For weeks, I watched those huge wagons full of cabbage pass from the field in front of my cellar. Which made me realize that while there is a lot of cabbage grown here in Niagara County, I really don’t know much about the culture. So I turned to local grower Max Russell from Russell Farms and asked him to tell me about the crop. This is what I learned.
Cabbage is started from seeds. This can take place in a greenhouse or directly in the field in what is called a seedbed. Both are high density plantations. Planting the seed directly in the field without this step makes weed control more difficult and can lead to uneven plantings.
After four to six weeks, the plants are transplanted into the fields. The plants are taken from the greenhouse in trays or are delicately torn from the nurseries to be transplanted. All of this work is done by hand.
To bring the crop to the field in evenly spaced straight rows, a vegetable planter is pulled behind a tractor. But this work is not automated. Farm workers sit in the transplanter, pick up the plants and place them in rotating buckets which put them in the ground. This is the same equipment used to transplant tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and other vegetables.
How long does this process take? The growing season from seed to harvest is from April to October. Going from seed to transplant takes 4-6 weeks. Once transplanted, hopefully in June, the buds mature in 8 to 15 weeks, depending on the variety. Shorter-season cabbages tend to be fresh market varieties that are sold immediately.
The heads are harvested by hand using a planting knife to cut them. At Russell Farms most of the cabbage will be stored, so they use large bins that can hold 1,600 to 2,000 pounds of cabbage. The bin is towed on the back of a tractor at an angle to facilitate harvesting and prevent head injury. These bins can then be stacked in storage and removed as needed.
Interestingly, when cabbage is harvested for the fresh market, it yields 20-25 tonnes per acre. Cabbage processing, like sauerkraut, can cost 35 to 40 tonnes per acre.
Packing the cabbage is the next step. It is hand cropped to remove unsightly or dehydrated leaves and to freshen up the stump. The buds are then packaged in 50-pound cartons, 50-pound bags or possibly bulk bins depending on the customer.
Called Cabbage Fresh Market Storage, it is then sold to retailers, food service operators, restaurants and small-scale processors for use throughout the year. While some remain local, Niagara County cabbage finds its way to the southeastern United States, the mid-Atlantic states, and the Midwest.
Russell pointed out that cabbage is a super food. It is rich in vitamins C and K as well as fiber. For more information on this, visit www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-cabbage.
As with many cultures in Niagara County and throughout the state, this is mostly manual labor. As Russell explained, “The amount of manual labor required to raise, harvest and ship a crop of cabbage is also important. There would be no cabbage grown here without the dedicated and skilled farm workers we are fortunate to work with.
I appreciate the time Max Russell took to answer my cabbage questions. I learned a lot about this local culture and I hope you too. Would you like to know more about another culture? Let me know. I am happy to do the research.
Margo Sue Bittner, aka Aggie Culture, has been involved in Niagara County agriculture for 40 years. She has experience in dairy farming, fruit production and wine agrotourism. Ask her any question about local farming and if she doesn’t know the answer herself, she knows who to ask. Contact her at (716) 778-7001 or [email protected]