BY JIM KNEISZEL Journal Times
photo by Mark Hertzberg
cutline; AT top, migrant workers pick cabbage in the rain at harvest time.
Center, Workers on Scott Pfeffer's fam on Highway 38 in Husher gather cabbage. Above left, Shaun Lukas, 17, shovels in a forkful of sauerkraut during last year's kraut eating contest at the Kraut Festival in Franksville. He won the teen division by eating a pound of kraut in 48.6 seconds.
Above, cabbage is harvested at one of the Borzynski Farms' fields on Highway C.
Call a fella “cabbage head" and he's likely to raise a fist and pop you in the kisser. Not Maynard Entringer. In the 1960s, this undisputed sauerkraut king of Racine County would raise a fork and open wide.
As the reigning world champion at Franksville's Kraut Festival, Entringer once downed two pounds of kraut in 46 seconds. Like Joltin' Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball, this will be one tough record to break.
“He has held the title on numerous occasions," summed up the local history book, “Franksville The First 100 Years." “New challengers are not easy to come by."
Indeed, nobody has matched Entringer's appetite for the stringy fermented vegetable that puts locals in an intoxicated state about this time of year. But undaunted kraut lovers will line up again this weekend to take a crack at the legend's mark during the event honoring the history of the firm, green orb that made Franksville famous.
“They get a few beers in them and try to conquer the world," observed Larry Zirbel, local greenhouse owner and chairman of the kraut-eating contest. “A hot dog or a brat is no good unless it has kraut with it, in my opinion. It really dresses them up. But there's no two ways about it: I couldn't eat the stuff like that."
The 47th Kraut Festival will draw thousands to Caledonia-Mt. Pleasant Park this weekend, just as millions of tiny cabbages poke their heads through the rich, black earth in area fields. Evidence is everywhere that this is a cabbage town, one of the biggest cabbage towns in the country.
The Kraut Festival is a public display of how a tiny community founded where highways K and H meet can pull together and make things happen. And behind the scenes at several area farms, cabbage growers freely share equipment, land and advice in a complex production process that takes a labor-intensive vegetable from field to grocery store, said Jim Sellmer, Racine County UW-Extension Service horticulture agent.
“They're a very close, tight group with a common interest and they all work together. It's not a cut-throat competition," he said. “This is a prime example of good teamwork and good community work."
When it comes to tending to 3,000 to 4,000 acres of cabbage on a patchwork of land steadily turning into suburbia, teamwork is essential for growers to turn a profit, said grower Roger Eckert. Farmers work together to overcome challenges of blight, harvest and marketing even planting space to work out a complicated crop rotation.
In a steadily urbanizing area, it's impressive that Racine County continues to rank as one of the top U.S. cabbage-producing centers. According to statistics from a university-based cabbage Internet Web site, Wisconsin ranks in the top five cabbage-producing states with New York, California, Texas and Florida.
And Racine County chiefly Franksville is responsible for most of the Wisconsin cabbage, according to Sellmer. By tradition, Racine County is also associated with early U.S. production of the popular ethnic food, sauerkraut.
For years, two local kraut factories gave dozens of smaller cabbage farmers an outlet for their crops. The lesser-known Meeter Bros. & Co. sauerkraut plant was in Union Grove. The larger national distributor, the Frank Pure Food Co., was the largest employer in Franksville, with up to 150 workers, and made sauerkraut beginning in 1907.
The Ohio-based Fremont Co. owned Frank's for a time but closed the plant in 1985. Fittingly, the complex of buildings on the southern fringe of the village has been bought as an office and storage facility for the Borzynski Bros. Distributing Co., the largest cabbage grower in the area.
Wisconsin is known as the Dairy State, and produce isn't a common crop in many spots around the state. The growing season is too short or the soil is too poor for farmers to make a living with fruits and vegetables, for the most part.
Cabbage is the exception. Why?
“My perception is that it got started because of the ethnic background of the folks that landed and lived in the area," Sellmer said. “Now it's a case where we have very urban markets in Chicago and Milwaukee."
The first written history of Racine County cabbage was an 1840 letter that farm immigrant Nicholas LeProvost sent to his family in the Isle of Guernsey noting that cabbage was being grown here from European seed.
Civil War-era farmer Ben R. Bones became the first commercial cabbage grower, hauling his crop to Racine's docks to be shipped to markets in Chicago, according to “The Grassroots History of Racine County." Bones is credited as the first produce farmer to ship to Southern markets via refrigerated train cars. He was also supposedly the first Racine County farmer to make sauerkraut when he mixed 45 barrels of “fine kraut" with excess cabbage from the 1887 harvest.
Strangely, a Racine blacksmith shop at Sixth and Villa streets emerged as the first profitable sauerkraut operation here in the 1880s. Emil and Fred Gunther made a machine to cut cabbage into kraut and wooden vats to store the concoction. When they couldn't find a buyer for the equipment, they started making kraut themselves.
The demand for cabbage increased and area farm families responded, with acreage increasing every year. In its heyday, there were about 50 cabbage farmers in the area. Most were in the eastern part of the county where the rich soils and Lake Michigan's temperate influences made for the best growing conditions.
The tradition continues against what some might think are long odds.
A strong base remains of a half-dozen growers who have expanded operations, consolidating much of the good farm land. Produce marketing has changed so drastically over the years that most observers don't think the closing of the two kraut factories has had a significant economic impact.
Improved growing practices have allowed Racine County to remain a major cabbage player even as the number of farmers dwindled and development encroaches.
“My assumption is that they're producing as much or more with fewer acres," said Sellmer. “There's a lot of younger growers in the group and where you can get family transition, you'll see land stay in production. And that's what I hope to see."
Scott Pfeffer, 36, is taking over the family farm from his father, Glenn, and hopes to overcome challenges of poor weather, a fluctuating market and supervising a work force of 10 to 20 people.
“You've got to be dedicated to taking a little good with a lot of bad. There are some years that are horrible, and if it isn't the weather, it's the market. And those are the two things we have no control over," Pfeffer said.
The past two growing seasons have been substandard, and every cabbage farmer lost money last year, Eckert said. That's because cabbage costs about $1,000 per acre to plant, transplant and tend to during the growing season. Other cash crops like corn and soybeans are grown for a fraction of the cost.
“Last year was a nightmare. We had probably a million cabbage plants here we couldn't plant because the fields were all mud," Eckert said.
Pfeffer said the thought of switching careers crosses his mind, but he doesn't want to give up farm life.
“It passes through my mind once a day, but I've never had to work for anyone else; my dad has been my boss every day of my life. We're all pulling toward one goal," he said. “When things are really bad on the farm, I stop and think there are lots of people who would love to be in my position."
Pfeffer would like his business to grow, but he recognizes he's being hemmed in by delopment. And limited acreage isn't the only impediment. Some of the new neighbors in Franksville aren't as fond of cabbage as the natives.
“Every house that goes up is another potential problem if they don't like the way we're doing things," he said. Newcomers complain about blowing dust, chemical treatments to fields, tractors on the road and the clumps of mud they leave on the pavement.
“They want to get out of the city where there is cleaner air and more privacy," he said. “It's a free country, but give us some space and let us do our thing, too. We'll work together."
New residents should be tolerant of the farmers if they want to preserve the pastoral setting they enjoy, Sellmer said. The slow-moving traffic and the occasional scent of rotting cabbage are minimal prices to pay for peaceful life in the country.
Kraut Festival seems to provide the neutral ground where city and country folk can meet and eat.
The festival began in 1949 as a family picnic for employees of the kraut factory. President A.A. Huppert decided to continue the picnic to show off Franksville kraut and raise money to build a community park.
After the park was paid for, the Franksville Businessmen's Association took over the picnic and added ball fields, buildings and lights to the park. Over the years the festival has also supported many other civic causes, according to longtime volunteer and former cabbage farmer LeRoy Harbach.
Civic pride keeps volunteers coming back to the kraut, he said. “My kids grew up in this park. I feel obligated. I can't give them money, but I can sure help out. If everybody pitched in a little bit, the community would be a better place to live. It's always been that way here."
As for the impetus for the festival, Pfeffer believes cabbage and cabbage farmers will be around Franksville for a long time.
“You've got to be optimistic. I think there's a future here. People still got to eat," Pfeffer said. “And at the end of the year, when everything is said and done and the bills are paid, if there's a little bit left to put away, it makes you feel pretty good."