Organic Cabbage and Sauerkraut Demonsration

Organic Cabbage and Sauerkraut Demonstration

A cabbage and sauerkraut production trial was conducted at the KSU farm by Brian Geier in 2007. Here he reports on what he learned.


Overview

Growing organic cabbage was rated "easy-moderately difficult" in a recent poll of Kentucky's organic growers conducted by the University of Kentucky.  Still, like many organic production systems, a higher level of management is a main challenge to growing cabbage without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.  One way to address a higher level of management is to add value to a crop and increase the return coming to the farmer.  In the summer of 2007, this project looked at the potential of an organic cabbage production system accompanied with a value-added sauerkraut production.     


Cabbage Varieties

Seven varieties of cabbage from certified organic seed production systems were grown and evaluated for yields, pest resistance, and suitability for sauerkruat. 

 Large Drumhead Savoy Brunswick
Express Red Glory of Enkhuizen

Penn State Ballhead Premium Late Flat Dutch
Winterfurst Savoy 

Organic Production

Cabbage seeds were planted on February 20, 2007 into organic potting mix.  Flats were kept in a greenhouse until March 20, when they were moved outside to harden-off. On March 21, an 800' x 20' bed was prepped using a BCS tiller, and fertilized (to 100 lb. nitrogen/acre) using a locally available pelleted fertilizer allowed under organic standards.

 

Seedlings were transplanted by hand and covered with Reemay row cover (a thin Reemay was ordered; one which protects to 28 °F) to protect from hard frosts and insect pests.  Hoops were cut from a metal wire spool and placed 3-5 feet apart to support the row cover.  White clover was sown in between the beds of cabbage, and raked in by hand.  Sixty plants of each variety were transplanted, for a total of 420 cabbage plants.  Spacing was 18 inches between plants, in staggered rows spaced one foot apart.  Less than 800 feet of row space and row cover were used (less than 1/16th of an acre).   

 

As plants reached maturity (July), we weeded by hand and scuffle-hoed three times. We removed the Reemay after it suffered wind damage in May. (Reemay tip: if using these row covers for insect barriers, where the material will be buried and left in the field for a long period, a thicker Reemay, such as a grade rated to protect to 24 °F, may be necessary to prevent tearing!). The row covers prevented damage by the first generation of imported cabbage worm, but caterpillars were found on the plants during the second generation, in early June. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) was applied with a backpack sprayer on June 19.  After the cabbage worms fed on leaves sprayed with Bt, they ceased feeding and died within three days. Flea beetles colonized the outer leaves of some plants before harvest, but did not damage  the harvestable heads.  


Sauerkruat

Sauerkraut is a product of the lacto-fermentation of cabbage.  Historically, lacto-fermented foods have provided some kind of staple for the diets of nearly every culture.  The subject of kraut still stirs memories of great-grandparents and traditions for many people.  Today, many traditionally fermented foods (kraut, ketchup, pickles, etc) do not undergo lactic-acid-producing fermentation,  but are products preserved with vinegar, enhanced with sugar, and pasteurized by bacteria-killing hot water baths.  The health benefits of lacto-fermentation have therefore been lost in the industrialization (use of vinegars and pasteurization) of most traditional ferments.  

Considerable interest is arising around the revival of the artisan craft of fermented foods.  Most health food stores now carry a lacto-fermented kraut, often labeled "live kraut", "lacto-fermented", or "traditional kraut".  (As the beneficial bacteria produced during fermentation are killed during pasteurization, these products are raw and in need of refrigeration for commercial sales.)  Few areas of the country have a regional producer of such kraut, and to date, stores in Kentucky are importing this high-priced niche product from California.


Our Sauerkraut Process

Below is a brief sketch of the process used.  See this link for simple recipes and more sauerkraut lore).

 

Heads of washed cabbage were shredded with a cheese grater, then mixed with sea salt (non-iodized, as iodine inhibits fermentation) at a ratio of about 1.5 tablespoons of salt to each head (about 2 pounds) of cabbage.  The salted mixture was then put into a 6.5 gallon "Ale Pail" available at local wine making supply stores, and pressed down using a potato masher, until the resulting brine covered the cabbage.  A kitchen plate was set on top of the cabbage and a jar of water was placed on top of the plate to hold cabbage about 2 inches under the surface of the brine.  An air-tight lid, fitted with a "fermentation lock", which allows air to escape but no air to come in, was then snapped on.  At our room temperatures around 70-75 F, fermentation was complete in about 3-4 weeks.  The, the kraut was refrigerated until consumption. 

This process is not suitable for Home-Based Microprocessing for Kentucky growers, unless jars are sealed with heat.  Commercialization of this process for sales of live kraut at restaurants or groceries is exempt from FDA regulation and is only regulated on the state level, making fermentation a relatively easy process to commercialize for the farmer-entrepreneur.

 

Results 

Variety Average Weight of Heads (lb) Average Diameter of Heads (inches) Yield (lb/130 sq. ft. plot), (tons/acre)
Express Red 1.5 5.7 50, 8.4
Penn State Ballhead 0.94 5.9 31, 5.2
Large Drumhead Savoy 1.4 6.2 46, 7.7
Premium Late Flat Dutch 1.7 6.7 71, 12
Brunswick 2.5 6.9 119, 20
Winterfurst Savoy 0.93 6.8 3.7, 0.62
Glory of Enkhuizen 2.2 5.5 103, 17

Unfortunately, each batch of sauerkraut spoiled in our mid-summer heat; temperatures were above 100° F during fermentation.  The jars that rested on the plates inside the fermentation buckets were not heavy enough to hold the plant matter under the brine.  Upward pressure existing as the packed cabbage began to ferment pushed our jars and plates up, exposing the cabbage to air and allowing spoilage.   

In one bucket, however, all varieties were mixed together and the bucket was nearly filled.  A plate was placed on top of this plant matter and held underneath the brine by a small jar that, when the lid was fastened on, was held down with the pressure of the lid's closure.  This batch fermented successfully and created kraut with a pleasing taste.  Unfortunately, this was a mixed kraut and no difference in variety can be determined.  Still, the process seems to work quite well, even despite our midsummer heat.    

Below are the estimated costs associated with our production of organic cabbage and processing of sauerkraut.  Material costs are taken from catalogues; BCS tractor use cost is based on a $2,500 tractor over 20 years at a use of 1 hour per month; labor hours were recorded and given a value of $10 per hour; and refrigerator use is based on a $350 fridge over a 15-year life and an average cost of $65.47/year for power, with space to hold up to 120 quart jars of finished product.


Input Cost for Project (per 0.05 acres, or 2,300 ft2)
Seedling Flats (16) $11
6-Pack Trays (128) $49
Organic Cabbage Seed (8 Packs) $20
OMRI Approved Potting Soil (2.5 cubic feet) $30
Nature Safe Fertilizer (50 lb) $27
Reemay® (1000 x 15 ft roll, 420 ft used) $280
Organic Red Clover Seed (3 lb) $18
Dipel (Bt product, about 6 T) $5
BCS Walk Behind Tractor Use (one hour) $5
Labor for Cabbage Production (35.75 hours) $357
Cabbage Shredder $60
Ale Pails with Lids and Fermentation Locks (8) $104
Glass Ball Jars for finished kraut (160 jars for approximately 40 gallons) $160
Refrigerator Use (2 months use for finished jars of kraut, until sale) $15
Labor for Kraut Processing (20 hours) $200
Total $1,341

Based on our yield data, where we harvested about 480 pounds of marketable cabbage from 480 plants, we could, after coring and stripping any damaged outer leaves, make about 408 pounds of sauerkraut (calculating a 15% weight processing loss), or about 8,160 pounds kraut per acre of cabbage.  Our project yields would roughly fill ten 5-gallon buckets with roughly 40 pounds of kraut in each.  From each of these buckets, about 16 quarts of sauerkraut could be packed, for a total of 160 quarts of finished product.  

Considering the above processing scenario and the above estimated cost of production, a break-even price for a quart of kraut would be $8.38, or $4.18 for a pint.  At a sale price of $10 per quart, the profits from this system would reach $259, and with a price of $15 per quart, profits rise to $1,059.  Organically produced kraut and other fermented vegetable products from California are being sold in local health food stores for about $9-11 a pint.  At this rate the profits from the above system would reach $1,539-2,179, although the feasibility of selling any number of pints of sauerkraut at this price is unknown.  Additional labor hours or costs of permitting, licensing, and marketing/delivery are also not included in this study.         

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Last updated April 17, 2009

College of Agriculture, Food Science and Sustainable Systems