm and have plans to buy the dairy herd and expand their horticultural enterprise. "The two businesses complement each other," Russell says. Last year, Russell and Jayne also grew purple cauliflowers and purple broccoli. The cattle graze over the vegetables not sold as well as the stubble. Naturally, many neighbours first thought them mad. After all, some years farmers have trouble growing turnips for cattle feed and the vagaries of this year's weather might have proved the doomsayers right but raised beds were just one of Russell's "secret" weapons. They proved a sturdy match for the summer, autumn and winter rain. "We used a rotary hoe with a bed-forming machine on the back to cultivate raised beds 300mm taller than ground height. The weather conditions - we've had a very wet winter - were challenging." The couple's funds don't extend to running their own machinery so a contractor was used. Growing the crops on raised beds successfully beat off the wet and a financial disaster. "If we hadn't used raised beds we'd probably be living in a caravan park bankrupt at the moment," Russell says.

It takes a minimum of 150 days to grow a Jerusalem artichoke. The extremes of the weather can induce a little insomnia. "We've had a few sleepless nights because the plant can grow to about 3.3m tall before you get the yellow flower on top which they need for the tuber to mature," Russell says. "It's not so much the rain that bothers the plant but the high winds that come with it. It is crucial the flower atop a long and thin stalk tolerates the wind. Part of the ripening stage (of the tuber) happens after the tops start to die back."  The Jerusalem artichoke is sometimes described as tasting like a water chestnut yet also has a nutty flavour. Most of their crop is shipped to Sydney where it is sold in three supermarkets. Not all of the 100 tonnes Russell and Jayne grew - the yield averaged 20 tonnes a hectare - is for market. "We needed to grow and harvest a minimum of 60 tonnes for us to continue next year," Russell says. "We knew we could sell 50 tonnes to the supermarkets but we needed a good amount to plant for next season."

Jerusalem artichokes can go wild (and is often considered a weed, according to Russell). The plant is a perennial, and leaving the tubers in the ground can be a fine practice for the home gardener looking to grow more of it. But this doesn't suit commercial cropping. "A fresh plant needs to be grown," Russell says. "If you don't do this, eventually your yields are going to start dropping off." Russell and Jayne are also breeding their own variety of artichoke. "For us to advance, we have to generate fresh seed and the only way to do that is to cross pollinate with another variety of Jerusalem artichoke," Russell says. "We've hunted down 15 kilograms of a different variety (there is only a handful of varieties of the Jerusalem artichoke) and we've grown a line of ours and a line of artichoke imported from North America." A nursery section has been established among the crop. "The tubers get planted with a potato planter (a two-row machine)," Russell says. "We fill one side of the machine with our own tubers and the other side with the imported tubers and grow them next to each other. When the plant gets up to the flowering stage, a friend who is a bee keeper comes along. We put the bees out to do the pollination work. We cross pollinate one plant with the other and then collect the seed." Their day can start at 5am and, in summer when there is watering to be done, the finish line isn't realised until 10pm. A capacity for hard yards may partly explain why Russell has returned to Cheshire just once in the past 20 years (though his parents have visited often). Despite undertaking daily marathons, this couple is undaunted. Their buyer has asked them to grow double the amount of Jerusalem artichokes next year.

FOUR WAYS WITH JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES
Not mush trouble
Raw or cooked, your options with Jerusalem artichokes are wide open. Just as with potatoes, they can be baked, boiled, steamed, fried and microwaved. However, they will cook faster than potatoes and can easily be turned to mush in a matter of minutes if you do not monitor them closely. Keep your eye on them and remove them from the heat as soon as you can easily pierce them with a skewer.
Cheese and artichoke chowder
Melt some butter in a saucepan and soften a sliced onion. Add sliced Jerusalem artichokes and sliced carrot and cook for a minute before sprinkling in a little flour and then gradually adding some chicken stock to cover. Put on a lid and simmer for 20 minutes. Blend the soup until smooth. Add some milk and grated gruyere cheese and a dash of dry mustard. Season with salt and blend again.
Pour into a clean pan and reheat gently; do not boil. Taste for seasoning. Garnish with julienned artichoke, carrot and the green part of a leek which have been blanched in boiling water and refreshed in cold water.
Lemon chicken with Jerusalem artichokes
Set aside the zest of one lemon and the juice from two lemons. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large, deep saucepan and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Season four chicken thighs and place skin-side down in the hot pan and quickly brown them, turning only once. Remove to a plate and keep warm. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest, a further tablespoon of olive oil, a cup of chicken stock and a generous pinch of saffron to the pan. Bring to a boil, stirring to loosen any browned bits. Add 500g peeled Jerusalem artichokes and 10 peeled garlic cloves. Return the chicken to the pan, along with any accumulated juices. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 45 minutes, until the chicken and artichokes are tender. Stir in 1/4 cup of cream and a tablespoon of chopped thyme leaves. Taste and check seasoning. Return to a simmer and cook an additional 10 minutes. Serve over steamed rice and sprinkle with pine nuts to garnish. Serves four.
Spinach and walnut salad with roasted beetroot and artichokes
Preheat an oven to 200C. Cut 250g each of beetroots and artichokes (sized evenly) and toss in a roasting pan with olive oil, seasoning and mixed dried herbs. Cook for 20 minutes. Turn the vegetables and leave them to cook for a about 30 minutes so they are tender and crisp. Remove the pan from the oven and keep warm. Make a salad with baby spinach leaves and chopped walnuts, add the warm roasted vegetables and lightly toss together. Just before serving, toss the salad with a vinaigrette made with two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and a little freshly ground black pepper. Serves four.       Jeremy Vincent

Sheryl:  What was interesting about this article was the fact they left out a certain little delicacy – the known fact that it causes flatulence! I don’t have room here but read Stephen F. Nottingham’s blogspot on the web. He co-authored “The Biology and Chemistry of Jerusalem Artichoke”, a wonderful read!!!  The above article appeared in the Weekly Times - a great country Victorian newspaper - can highly recommend a subscription. https://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/