Cabbage still means money on Plains IN THE SLANG of an earlier era, "cabbage" meant "money." For K.F. Thiel and Sons of Lubbock, it still does, but not without continuing effort and cautious attention to details in both production and marketing of the crop.
Kenneth Thiel has been growing vegetables here since 1940. Kenneth's sons Jim, Tom and Bill are now partners in the family business, which concentrates on cabbage and onions. Tom and Bill supervise the production while Kenneth and Jim handle the marketing
"We really got into the cabbage about 1960 or ' 65," said Jim. This year they have about 70 acres of cabbage and 200 of onions.
The Texas High Plains is well-suited to cabbage production, says Dr. Roland Roberts, a vegetable specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service at Lubbock. "Our cabbage is known for its sweetness and tender leaves because of our good quality (irrigation) water and our high light intensity.
"The area's cool night temperatures, compared to other growing areas in the Southwest, also are a benefit to the crop," Roberts said. "And because of our dry climate and low humidity, we have little or no disease pressure."
He said the crop needs a four-year rotation to avoid disease problems. Most varieties take 70 to 90 days from seed to maturity; that can be cut to 50 to 60 days using four- to five-week-old transplants, Roberts said.
This year the area planted just over 1,000 acres of cabbage. Roberts said fields are scattered primarily across Lubbock, Floyd, Lamb, Bailey, Parmer and Castro counties.
In the vegetable business, says Jim Thiel, you need to know where the crop will be sold before you plant. He says the key to the decades of success of K.F. Thiel and Sons is being conservative.
"We do most of the labor ourselves. We're not expanding with big acreage differences from year to year. We stay around the 200-acre range. We don't really search for new customers; we stay with the customers that have stayed with us." he said.
The Thiels direct seed their cabbage, with the first of three or four plantings in mid- to late March, Jim said. The varieties they plant include Cheers, Blue Vantage, and Pennant.
"We got our first planting on schedule, but rains delayed our second planting about three weeks in June," he said.
The Thiels also grow and ship some 125,000 to 140,000 bags of onions, mostly to Midwest and eastern buyers. They grow varieties of all day-lengths. These include Caballero, an early yellow; intermediates Aspen (white) and Rhumba (red); and long-day Vacaro (yellow), Sterling (white) and Flamingo (red).
The Thiels use seasonal help at plan-ting, harvest, and in the packing shed. These crews work under two full-time employees, Joe Gonzalez and Gilbert Villegas, who have been with the Thiels more than two decades. "Most of our crews are people from the area who have worked with us for years," said Villegas, whose father and grandfather both worked for the Thiels.
During the cabbage growing season "insects are our No. 1 problem," Jim said. The diamondback moth and cabbage looper are the major threats. Insect pressure this year has been light, "but some years it's a struggle, especially against the diamondback," he noted.
When the cabbage is brought to the packing shed it is sized and packed in sacks or cardboard cartons, according to the customer's specification. It is generally quoted to the buyer as 18 to 22 medium heads per container, Jim said.
"All our cabbage goes fresh market," Jim said. They began shipping cabbage the first of July and will continue until about mid-October. About 60 percent of the crop is sold directly to grocery chains, with the other 40 percent sold to brokers.
They ship throughout Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama "and on occasion into Florida," Jim said. They move some 55,000 containers each season.
Cabbage from the Texas High Plains hits a market window between cabbage from Las Cruces, N.M., and the Texas Winter Garden. "It's coming off somewhere year-round," Jim said.
High Plains production continues right up to about November and the first heavy frost, Roberts said. "Cabbage will take a light frost" without doing more than discoloring the outer leaves, he said. "But the grower worries about a heavy frost and doesn't want his crop in the field when that comes."