For good luck in the New Year, Americans eat sauerkraut. For cost savings and a higher-quality product, Ohio cabbage growers and processors turn to the experts at Ohio State University.
 
During the past five years, The Fremont Company -- the country's second largest producer of sauerkraut, based in Fremont, Ohio -- has partnered with OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) to test cabbage varieties for their suitability to the region's soils and growing conditions.

The trials -- conduced at OARDC’s North Central Agricultural Research Station, which is located just six miles from The Fremont Company -- are designed to help the processor and the farmers who supply it with cabbage determine which varieties perform better in terms of yield and quality.

"We tested 20 varieties in 2011, from early-maturing to late-maturing types, and compared them for yield, head quality, good color for kraut, maturity rates, impact of planting and harvesting time on quality, and other characteristics," said OSU Extension educator Mark Koenig, who runs the trials along with station manager Matt Hofelich. "The idea is to support local growers through scientifically based, unbiased, replicated trials conducted in field conditions similar to the ones they encounter on their farms."

According to Bruce Hanzel, plant manager at The Fremont Company  -- whose products include Frank's Kraut and Snow Floss Kraut -- the processor and its Ohio growers would be at a significant competitive disadvantage without these trials.

"Wisconsin and New York are the hotbeds of processing cabbage production in the U.S.; the major seed companies are located in New York and conduct their own variety trials there," Hanzel explained. "But the difference in soils and climate between New York and Ohio make those trials of little value to us. Varieties that work well in New York may or may not work here, or their maturity dates don't match. These trials (at the Fremont station) are extremely valuable to us because selecting and growing the right varieties increases efficiency and lowers costs."

Ohio may not be the leading producer of sauerkraut, but its cabbage industry is no side dish. According to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (2007), 1,501 acres are dedicated to processing cabbage production in the Buckeye State. Most growers are located in north-central and northwest Ohio counties along Lake Erie's fertile plains — and most in relative proximity to OARDC's Fremont research farm.

"We invite our growers every year to the station to check out the trials and learn from the work done here," Hanzel said. "We are so close, we can look at the different varieties and characteristics in real time, whether it's varieties we are currently using or experimental ones coming down the road. The trials give us a side-by-side comparison we can't get from any other source."

OARDC has been involved in evaluating new cabbage varieties for Ohio's sauerkraut processors and growers since the early 1970s -- first at a research site located near Green Springs in Seneca and at the North Central Agricultural Research Station since its establishment in 1979. Additionally, cabbage varieties have been evaluated for food-processing criteria in collaboration with scientists at Ohio State’s Food Industries Center in Columbus.

OARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.