Head of the Class
Cabbage is top crop for Hansen Farms
Hansen Farms has more than 600 acres of cabbage growing in the ideal climate of New York's Finger Lakes region.
Photos courtesy of Hansen Farms.
For nearly 100 years, the Hansen family has been farming in the Finger Lakes region of New York. From the beginning, cabbage has been a key crop. Back in 1919, when the farm was started by Chris Hansen Sr., cabbage was planted as a forage crop for the farm's dairy cows. The cows are gone, but cabbage remains and is now the primary focus at Hansen Farms (http://www.hansen-farms.com).
"It's always been our bread and butter," explains Eric Hansen, vice president and great-grandson of the farm's founder. "We're able to grow a large, dense, heavy cabbage here that you won't get in the South." Hansen Farms now grows on more than 2,600 acres (600 acres of cabbage, the rest in grains) and ships cabbage around the country. The crop has a long history throughout the surrounding area.
"Throughout the Finger Lakes region and the area right around our farm, there used to be multiple sauerkraut factories. And they were here for a reason," says Hansen. "This climate, being in between the lakes, we get a lot of natural rainfall - most years, too much - and we don't get very hot. Those are conditions that cabbage likes; it is not a hot-weather crop, and it does well with plenty of moisture." The area also boasts "darn good soils," he adds. "It's very rich 'vegetable soil,' so it's a good fit."
Hansen Farms harvests some 20,000 tons of cabbage each year. Some is sold for the retail market in boxes, but most goes for fresh-cut processing and egg roll mix.
While only two sauerkraut factories remain in the area, one is only 10 miles away from Hansen Farms and has about 90 percent of the market share in the U.S. for that product, says Hansen. So a fair amount of cabbage is needed right in his farm's backyard. While sauerkraut once represented the majority of the farm's market for cabbage, today only about 5 to 10 percent of the farm's cabbage sales are destined for that purpose.
The farm's market for cabbage now comes from three primary areas. The first is fresh-cut processing, producing cabbage for bagged salads or for chain restaurants, where it is used in coleslaw and other dishes. Next is retail, where the cabbage is sold in 50-pound boxes. Finally, the farm sells its cabbage for egg roll mix that's used by oriental restaurants. In total, the farm produces an average of 20,000 tons (that's 40 million pounds) of cabbage per year.
Harvesting and handling the cabbage is pretty much the same for the fresh-cut processing and egg roll mix markets. "Those all go into bins or totes," explains Hansen. The retail cabbage goes into boxes and has a "prettier" presentation because that product will go directly onto store shelves. "They have smaller heads than what you would get with processed [markets]," he adds.
The ideal local climate allows for a long growing season. "We start getting fresh-cut cabbage out of the field around July 1 and we go until just about Thanksgiving; that's five months," says Hansen. "We also store cabbage in the winter, which allows us to have a 12-month supply." The farm has a computer-controlled common storage facility that is not refrigerated (it uses outside air during the colder winter months), as well as refrigerated storage.
From planting to harvesting to weeding to trimming, cabbage is a labor-intensive crop.
The farm starts storing cabbage around mid-October. "That's when we start filling the building," Hansen notes. In any given year, about half of the stored cabbage will have already been sold on a contract price, and the rest will be sold on the spot market.
The volume available is certainly less during the winter, but certain customers need that supply. "As a grower, obviously, our costs go up the longer we store cabbage," says Hansen. Not only are there facility and electric costs, but the cabbage must be trimmed again when it comes out of storage, prior to being shipped. "It's remarkable how good it looks once you get the stump trimmed up and take a few leaves off," he notes.
The winter trimming process is pretty simple and nowhere near as labor-intensive as the initial harvesting and trimming done in the summer, says Hansen. Every single head of cabbage, except for those going to sauerkraut, is hand-cut. "So there is a lot of labor needed," he says.
Hansen Farms takes part in the H-2A program ("Which is a story in itself," Hansen says) and gets 20 to 26 workers in April to begin the first planting. The cabbage is transplanted out of greenhouses. "We contract with three different local greenhouses just to spread the risk," he explains.
Hansen Farms grows about 10 to 12 different cabbage varieties. "They're all different day lengths, just to fit what our different customers want," says Hansen. "We plant something a little different for retail than for sauerkraut, for example." Some of these key varieties include 'Transam', 'SuperStar' and 'Grand Vantage'. "We plant some varieties that take as little as 62 days to harvest, all the way up to 120 days. The longer varieties are generally the storage varieties," he explains. "They are denser, so they store better."
The farm plants on 30-inch rows, with spacing between the plants varying depending on the market being planted for. Retail cabbages with smaller heads will be planted closer together (about 10 inches), while larger heads will be planted using 18 to 22-inch spacing. Workers harvest two rows at a time directly onto wagons.
"Cabbage is pretty simple. We also grow corn and soybeans, and those are a lot more complex in terms of the equipment needed," says Hansen. "With cabbage you need a transplanter and cultivator, and everything else is done with people, which is great - as long as you can get the people."
In addition to corn and soybeans, Hansen Farms also grows wheat. "Cabbage has always been what's paid the bills around here, but lately the grains have obviously become more attractive," says Hansen. That's due to rising grain prices as well as stagnant pricing of cabbage over the last three years, he explains. "We need the margins to be better than what they are with cabbage. There's a lot more risk than with grain," Hansen adds. Plus, the grains are much more mechanically oriented and aren't as dependent on the farm's perpetually uncertain labor supply.
Thanks to computer-controlled common storage and refrigerated facilities, Hansen Farms is able to store cabbage to sell during the winter months.
At the moment, the grains are proving to be a good complement to cabbage, he points out. For example, it allows the cabbage to be put on a cycle, with plantings moved around the farm's total acreage so every piece of ground is planted with cabbage only once every four to five years. "That primarily helps with minimizing disease in the cabbage, and is just healthier for everything, including the soil," Hansen explains.
Cabbage prefers a neutral soil, and Hansen says the farm is lucky to have soil that doesn't require much amendment. Sometimes fields with early cabbage are side-dressed with liquid nitrogen; in other cases a slow-release fertilizer is put down.
Beyond soil diseases, black rot can be a problem. Another concern is tip burn, which the farm hasn't been able to combat by switching varieties. Thrips are the biggest pest threat to the cabbage. "That's been the case for forever," he states. While some varieties are more resistant to thrips, some of the farm's preferred varieties are susceptible.
Between disease, pest and weed pressures, Hansen says, "You're spraying fields once per week with cabbage. It's almost automatic." He credits Cornell University with helping to research programs that help the farm minimize the hand labor required for weeding, but says some hand labor is still required.
Food safety has become another important - and costly - part of the farm's cabbage operation. "There's been a big increase in the amount of paperwork and procedures that have been required over the past five to 10 years," says Hansen, citing product testing, food safety audits to complete and training for employees as some of the critical but time-consuming steps undertaken. The costs of food safety compliance and doing things correctly are real, he emphasizes. "We now have a full-time person [Jessica Holloway] working on food safety; we didn't have that five years ago," he notes. "She's not just doing the paperwork, she's out to the fields every day and making sure everything gets done the right way."
Another key employee is cabbage crew leader Angelo O'Campo, who has been at Hansen Farms for more than a decade. "He gets the right guys and makes everything work," says Hansen. "We've had an unbelievable group of people here the last few years." As important as rich soils and the right climate are to growing cabbage, he says, "What you really need is labor. That can make or break you."
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.