Pam’s Produce grows a variety of crops but cabbage has been the mainstay

The cabbage business

Pamela Smither, with the help of her husband, Louis, established their growing business 27 years ago on the edge of Weston in northwest Missouri, about 25 miles north of Kansas City. They started growing sweet corn and cabbage. They stopped growing sweet corn, but cabbage has been the mainstay all along. When asked why they stopped growing the corn, Louis said, “Everybody and his brother can, and is, growing sweet corn. We decided to concentrate on other crops that have more profit potential.”


Part of the cabbage field at Pam’s Produce in northwest Missouri.
PHOTOS BY STEVE TRUSTY.

The 2010 crop was planted on 5 acres in April. The seed was sown in the greenhouse in February. Ten percent of the crop was red cabbage and the rest was green. The green varieties grown were Gideon and Artost. The red was Cairo. It was the first year for these to be the main crop. Pam’s stated goal was, “To produce varieties that kept the heads growing a little more off the ground.” She talks with other growers and her customers to get ideas on new varieties to try. Each year, she plants a limited number of new varieties in small areas as a comparison test to make sure she is providing the best crop possible at a reasonable price and profit.

Weeds are controlled by a combination of a tractor-drawn cultivator and hand hoeing. The plants are sprayed with Dipel as needed to control cabbage worms. Louis adds, “Once in a while we’ll use Warrior if we need to rotate.” The fields are fertilized with a blend of 70 pounds of nitrogen (N), 40 pounds of phosphorus (P) and 40 pounds of potassium (K) per acre, prior to planting. On irrigation, Pam states, “I only had to irrigate one year. That was during the drought of the ’80s.”

Harvest starts in mid-June and lasts about three weeks. The red cabbage is usually ready about two weeks later than the green. Harvesting is done by a crew of family members that includes two sons, two daughters, three grandchildren and Pam’s dad. The cabbage heads are cut and placed in bins that hold 1,500 pounds or in 50-pound plastic cabbage bags. Pam says, “The bins are easier to work with both in the filling and post-picking process. The bags are more labor-intensive, but are needed for the purchasers of smaller quantities.” The crop is cooled down and hauled by refrigerated trucks to the buyer.

Most of the crop is sold to a coleslaw producer in north Kansas City. The balance is sold to local grocery stores and at the Pam’s Produce stand at the Parkville Farmers’ Market.

Pumpkins

Another big crop for Pam’s Produce is 5 acres of pumpkins. They were planted amongst the cabbage. About 50 percent of the crop is pie pumpkins, with 90 percent of those wholesaled. The bulk of the rest are for Halloween, with about 70 percent sold wholesale and most of the rest retail. Some are used to decorate car dealers’ lots, and some go to neighbors’ yards and the local Apple Fest. Pam’s Produce also grows unusual pumpkin varieties, including white ones, “Peanut” and a variety with warts. For the most part, disease problems are eliminated by planting mildew-resistant varieties. Insect pressures are primarily beetles, including flea beetles and cucumber beetles. Serpa is used for control.

Tomatoes and peppers

Tomatoes and peppers are the next big crops. Pam’s Produce grew .5 acre of peppers in 2010, about 5,500 plants. Jalapenos and Revolution bell peppers are the principal varieties. In the past, they have grown about 4,500 tomato plants, but cut the planting to 1,500. They felt that was more manageable and would still provide a good crop. Varieties included Celebrity Supreme, Carolina Gold, grape and cherry. The tomato and pepper plants are mulched with wheat straw. Pam states, “It pays for itself in weed reduction and moisture retention.” The tomato plants are individually supported with a 3-foot cage and a 6-foot tobacco stake in the center for a more sturdy plant. Tobacco stakes are plentiful, as the Weston area used to produce about 6 million pounds of tobacco annually. Only 1.3 million pounds were contracted in 2010. The tomato plants are given a supplemental side-dressing of calcium at the rate of 150 pounds per acre.

The pepper harvest starts in early July and continues until frost. The tomato harvest starts in late July, and by early September the plants will have run their cycle. Louis says “We could extend the season if we wanted with succession planting, but after 26 years, we don’t feel the pressure to do so.”

Other crops

Other crops important to Pam’s Produce include broccoli, cauliflower and beets. Smaller amounts of peas, onions, eggplant and squash complete the mix. These products help provide a longer season of sales at the Parkville Farmers’ Market and to local grocery stores. The market operates 7 a.m. until noon on Saturdays from the end of April through October and on Wednesday evenings during the summer. Pam likes the market for a couple of reasons. She says, “It gives me the pulse of what people are looking for, and I have made many friends over the years.” Louis adds, “She really enjoys the contact with people; I’m more comfortable on the tractor.”


Louis Smither prefers cultivating and growing the crops to manning the stand at the farmers’ market.

Challenges and solutions

As with most growers, Pam says, “Weather is our biggest challenge.” An overabundant supply of rain in 2010 was a problem. They lost about a quarter of the first pepper planting to a downpour that washed the seedlings away. A 2.5-inch rain washed many of the newly set tomato cages into the cabbage patch. She says, “The only solution is to control what you can, and don’t worry about what you can’t control.”

Pam adds, “A good back and family support are important to the operation.” Her 77-year-old father is still a big help. One adult daughter, Stephanie, helps with all aspects of the business and runs the ag supply center and tobacco warehouse business that Louis started about the same time as the growing operation. Grandchildren are becoming more helpful, and as most grandparents would attest, it can be a real joy observing and assisting with their development. Pam makes most of the harvesting and sales decisions. Louis helps with the work that involves the tractor. This includes cultivation, fertilization and spraying. When not assisting in the growing business, he tends to the other business and also coaches the local high school wrestling team, which he’s done for the past 11 years.

The Smithers have grown a successful operation by listening to the customers and to other growers in the area.

The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.