Artichokes, together with citrus fruits, are the flagship product of the Vega Baja, not just for the value they reach in the market, but also for their identification with the territory in which they are produced. However, not a lot of them are exported fresh, which is how local consumers know them. Only about 5,000 tons of the more than 26,000 tons that are produced in this area are intended for the foreign market. They are shipped to the north of Italy and, above all, to France. Furthermore, only a handful of companies across the country have the necessary infrastructure to do so.
The main barrier to reach these markets is the fact that artichokes are a product with a short shelf life when raw, despite the use of refrigeration (they lose 15% of their weight 15 days after the harvest, even in the refrigerator). Consequently, researchers from the Higher Polytechnic School of Orihuela (EPSO) of the Miguel Hernández University in Orihuela have been working for years in the development of a raw packaging system that is extending the shelf life of artichokes by ten days.
The project has been presented at the 10th International Artichoke Symposium, opened a few days ago in Orihuela. The artichoke volumes exported "are still way lower than those of other products, such as cucumber or eggplant, which exceed the 600,000 and 150,000 tons, respectively." The reason for this is the fact that artichokes are not as well known internationally, but above all, that their shelf life is shorter, more limited than that of other fruits and vegetables, which is an important obstacle when exporting. To remedy this situation and extend the shelf life of artichokes, the Post-Harvest Group for fruits and vegetables of the Miguel Hernández University, led by Agrifood Technology professor Pedro Javier Zapata Coll, has developed a packaging system that keeps the product fresh.
The system consists in packing the artichokes in a macroperforated atmosphere, combined with the application of essential oils (which have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties). This makes it possible for the artichoke to maintain its appearance for longer without any weight loss. The quality is thereby preserved by up to 10 days more than without the application of this new technique. It can be applied in smaller packaging sizes, and even in large volumes, and with this, the artichokes have much better chances to arrive to their destination in good condition, as they keep their qualities for longer. The research, which is at a very advanced stage and is part of a doctoral thesis, was launched in 2015.
This situation would not only improve the product's export potential, but would also help open new markets and reach more distant countries. Although Spain is the world's third largest artichoke producer, behind Italy and Egypt, only 5% of its production is exported. Of the 225,000 tons produced in 2016, only 11,000 were sold abroad (mainly to France). Of those international sales, around 50% were shipped from the Vega Baja. The county, which is working to obtain a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), is the second largest artichoke producer in Spain, only behind Murcia and ahead of Benicarló and Navarre. There are also small producing areas in Catalonia and Granada. Professor Zapata Coll explains that the Spanish market is starting to suffer some artichoke oversupply, and that this technique, which also makes it possible to cultivate varieties with a larger caliber than usual, would facilitate the production's sale.