When Cauliflower Was King - Purple Mountain Press


by Diane Galusha

From Chapter I "The Cauliflower Boom":

The heyday of the cauliflower industry in this region was 1920 to 1950. In the 1930s and 1940s, nearly every farmer in the region had at least a few acres of cauliflower to bolster his income and act as a hedge against fluctuating prices of milk. An acre might produce four hundred crates (forty-eight hundred heads) of cauliflower, which, depending on quality and market prices, could yield four hundred to sixteen hundred dollars. This was a substantial amount of money at a time when farming was often a break-even affair. Cauliflower profits paid off mortgages, sent children to college, built home additions and barns, and, in one case, a young man used it to set up housekeeping with his new bride.

The cauliflower industry brought returns for ancillary services and suppliers, too. Cauliflower fields needed a lot of lime and fertilizer, and railroads hauled it. They also carried the vegetable to market early on, until truckers stepped in to provide timelier, more direct service. Cauliflower was shipped to market in barrels at first, then crates, which area manufacturers supplied. Hardware stores sold uncounted spools of twine for tying the leaves of the cauliflower plants to prevent the heads from discoloring. Laborers were hired to help in the fields, and children earned their first spending money hammering crate sections together. Howard Etts Jr., 85, says he was paid two cents a crate working for Courtney Sanford of Margaretville, and he was able to save enough in 1932 to buy an Air-Ride bicycle for $26.95.

Cauliflower growers banded together to form marketing cooperatives, studied the science of fertilizers, pests, and diseases, dickered for the best transportation prices, and always kept an eye on the skies. "Cauliflower growing is a highly speculative enterprise because the yields depend largely on the climatic conditions during the growing and harvesting season," stated a 1938 Cornell examination of cauliflower growing and marketing costs in Delaware County. Moderate daily temperatures, cool nights, daily breezes, moist air, and adequate precipitation produced the best yields. If it was too hot, too dry, or too cold, crops would suffer. Hailstorms, tornadoes, and floods frequently proved disastrous, as did perfect weather, when a glut on the markets could mean a loss for the season.

"My father, Imer Conro, used to say you could make so much money in cauliflower one year you could buy a Cadillac, then the next year you couldn't afford to put a license plate on it," remembered Wilma Jones of Gilboa.

Catskill Mountain cauliflower was considered the finest quality available, largely because summer nights are cool and daytime temperatures moderate. (Heat and drought make cauliflower "ricey" rather than solid.) Much of the cauliflower grown in Delaware County was planted at elevations of two thousand feet or higher, and while fields were often rock-studded, they were generally well drained when cleared.

This booklet chronicling a piece of regional agricultural history was unveiled at the Second Annual Cauliflower Festival on Oct. 2, 2004, in the Margaretville Village Park, sponsored by the Greater Margaretville Chamber of Commerce.

When Cauliflower Was King describes the birth, growth and demise of the cauliflower growing industry in the Catskills. It is in booklet format and contains 26 photographs and draws on information and memories supplied by more than 60 people, as well as newspapers and other period accounts.

For a good part of the 20th century, the Catskills, in particular Delaware County, grew what was widely considered the best cauliflower anywhere. Mineral-rich soil, and a moderate climate with warm days and cool nights that usually allowed slow and solid head development, made this region famous for its premium quality cauliflower.

Almost every farm in the region planted some "white gold" to supplement their income. Beginning in the 1890s, when William and Thankful VanBenschoten grew the first tentative cauliflower seedlings on windowsills at their Margaretville Mountain farm, through the 1940s, local cauliflower was shipped in huge quantities via rail and highway to ready markets in New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

Growers established marketing cooperatives in Margaretville, Walton and Bovina to increase efficiency and maximize profit. They were recognized by the distinctive labels on their wooden cauliflower shipping crates, denoting Rip Van Winkle, Pride of the Catskills, and Mountain Brands of cauliflower. An auction block which operated from the late 1930s through about 1950 in the Village of Margaretville allowed agents of produce companies to bid on truckloads of cauliflower hauled in from outlying farms.

Through the 1950s, '60s and '70s, some larger cauliflower operations in the region hung on. Most were in the Stamford-Gilboa area. One, owned by the Wickham family, developed a brining method in order to sell cauliflower to pickle manufacturers. Another family, the Todds, established a wholesale seedling business which remains a major international supplier of plants and products for commercial growers. In New Kingston, the Ruff family, which had first grown cauliflower in 1901 and had expanded it into a large truck farm, sending upwards of 30,000 boxes a year to markets throughout the East, ceased operations in the mid-1990s.

Today, cauliflower is no longer grown commercially in the Catskills, a fact that saddens many of those who remember when. Says Virginia McCumber, whose father, Casper Bellows, once grew acres of it in Margaretville, "People in those days didn't realize, I think, what wonderful vegetables we had. They were the best, really."

Meet Diane Galusha, a former newspaper editor and director of communications for the Catskill Watershed Corporation. She is the author of Liquid Assets: A History of New York City's Water System, also published by Purple Mountain Press.

48 pages, illustrated, 5.5 x 8.5, 2004
$6.50 booklet--A Purple Moutain Press original

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