California farms grow the St. Patrick’s Day meal


Issue Date: March 9, 2016
By Kate Campbell

The traditional Irish-American dinner for St. Patrick’s Day includes corned beef, potatoes, cabbage and carrots. California producers say they see demand rise for each in the weeks leading up to the holiday.

Come March 17, most Americans will be at least a wee bit Irish, and they usually celebrate St. Patrick's Day in traditional American style, with a meal of corned beef and cabbage.

The corned beef and cabbage tradition started in the United States in the 1900s, according to food historians, when Irish immigrants started to meld with other ethnic groups. In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day is usually observed with chicken, lamb and a plate full of vegetables. Irish-Americans substituted ingredients for the feast day with cured beef, cabbage and potatoes. Cooked in the same pot, the spiced and salty beef brisket flavored the vegetables, was easy to prepare and stretched the green to feed a large family.

Though today's St. Patrick's Day meal springs more from Irish-American rather than strictly Irish tradition, the fixings come directly from California farms and ranches. California leads the nation in production of cabbage, carrots, onions and a variety of other fresh vegetables, herbs and spices that go into the meal.

As for corned beef, Roberts Corned Meats in San Francisco, established in 1910, is one of the state's oldest family-run specialty meat companies, reportedly selling more than 300,000 pounds of corned beef for St. Patrick's Day alone. The company "corns" meat—referring to hard rock salt curing—for beef producers including Niman Ranch, headquartered in Alameda. Harris Ranch in Fresno County offers its branded corned beef through major supermarkets and warehouse stores.

For ranchers, it's hard to trace the beef they produce to a particular cut or processing style, Mariposa County rancher Tony Toso said.

"My guess is that spring-born calves from last year are what's in the food processing chain for this year's St. Patrick's Day corned beef," Toso said. "My mom was a McAdams, so we had our share of corned beef and potatoes on St. Patrick's Day."

Toso, who is California Farm Bureau Federation second vice president, said Texas beef herds have been rebuilding after the long drought there and more animals are entering the market now. Although beef prices have been strong, he said there appears to be some softening in the market for beef cattle as supplies increase.

"Our producers want to expand, but there's still too much uncertainty in California related to the drought and what more dry spells could mean," he said. "Cattle market prices are definitely lower, but at the retail level, I doubt corned beef will cost less this year."

Cabbage grows year-round in Ventura County, said Danny Pereira of Rio Farms, noting there's a small market pull for cabbage ahead of St. Patrick's Day. Weather issues in Florida and Texas have reduced supplies ahead of the holiday, he said, which has increased demand and prices for California cabbage.

"It does seem like cabbage supplies are often short around the St. Patrick's Day holiday, but partly it's weather related, partly a bit of creative marketing," he said.

"Warm weather in February pushed our crops along a bit," he said. "Typically, cabbage for the St. Paddy's Day (market) pull is harvested five to 10 days ahead of when it's needed. We've been harvesting a little earlier than usual and trying to catch up."

When asked about his favorite part of a St. Patrick's Day meal, Monterey County onion and cabbage grower Bob Martin of Rio Farms said, "What's not to like? There's nothing I dislike about this wonderful Irish meal. I've always been a fan of corned beef and cabbage."

Martin said most cabbage for the fresh market comes from the desert regions and Oxnard right now. The Salinas Valley will start cabbage harvest about May.

For the most part, fresh produce markets have been relatively lively and healthy, he said, noting "cool winter temps in the beginning of the desert deal held most commodity supplies low and demand high—prices along with it—but, alas, like green beer, all good things come to an end."

There's a long history of potato and carrot production in Kern County, said vegetable farmer Pete Belluomini.

"Potatoes were the county's first commercially grown crop," he said. "It was initially grown by Chinese farmers in the Tejon Pass area."

Today, Kern County farmers lead the state in potato production.

"Here in Kern County, we grow every variety of potato imaginable—a half-dozen colors, interestingly shaped potatoes, potato-chip potatoes—probably more than a dozen varieties," Belluomini said. "Any day people want to eat potatoes is a happy day for me. I'm Italian, but on March 17, I'm Irish, too."

Kern County also is a leader in the flavorings that make for a tasty meal, including garlic, onions, bell peppers and tons of carrots, which are harvested in the county year-round.

Imperial County carrot farmer Scott Howington notes that St. Patrick's Day comes during a busy time for the region's vegetable farmers.

"Because we're busy harvesting and shipping our vegetable crops right now, most of us are working so others can enjoy the day," he said. "There's a real market pull for carrots, cabbage and other vegetables leading up to St. Patrick's Day."

Howington said when the holiday arrives, he usually invites friends in for a low-key party and corned beef and cabbage. For beverages, Howington recommends Irish beers for purists, but notes there are many craft beers to choose from in California.

The state's Craft Brewers Association says the number of breweries operating in the state increased by more than 20 percent during 2014. Today, California houses about 570 craft breweries, more than any other state, which produced about 3.5 million barrels of beer.

But St. Patrick's Day isn't only about the meal, said Monterey County nurseryman Steve McShane.

"I'm an Irishman and proud to include potted shamrock plants in the product mix we're preparing for spring planting season," he said. "We plant geeks call it oxalis, which is a wood sorrel."

McShane said for many customers the plants represent a sign of spring, and some think they bring good luck for the coming growing season in the Salinas Valley.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.