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Local Farms Grow Heirloom Cabbages

The cone-shaped cabbage variety, 'Early Jersey Wakefield,' is one of the few heirloom seed varieties still grown today.

According to food writer Rebecca Wood, humans have been eating cabbage for more than 2 millennia. It's chock-full of anti-carcinogenic phytonutrients, and it was used as a hangover cure by the Romans. Still, for some reason, the vegetable is often tossed aside for more exciting flora. 

It’s hard to toss a conch-shell-shaped cabbage aside, though.

The “Early Jersey Wakefield” is an heirloom cabbage variety grown by two local farms, Windmill Farm in Moss Landing and Dirty Girl Produce in Santa Cruz’s banana belt. It comes from a real heirloom seed that can be traced back to a New Jersey man named Peter Henderson, who perfected it in 1868. No, you won't find this conical wonder at the supermarket.

“I’ve had a really hard time finding the heirloom versus the hybridized variety. There is only one in the seed catalogue,” said Ronald Donkervoort, who has grown cabbage for at least 15 years at Windmill Farm.

“I grew up eating these in Holland, and it’s very well known in Europe," he said. "It’s a lot more tender and sweet than some cabbages.”  

Donkervoort recommended eating the cabbage raw in a salad, as it’s especially refreshing in the summertime heat. I purchased a couple of these heads to experiment on, and sure enough, they were as delicious raw as they were lightly steamed. A friend and local cabbage enthusiast, Alex Burke, recommended shredding the cabbage—any kind your heart desires—and tossing it with green onion, rice vinegar and a little sesame oil. After trying this, I too, became a cabbage lover.

The heirloom cabbages are also delicious halved and steamed for a short amount of time, just until they appear translucent, as suggested by Dennis Schermer of Dirty Girl Produce. Lightly steamed cabbage leaves hold their shape and remain elastic, so they make good wrapping material, especially in vegan dishes. Try stuffing them with walnuts and vegetables and baking them as you would manicotti or lasagna.  

Donkervoort brought to light another reason why this cabbage variety may taste better than the red or green cabbages you will find under the bright lights of produce section.

“Open pollinated and heirloom varieties have more flavor than the hybrids," he said. "As a farmer, I try to stay away from hybridized food as much as possible.”  

Another reason Donkervoort and other small farms prefer heirloom seeds is that hybrid vegetables do not produce reliable seeds to save for the next season, meaning these crops are potentially useless beyond one growing season. This puts the fate of the world's food supply in the hands of seed companies, while many of our grandparents’ vegetable varieties go extinct.

“It takes the power away from the seed companies a bit,” said Doonkervoort. “All of the diversity being lost in species, the same thing is happening with food.”

It’s a trend that started at the beginning of the 1900s, when the act of catching heirloom seeds to trade with neighbors and save for the next growing season began to taper off. Today, all of our food is grown from hybridized seeds purchased from seed companies. 

“One major disadvantage to hybrid seeds is the loss of genetic diversity. When plant breeders develop hybrid seed, many unique genes are lost in the process,” said Illinois Extension Horiticulture educator, Matt Kostelnick. “By growing heirloom seeds, you’re preserving genetic information that is otherwise disappearing for good.”

So just how many seed varieties have been lost since the dawn of industrial agriculture? And how many local farms are growing heirloom varieties as opposed to hybrids? Stay tuned for the answers in next Friday's 

Heirloom cabbage is available pretty much all year and can be found at the Aptos, Live Oak/East Side, and Downtown farmers markets.

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