Growing Commercial Cabbage in Heavy Loam Soils in Northern North Dakota

Final Report for FNC01-334

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2001: $14,495.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $11,490.00
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


This project was completed on family farms at Cando, North Dakota. The farms have traditionally grown small grain and row crops including spring wheat, durum, barley oats, sunflowers, dry beans, flax and corn. A variety of vegetable crops have been grown on trial acreages over the past several years. Vegetables have included pumpkins, squash, sweet corn, carrots, cabbage, onions, garlic, rhubarb, and asparagus. Mushroom production was also an enterprise in recent years at one of the farms. Marigolds and basil were also attempted on a trial basis.

The farms range from 800 acres to 1400 acres of conventional small grain and row crops. Cropping systems used include crop rotations and conventional/minimum tillage practices. This project was an attempt toward commercial vegetable production on a larger acreage than test plots or garden sized plots.

Prior to receiving the SARE grant, the farming operations utilized minimum tillage practices to conserve moisture, reduce fuel costs and return organic matter to the soil.

Project goals:
1) Through a small acreage of cabbage, we hoped to gain some more knowledge about how to grow cabbage for the fresh or processing market. This would be done on the typical medium to heavy loam soil of northcentral/northeastern North Dakota. We also hoped to accomplish this given that this is a short growing season being located at Cando, ND, which is approximately 40 miles south of the Canadian border.
2) Not only the growing but also the successful marketing of the cabbage at a profit was a goal. We hoped to work with wholesale markets to market the cabbage crop for either the fresh or processing market.
3) To open and raise the awareness among other producers of the potential for cabbage production in this region. This new awareness would include sharing information relating to planting, growing, harvesting and marketing since these items are totally different from the conventional crops grown in this region.


We became interested in cabbage in 1997 while participating in a raised bed vegetable trial plot on the Mike Johnston Farm. The primary focus at that time was carrots. Along with carrots, we also tried cabbage, Chinese cabbage and onions. From this trial, cabbage seemed to grow very well and had very good quality.

We know that the North Dakota climate of cool night and warm days is favorable to quality garden produce. Various field trials and successful small acreages of a variety of vegetables had proven that our region could produce a high quality, high yielding vegetable. The next step was to gain knowledge and experience about how to plant, grow, harvest and store these crops on acreages larger than garden and research plots. The final step was to gain knowledge and experience on how to process and/or market the crops. Information for both the production and the marketing of these crops in this region is limited.

Influencing the decision making process, is the knowledge that this region exhibits a need for continued crop diversification. New and additional traditional crops have been included to the crop rotation cycle to help break disease cycles. Vegetables would provide yet another crop option for continued diversification. This was also an attempt to generate more income per acre using crops not generally grown in this region. Our region has also had an excess of water that could be better utilized for the irrigation of these crops. There is also need for more economic development activity in the region. In the long run, the addition of these crops and the need for managing, harvesting and processing them could create new jobs.

Specific decisions about production of the cabbage were also based on the fact that the soil type in this area is considered medium to heavy loam. Medium to heavy loam soils increase the potential for drown out, therefore the raised bed system was selected. Raised beds give water a place to go between the beds rather than submerging the crop if planted on a flat surface. Raised beds can also facilitate harvest by placing the crop a bit higher for workers.

By researching the topic, specific information for the formation of the beds was developed and used. The distance between bed centers was 60 inches. We did change the row configurations on top of the beds. There were different configurations: (1) two rows 30 inches apart for transplants for processing cabbage; (2) two rows 24 inches apart for seeded cabbage for processing cabbage; (3) three rows 12 inches apart for seeded cabbage for fresh market. The configurations provided the appropriate spacing for the ultimate end use of the cabbage.

Both transplants and seeds were used on the raised beds. We felt this would increase the amount of time we would be able to harvest and sell cabbage since they would reach harvest maturity at different times.

Equipment for cabbage production was made, borrowed and purchased since this type and size of equipment is not typical to this area. Equipment included: field cultivator, fertilizer applicator, bed lifter/shaper, drip tape layer, sprayer, tiller, transplanter, precision planter, irrigation pipe and pump, harvest aid conveyor and trailer, sorting conveyor, forklift and cooling equipment. Even when we did find machinery, it often had to be modified to fit our existing implements.

We used pre-emerge and post-emerge herbicides for control of grasses in the transplants and seeded cabbage. While there is one herbicide available for broadleaf weed control in transplanted cabbage, there are no labeled herbicides for broadleaf weed control in seeded cabbage. Broadleaf weeds became a huge problem so we tried using manual labor to control the weeds. This was extremely expensive. Getting efficient help to weed was a problem. In some areas, the weeds were left and cabbage grew through but the yield was poor. Weeds also made harvesting more difficult. Mechanical cultivation between rows and beds was used effectively until row closure.

The attempts at using an organic system met with mixed results. An organic insecticide, however, was fairly successful when used regularly. In relation to weed control, an organic system did not work well. Weed pressure on the cabbage was visibly evident resulting in reduced yields and difficult harvesting conditions if weeds were not controlled by manual labor.

Terry Lykken, NDSU Extension Agent/Towner County, conducted a mulch trial at Mike Parker’s farm. Information from the trial will be useful in selecting mulches for future use. Having not gotten the mulch material pulled out at the end of the 2002 growing season, visual evidence of the effectiveness of mulch was seen in the 2003 growing season. Specific evidence seen was the lack of weeds in the area that was mulched.

Irrigation methods used the first year included drip and overhead sprinkler systems. One area used only drip irrigation. The drip tape was laid 8 inches underground and configured two tapes per bed. The other area used a combination of overhead and drip with most of the water applied by overhead sprinkler. The over head sprinkler provided moisture for germination and early plant growth. Later, we noticed a reduced germination with the drip tape only system.

We used surface water for irrigation. A pond was used in one area and a flowing coulee in the other. We chose surface water because of its higher quality compared to the ground water in this area and because there is excess surface water available.

The second year we used only drip tape. A single tape down the center of the bed was placed 5 inches underground. The tape was placed at a more shallow depth to get more water to the surface for seed germination. We found the two tape system to be a better choice because it provided more lateral movement of water to the seed area.

We monitored for pests and diseases. Powdery mildew was present, but insignificant. Pests, including aphids and some imported cabbage moth, were present. the cabbage moth was insignificant, but there were a fair amount of aphids. These pests and diseases were most noticeable in the processing cabbage.

Like any other crop, growing cabbage is not without risk. The first year, we had light hail on one area that was very hard on mature plants. The hail caused splits and dents that opened the head to infection and subsequent spoilage. Younger plants were more resilient to the hail damage. The hail appeared to damage the outer wrapper leaves but not the head itself. The only insurance available was a catastrophic policy through our Farm Service Agency that we carried the second year.

Harvest started about the second week in August. Two people cut the heads and three to four people would pick the cabbage and put it on the harvest aid conveyor. Bulk bins were filled on the pull behind trailer. The filled bulk bins were taken to a cooler for short term storage. The cabbages were then leafed, trimmed and weighed. Cabbage for fresh market weights 2 ½ to 4 pounds. These heads were repacked into 50 pound boxes for stores or wholesalers. Heads weighing over 4 pounds were separated out into bins and were sold as processing cabbage. A good crew for packing takes 5-6 people.

Transportation to the intended market varied. We have delivered to a processing plant using a trailer pulled behind a pickup, paid commercial trucking costs to a processing plant, met a delivery truck at a central location, paid a pick up charge for a wholesaler to make a stop at our packing facility, and used our personal car or pickup to transport a box or two to local stores, businesses or individuals.

A cabbage production tour was planned, advertised and held. The women and men attending were able to see the field location, and hear information about the production and harvesting aspect. The second stop on the tour was to the cooling/packing facility. Here the group saw the physical structure, heard about the necessity of cooling and saw packing in progress. This tour also presented an opportunity to explain the SARE producer grant program and several brochures were available for tour participants to take home.

- Mike Johnston, Cando, ND – a member of the producer group for this grant. Provided resources, management, land and machinery to the grant project.
- Mike Parker, Cando, ND – a member of the producer group for this grant. Provided resources, management, land and machinery to the grant project
- Danny Olson, Cando, ND – a member of the producer group for this grant. Provided expertise and consultation on harvest equipment
- Terry D. Lykken, NDSU Extension Service/Towner County Extension Agent, Cando, ND – assisted with grant writing, trial design, weed and insect monitoring, and determining yield comparisons within the trial. Assembled information on the plot trial, took pictures, compiled power point presentation and coordinated field tour.
- Dr. Richard Greenland, NDSU Extension Service/Research Supervisor Oakes Irrigation Research Site, Oakes, ND – provided information related to varieties, weed control, and plant populations.
- Aung Hla, NDSU Extension Service Area Irrigation Specialist, Carrington, ND – provided information relating to irrigation techniques, sizing of water filtration and provided some samples of irrigation supplies.
- Steve Knorr, former commercial cabbage producer, Karlsruhe, ND – assisted with marketing for processing market
- Rick Lee, NRCS District Conservationist, Cando, ND – assisted with determining soil types for irrigation scheduling
- Rudy Radke, NDSU Extension Service/Ag Diversification/High Value Crops, Fargo, ND – assisted with marketing contacts.
- Tom Scherer, NDSU Extension Service Agricultural Engineer, Fargo, ND – provided information relating to irrigation, equipment and techniques
- Cindy Tong, University of Minnesota Department of Horticultural Science, Post harvest Handling and Physiology, St. Paul, MN – provided information relating to cabbage harvest, storage, and transportation.

The three main goals of the project, growing cabbage on heavy soils, successful marketing of the cabbage at a profit, open and raise awareness, were basically achieved.

Growing cabbage on heavy soils: we found that cabbage grows well in this region and in our soil producing a cabbage of excellent quality. The individual heads were dense (firm to the touch, not spongy) and had excellent flavor (a sweet mild taste vs. a strong cole-family flavor). We recorded an average yield of 7940 pounds of cabbage per acre.

Successful marketing: marketing was achieved in both the fresh and processing markets but not without its own idiosyncrasies. The first year a large portion of the field was targeted to the processing market. We found this market to be extremely difficult for new comers in cabbage production. We were unable to sell as much cabbage into the processing market as we had planned. The fresh market opportunities, at least to this point, have been more open to growers who provide a consistent quality product. The second year, a more local/regional processing market was anxious and pleased to receive “locally grown” produce. We did prove that the market is out there and it was successfully tapped, but not without some hard work, determination, and persistence. The other part of this goal was to sell at a profit. To this point, expenses have exceeded income.

Open and raise awareness: the short term results of creating an awareness level of area farmers regarding the existence of the project was achieved. There were several opportunities to speak to farm related groups and at farm related events. As something new and unique in our region, local, regional and state media outlets included the “cabbage” story. We also welcomed on farm visitors from our community that just happened to stop by to see what’s going on. A cabbage production tour was planned and held. Participants saw the field site and the cooling/packing facility. Attached are a variety of items relating to public awareness.

This project provided evidence that this type of crop could be an alternative crop enterprise to augment existing farm operations and assist new small farm operations. Comments from individuals hearing presentations and/or visitors to the field seemed to concur that his is “a lot of work.” The successful use of drip irrigation tapes on the raised beds in our heavy loam soil is also noted. This is also considered successful to the point that excess water was used as the irrigation source. The mulch trials provided data for expanded use in the future relating to issues of growth, weed control, producing a cleaner product and an increase in yields.

Other economic and social impacts are yet to be evaluated. Financial records will be evaluated after three years of this continuing enterprise. We are at two years now. And we are still too far out from observing the entrance of other growers into vegetable production and thus directly impacting the economic activity of our region. In the short term though, this vegetable venture did provide some part time summer and fall jobs for several youth and adults.

How does this compare with conventional systems used previously? We found that growing cabbage requires far more time per acre than any other crop previously grown, both in terms of management and labor requirements.

The results were what we expected. We expected that cabbage would grow producing a high quality product and it did. Marketing is a yes/no answer. The first year, we thought the processing market would be more open that it was and it could have been if we would have been willing to accept below cost of production prices and pay the transportation costs to a large regional market. This year, our processing cabbage (those heads over 4 pounds) helped to establish a new processing market in North Dakota. It became a win/win situation for us as a producer and for them as a processor. No, we expected that we could sell at a profit, but income did not cover expenses. Yes, we expected to raise an awareness level and we did. Our County Extension Agent did an excellent job of assisting with this aspect by including us on a variety of programs and tours. He also spearheaded the cabbage plot tour.

What would you do differently next time? The trials indicate that the use of mulches would be beneficial in terms of labor cost savings for weed control. Next time, we would go back to using two drip tapes per bed rather than a single tape. We would consider greater utilization of homegrown transplants. We would try different varieties of fresh market cabbage seeds. And we would attempt to be very specific on site selection looking for the most weed free seed site.

What did you learn? To say “a lot” would be an understatement. We learned that the concept of “bigger is not always better” certainly applies to this situation. Written contracts, if available, may be an item to look into and may be of value particularly to the producer. We also discovered vegetable production took a lot more time than anticipated to manage the production and marketing. We found that our seasonal labor requirements were able to be filled by local youth and adults. And one does quickly learn which individuals are reliable, efficient and consistent.

How has this affected your farm or ranch operation? Vegetable production was like putting a whole new and additional enterprise into one that was already operating. Little has changed regarding the entire farm, except that a few acres are designated toward vegetable production. It provides a tricky balancing act to accomplish planting and harvesting for two enterprises that basically need to be done simultaneously.

Did you overcome your identified barrier and if so, how? We identified the economic side as a barrier. Because of the lack of knowledge, equipment, supplies, etc. it became a very costly enterprise even on a small scale. Machinery and cooling equipment were not readily available and became up front expenses that we have yet to overcome. A 3-5 year look back will most likely be a better indicator relating to our farm as well as an increased local/regional economic activity. The vegetable production/processing industry on a commercial basis is relatively new in the state, but is being actively pursued by a state association.

Advantages/Disadvantages of Implementation: the greatest advantage was the opportunity to try something new and innovative, to try something that had not been done before in this area. It also provided new challenges. The disadvantages of greatest proportion were the time that was taken away from the rest of the farm enterprises. Costs involved also became a factor and a disadvantage because this was something new and we did not have existing equipment.

What would you tell other producers?
- work into it slowly
- do you have the time to devote to vegetable production?
- Expect to spend money for everything because equipment is not readily available in this are and even purchased equipment may need to be modified.
- Dependable and efficient labor may be hard to come by.

Some of our awareness efforts actually started the summer before the grant was received. The grant was written and the goals were in place, however the grant period had not officially begun. During the 2001 crop year we planted a three acre cabbage patch. The novelty of it actually started the outreach program efforts to educate and raise the awareness of area farmers.

- Summer/Fall 2001- on farm visitors just dropped by to see what’s happening – 40 people
- July 24, 2001 – “Towner County Summer Crop Tour” producer letter and advertising poster (Mike Johnston, Mike Parker, Terry Lykken, Terry Gregorie and Aung Hla addressed group concerning production, weed control and irrigation) – 42 people
- October 2001 – Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s newsletter article in The Germinator “SARE Producer Grants Awarded in North and South Dakota”
- November 2001 – North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine, Northern Plains Electric Cooperative’s center pages article “Cando Farmers Venture Into Irrigation Vegetables”
- November 2001 – Northern Notes article from the Northern Plains Electric Cooperative web page: “Cando Farmer Venture into Irrigated Vegetables”
- November 2001 – North Dakota Water Magazine article, “Federal Grants to Further Value Added Agriculture in North Dakota” (does not directly relate to SARE grant, but includes cabbage as a value added crop and does have a photo at our farm)
- December 2001 – AGWEEK article “High Value Veggies: Project Explores ND Vegetable Production”
- December 2001 – Winter Producer Newsletter, NDSU Extension Service Towner County (includes publicity for December 17, 2001 Crop Improvement Meeting presentation)
- December 11, 2001 – Grand Forks Irrigation Workshop, Grand Forks, ND “High Value Crops Projects in North Dakota”
- December 13, 2001 – The Irrigation Connection: A Workshop for New and Potential Irrigators, Carrington, ND “Irrigated Cabbage Project: Our Experiences” – 30 people
- December 8, 2001 – “County Crop Improvement Ass’n. Annual Meeting Dec. 17th article from our county newspaper – The Towner County Record Herald
- December 17, 2001 – Towner County Crop Improvement Association Meeting Agenda, Cando, ND “Growing Irrigated Cabbage on a Small Acreage in Northern North Dakota” – 30 people
- Annual Report 2001 – Northern Plains Electric Cooperative Annual Report “This Place We Call Home: Innovation” (includes photos taken at our farm)
- January 9, 2002 – Lake Region Extension Round Up, Devils Lake, ND “Setting up and Marketing a New Value Added Enterprise: Example: Small Acreage Cabbage Production in Towner County” – 25 people
- January 14, 2002 – Prairie Views Estates, Cando, ND – “Cabbage Production in Our Backyard!” article from our county newspaper – The Towner County Record Herald – 12 people
- March 21, 2002 – Towner County Ag Day, Cando, ND – radio interview with Dale Alwyn of KDLR-KDVL radio stations from Devils Lake, ND – article from our county newspaper – The Towner County Record Herald
- Summer/Fall 2002 – on farm visitors just dropped by to see what’s happening – 15 people
- January 7, 2003 – Lake Region Extension Round Up, Devils Lake, ND – “Developments in High Value Crop Production” (panel member for session moderated by Terry Lykken and Rudy Radke) – 10 people
- Summer/Fall 2003 – on farm visitors just dropped by to see what’s happening – 12 people
- Fall 2003 – North Dakota Horizons Magazine article “Vegetables: New Crop Possibilities for North Dakota”
- September 20, 2003 – “Ag Lines” weekly news column written by Terry Lykken, Towner County Extension Agent, for our county newspaper – The Towner County Record Herald – “Cabbage Production Tour” (first notice)
- September 27, 2003 – “Ag Lines” weekly news column written by Terry Lykken, Towner County Extension Agent, for our county newspaper – The Towner Record Herald – “Cabbage Production Tour” (second notice)
- October 1, 2003 – “Cabbage Production Tour” poster sent to area business and producers; Mike Johnston Farm and Parker Brothers, Cando, ND (variety of SARE brochures sent by Ken Schneider were available for participants to pick up; explanation of SARE producer grant program)

Future plans for communicating results: Photos and video have been taken throughout the two years. Currently, Terry Lykken, Towner County Extension Agent, has put together a power point presentation on Value Added Agriculture in Towner County. This presentation will most likely be used at upcoming winter farm meetings. Opportunities to speak at any of these meetings will be included as possible.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.