Heirloom seeds yield sweet collards

If you ask George Wooten, he’ll tell you there are collards, and then there are cabbage collards. In his mind’s eye, there is a world of difference. But don’t feel bad if you don’t know the difference right off the bat — neither did he.

“I bought some land, and I was going to raise vegetables to help pay for it,” Wooten says. “I was going to sell ‘green collards,’ and my wife’s uncle told me they wouldn’t sell around here, that people wanted ‘cabbage collards.’ ”

The uncle knew what he was talking about, at least as far as people around the Macclesfield area were concerned. So, the next year, he helped Wooten set up his collard bed, a half-acre plot.

However, Wooten didn’t order seeds from a catalog or local store. Instead, a family treasure chest was opened.

“He told me the seeds he was giving me were started around World War I,” Wooten says. “He helped me get started and told me there were two conditions: one, I could never sell seeds from my collards; and two, I could never sell plants.”

That was 21 years ago. Now George’s Collards operates from Wooten’s 4-acre farm, as well as land owned by farmers he contracts with to produce 15 acres of cabbage collards (and 2 acres of green collards for diversity).

He stays plenty busy with his greens, but he’s turned down plenty of business from those seeking some of the heirloom plants for their own gardens.

“There have been a lot of folks that have left here mad, who came wanting to buy plants because they knew I had ’em,” Wooten says. “I know they don’t understand, but this is my business here, and without these seeds I’m out of business. Plus, I gave my word, and I’m a man of my word, if nothing else.”

The Edgecombe County farmer says there is something about those heirloom seeds that makes his product stand out from the crowd.

“There are commercially available collard seeds, but not true, old-fashioned cabbage collards,” he says. “You just can’t find them anymore.”

Key Points

• Cabbage collards are lighter in color and more tender than “green collards.”

• George Wooten offers both collard types, but cabbage collards are preferred.

• Wooten contracts with other growers to produce enough collards for his customers.

Updating traditions

Wooten’s business has changed dramatically since he started out in the late 1980s. It used to take 5 pounds of seed in his traditional plant beds to fill out 15 acres. Four years ago, he started using a 50-foot greenhouse, and now that same acreage can be planted with just three-quarters of a pound of seed. Using the greenhouse also gives him a much earlier start to the season. He fills trays around mid-February and plants the first week of April, just ahead of tobacco season.

He uses four-row tobacco transplanters to get the collards in the ground, and the first harvest usually starts around Mother’s Day. It typically lasts until Jan. 1, but during a mild winter it can stretch all the way to March 1. The green collards can survive the cold, but not the cabbage collards — the tender, sweet characteristics that put them in demand also make them vulnerable.

“Their color is different; they’re not as dark green-blue, they take less time to cook and they are sweeter,” he says. “They also don’t keep as long. They’ll go bad after four days in the cooler.”

Health issues for Wooten and his wife have forced him to be innovative. He has two farmers under contract to grow the collards for him since he is limited in the amount of physical labor he can do.

“They can make more money per acre on collards than they can on tobacco,” Wooten says. “The contract they sign with me is they can only sell to me, and I guarantee them a certain amount per acre. The higher the yield, the more they can make. What they get back is usually 50% more than what I guarantee. In 2009, 15 acres yielded 150,000 pounds of collards.”

Management and marketing

Wooten scouts the crop, and tells the farmers when to spray and what ratio of fertilizer to use, all of which is covered under the contract terms. He says it is vital that when he makes a call, the work be done immediately; even a day’s delay can see a crop devastated by worms. In the fall, the best-looking plants are tagged and allowed to flower out in March, creating seeds for next year’s crop.

George’s Collards sells to about 40 restaurants and supermarkets, covering Scotland Neck, Dortches, Wilson, Kinston and other areas in eastern North Carolina. He no longer operates the roadside stand that sold retail vegetables for 18 years. Wooten has a storage and cooling facility in nearby Pinetops that can chill 400 20-pound cases at a time.

In addition to a solid production year, prices were steady last year, averaging $12 to $13 a case, or around 60 to 65 cents a pound. Stores retailed the produce out at $1.09 to $1.39. Wooten says the demand is there, and that he could grow more if he could cover more ground in sales. One of his steady customers, the Pinetops Piggly Wiggly, once sold 75 cases in a day.

“Cabbage collards are not a hybrid, but many commercially grown collards are,” he says. “When I go talking a customer, they think they’re already getting cabbage collards — but when they see mine, they say, ‘That’s what I’ve been looking for.’

Of course, it is hard to talk about the collard business or discuss the green without putting the age-old question to an expert: Do collards really taste better after the first frost of the year?

“Well, sales go up after the first frost,” Wooten says with a laugh. “And it seems like 90% of our customers like ’em after the frost. But we can’t wait to sell all those collards until it freezes. So, we just tell folks the advice I’ve been given by some old-time customers — wet them, and put them in the freezer for 30 minutes.”

Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.

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FIELD OF TRADITION: These collard plants will be allowed to stay in the field and flower, eventually producing another two years’ supply of seeds.

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SECRET IN THE SEEDS: Heirloom seeds that date back to the early 20th century are the key to George’s Collards’ success with cabbage collards. They produce a lighter-colored, tender, sweeter green.

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GEORGE’S COLLARDS: George Wooten started his collard business over 20 years ago with help from a relative. In exchange for unique “family” seeds, the Macclesfield, N.C., farmer agreed to never sell plants or seeds — only the greens themselves.

This article published in the May, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.