Island cabbage seed sold around the world

OK. What’s the deal here?

St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone, and yet cabbage patches on North Whidbey are still full of cabbages.

Isn’t our cabbage good enough for the Irish? Do they prefer some other variety to boil and serve with their corned beef?

For those concerned about such issues, relax. Most of the cabbage around here isn’t being grown to be consumed. It’s carefully raised so it will produce high-quality hybrid seeds than can be sold throughout the world.

On Thursday, two workers were picking weeds out of a five-acre cabbage patch owned by Cornie Vander Voet along Highway 20, just south of Oak Harbor. “There aren’t very many weeds,” said Steve Haveman, and he and Sergio Camrena made short work of the well-tended field. Haveman said some of these particular cabbages’ seeds could end up in Japan.

Turns out that the Vander Voet cabbages are being grown for sale through Alf Christianson Seed Company of Mount Vernon, which has a hand in a lot of the cabbage grown around these parts.

Milo Lyons, production manager for the seed company, said the area around North Whidbey and Mount Vernon is “one of the premier cabbage growing areas in the world. We have excellent growers and excellent weather.”

Lyons said eight to 10 North Whidbey farmers grow cabbage seed for Al Christianson Seed Co. Farmers also grow cabbage in Arlington, Stanwood, Mount Vernon, Burlington and Sedro-Woolley, and several other companies are in the same business.

On Whidbey Island, motorists see a number of cabbage patches along Highway 20 from Coupeville to Oak Harbor, and also along West Beach Road.

“There are four or five vegetable companies in the area, and each has hybrid cabbage,” Lyons said.

Alf Christianson cabbages start their life in large greenhouses in Fife, and are transplanted to farmland in August. Green and red cabbage of a variety of types are raised with loving care.

Besides occasional spraying, fertilizing and frequent weeding, cabbages in colder areas are protected from the weather by acres of white, gauze-like covering. “It’s kind of like cheesecloth, it’s really light and it breathes,” Lyons said. The covering was recently removed from patches along Highway 20.

There are male and female cabbages. As they grow taller workers stake and string them off the ground. In late May four beehives per acre are brought in so honey bees can pollinate the crop. The males then meet an unfortunate fate. “In late July we destroy the males because we only harvest the females,” Lyons said.

The cabbage harvest comes in August when the hybrid fields are hand-cut and the crop laid out in windrows a harvester scoops up and deposits into large bins which are trucked to Mount Vernon.

From there, the seeds are sent to such far-off places as India, Holland and Japan, as well as various parts of the U.S. The Alf Christianson seeds carry the brand name of “Chriseed.”

“We have contracts with customers around the world,” Lyons said. “If a customer in Japan wants us to grow some cabbage, we do that and send it back.” The crops are given production code numbers so exactly what is growing where remains a secret. “Even I don’t know the names they’re going to sell under,” Lyons said. “It protects it from getting stolen.”

The seed harvest in a good year can range from 75 pounds per acre for a speciality breed that sells for around $50 a pound, to 1,000 pounds per acre for more common varieties that sell for $3 to $4 a pound.

“There’s a huge range,” Lyons said. The average price of seed is $8 to $12 a pound.

So, as it turns out, the Irish aren’t eating our Whidbey Island hybrid cabbage. But you can bet they’re eating cabbage from some of the seeds they produce, particularly if they live in India or Japan.

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