North Carolina grower finds niche with specialty cabbage

Bradley Odum is finding a niche in cabbage production these days. The crop, however, carries a lot of uncertainty, similar to his tobacco production.

Last year, he had harvested two loads of specialty cabbage when a big rain put the fragile crop into a sauna-like situation, rotting the crop in two days.

It’s a similar uncertainty he knows well from tobacco, his money crop. This year he’s certain of the 160 flue-cured acres he transplanted in late April. Next year, the situation could change. Cotton and soybeans are among his other crops.

Odum of Swansboro, N.C., has been growing Korean radishes and Napa cabbage, better known as Chinese cabbage, for four years.

He works through a broker in New York, whose scientist-husband is conducting experiments on the Odum farm to find cold-tolerant varieties.

Odum made the move to the specialty cabbage and radish production about four years ago. He has grown cabbage for more than 12 years. He grows 70 acres of Napa cabbage and 40 acres of Korean radishes. Much of his tobacco equipment finds double-duty in cabbage production. He grows cabbage transplants in the greenhouse and sets them out in February or early March. The radishes are set out from seed in the field.

With the excessive rain this winter and spring, however, the crop is slightly behind schedule. He aims for a May harvest to "beat Florida" to the market.

He’s experimenting with early-season varieties. "We’ve got to beat Florida," Odum says. "The crop needs to be ready in May in order to beat Florida to the market. An extra month would help us."

Shipping costs are also lower for East Coast production than Florida.

The specialty cabbage he grows has a niche in the Korean markets of New York, he says. He deals with a broker, who also contracts with growers from Maine to Georgia. The broker sought him out to grow the specialty crops. "It’s not a big, big market, but people will pay for it."

The Napa variety, or Chinese cabbage, is used in egg rolls and other specialty dishes. In the field, it looks similar to leaf lettuce. It’s a delicate crop that requires a gentle touch at harvest. The cabbage is 80 percent water. A leaf tear in the field will set up discounts, or even rejection at the market, Odum points out.

The Korean radishes resemble rutabagas more than they do the diminuitive namesakes in the supermarket produce section.

At harvest, his workers cut, wash and store the cabbage and radishes in a cooler on the farm that can handle six tractor-trailer loads of produce. "You have to take the time to do a good job of packaging and presenting the produce," Odum says.

Odum grows the cabbage under irrigation, almost spoon feeding the crop so as not to blow up the heads too fast and help the plant take up adequate nutrients. Like tobacco, the cabbage needs the right amount of nutrients to produce a good crop.

At first, Odum made the switch to produce in order to give his employees something to do during the off-season. Now, it’s become a cash-flow opportunity.

A cash crop like tobacco makes diversification an option. "You couldn’t diversify if you didn’t have a cash crop," Odum says.

So he diversified and looked to the future, which remains uncertain.

After a year of contracting with Dimon, Odum took his 160 acres of tobacco back to the auction system for this season, selling at a warehouse in Windsor, N.C.

"Selling my tobacco at auction, I’m assured that I’ll get something for my tobacco," Odum says. "I’ve done just as well with the auction system as under contracting. They preached a good talk that as time went by they weren’t able to backup.

"It’s hard to have a perfect crop," Odum says. "Bad weather can cause you to have a mean crop to cure and when you deliver on a contract, part or all of the crop can be turned down. It’s hard to have a perfect crop. It’s something that’s not always possible."

As quota has dropped in the last several years, Odum has often thought about the future.

"Right now, I don’t see any long-term future in farming," he says. "If my money crop goes out, I don’t see gambling on corn, soybeans and cotton. I couldn’t continue to farm on crops that don’t pay."

Farming on his own since 1987, Odum laments that things have changed. Farming is a 12-month operation now. Once cotton harvest is complete, it’s time to get ready for the next year.

By next year, he’d like to see a tobacco buyout complete.

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