March 7, 2009

"And that, madam judge, are the reasons I have placed the cabbages in the order of 2, 1, 3, and 4".  I spent most of this Saturday listening to about 60 variation on that speech, because I was invited to be a judge at a vegetable crops contest for FFA (Future Farmers of America) hosted by the Vegetable Crops department at UC Davis.

There were onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and of course the cabbages for the students to evaluate, in addition to a wide variety of other horticultural tests and questions. I find myself musing as to the series of events that paved my way there. I by no means consider myself a professional cabbage grower quite yet, but this year I was introduced to farmers who are, the McAravey brothers in nearby Dunnigan. My farming partner has been friends with the brothers for many long years, and would often tell me about their growing operation. I remember being mystified upon learning about them, since at that time I was busy following the "lies and fairy tales" contained on the back of the packets of cabbage seed. I had thought you couldn’t grow cabbage here, because of after years of carefully following the instructions on the seed packets, I had never grown a decent cabbage. Yet, if someone was doing it, there was obviously a method. I learned how the seed is started in June or July, under shade cloth, in the blistering summers. Then the transplants are put into the field sometime in late July or August. And on this schedule, with even watering, they grow……who knew. So for the first time this season, I have been able to see the progess of a cabbage grown at the right time from seedling to maturity. There is no substitute for personally viewing this process in any crop, in fact, it’s essential to observe this in order to understand the plant in question. When I was asked to come to this contest initially, I was going to bring table beets. But, the goal involves showing the students relatively common commercial vegetables, and all the beets I grow are very un-common. Not to mention, I have either 10 lb. titans that I’m hoping to raise for seed, or small baby beets that I don’t yet want to sacrifice to outside purposes. So, I needed another crop. Coincidentally I had just purchased some cabbage for my CSA clients and had rather over-ordered. So, cabbage it was. Then yesterday I realized, I need to know a lot more about this. Three hours online and a phone call to the McAraveys later, I had more information on cabbages than I’ve ever been aware of. Did you know they are one of the most consumed vegetables in the world, ranking in the top four? That they have more vitamin C than oranges, have four main classifications (green storage, savoyed, red, and miniature/specialty)? That many of the modern hybrids are bred for superior sweetness and disease resistance? Of course not, who would? The FFA students had the task to rate four plates, each holding two cabbages selected and arranged by me. They weren’t allowed to touch the cabbages, and then had to come into a room with just the two of us, introduce themselves, and state clearly and in an organized fashion their choices (best plate to worst) and the reasons for their rankings. A lovely gentleman who is on staff at Vegetable Crops guided me through the first part of this process, as I’m unfamiliar with the world of FFA. The interaction with the students fascinated me, as it was a chance to see into the mind of the typical produce consumer. Many of the students obviously knew nothing about cabbage except what they read somewhere, and likely had never purchased or eaten one. So for those who had no experience with the vegetable, choices were made based on visual appeal that were not in the best interest if selecting the highest quality vegetables. I was also supposed to be judging their rhetorical skills and their overall poise and presentation. There were the students who were so prepared and articulate that it was hard not to stare open-mouthed. One young woman quoted verbatim the USDA cabbage standards for stem length and quantity of allowable wrapper leaves for market….that reflected, in my opinion, exceptional effort and preparation!….but really, the best part of all was seeing what FFA is doing for these young people. How many, in today’s world, can say they met a teenager who introduces themselves, gives a firm handshake, looks you in the eye, and then without looking at notes, speaks clearly and in an organized fashion as to what they think on a topic for a minute or two? These students are being prepared to be successful by having the life skills that matter to interact with other people in a confident and polished manner. It is worth anyone’s time to contribute to this kind of effort, and I was very pleased to have been invited to participate in this. It also made me realize that in ag, maybe more so than in other facets of society, people tend to be evaluated quickly by their comportment–how they carry themselves, how they speak, their manners, their ability to portray themselves as knowledgeable and genuine. Future Farmers, indeed.

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