GROWING GREEN: Hastings farm grows, ships tons of cabbage up and down the East Coast

Shortly after 10:30 a.m. on a sun-kissed Tuesday in early March, Chris Bonsor’s 18-wheeler was loaded and ready to go with 750 50-pound boxes of Barnes Farm cabbage, ready for an overnight transport to a Food Lion in Petersburg, Virginia.


Explaining that Bonsor’s refrigerated 18-wheeler was one of about 12 trucks scheduled to arrive at the Hastings farm that day, Virginia Barnes added “and there may be additional ones.”

Barnes is part of a fifth-generation farming family in this western St. Johns County community. In early March, the farm was in what she refers to as the “St. Paddy’s Push, when the bulk of ‘our cabbage’ is shipped to mainly the northeast, and other locations including some in Florida and, on rare occasions, Canada.”

With nearly 1,000 acres of cabbage, the Barnes Farm does its part to make sure there is fresh cabbage to go with each corned beef on March 17.

“We start at the very end of August and plant all the way through February,” Barnes explained, with harvesting from the middle of November “all the way to June.” There are other, smaller crops here, but cabbage is the main product.

Savoy and red cabbage — which looks purple — make up about 2 percent of the cabbage planted, she said. The remainder is the familiar green variety. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of cabbage,” she admitted, as trucks towing numbered carts filled with the sweet green produce rolled by.

This time of year, as many as 70 truck loads per week leave the farm, located just off State Road 206. “We’re projected to do 80 (truck loads) this week,” she noted. The first Friday in March, the farm set a record of 17 trucks in one day, beating its old mark of 16.

The Barnes Farm is the largest cabbage-producing farm in St. Johns County, says Dr. Bonnie Wells, a commercial agricultural agent for UF/IFAS Extension of St. Johns County, adding that St. Johns is “No. 1 for cabbage in Florida.” Speaking of the Barnes family, “they’re awesome,” Wells notes. “They’re good hearted, very community-minded, really good people.”

Bonsor, who had arrived earlier that Tuesday, had just dropped a load of Monster Energy Drinks in Jacksonville before heading south to pick up the leafy cargo. “We try not to have an empty load either way,” he explained.

Millions of heads

Sixteen to 18 million heads of cabbage are planted, Barnes continues, and each head is guided into the ground by hand, so the process is very labor intensive. At harvesting time, each head is cut individually, and each field is visited three to four times for cutting.

A new invention, says Barnes, has just come out to harvest strawberries: a robot which can actually tell if the strawberry is ripe and ready to pick. “I can’t wait until they come out with one for cabbage.”

Barnes Farm has 80 on the payroll, including those involved with H2A through a government program, and domestics who actually “live here.” The domestics are a “core group of about 30,” Barnes explains, and “they’ve worked for 10 plus years here.” The H2A program which allows employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

Barnes is proud of her family business. She started at about age 6 when potatoes were a family crop, and she participated in the grading process. Today, heading the business are Virginia’s father Mark and uncle Dale, and also involved are her mother, Anne; two brothers, Chris and Jim; and Virginia’s fiancé, Silas King.

Virginia’s grandfather, Clyde M. Barnes, who died Feb. 20 at the age of 82, served as owner and operator of Barnes Farm and Barnes Fertilizer, until his death.

There is a sense of pride in farming, says Virginia. “We’re just cut from a certain cloth. Farming is a humble and beautiful industry. The work allows me to lay my head on my pillow at night.

“Farmers make up one percent of the population, but we service 100 percent of the population.”