Preble Kraut Farms
By Tabitha Scoville
At one time, cabbage and sauerkraut were a way of life for many farmers in Preble. Cabbage was an important cash crop that was typically grown as a source of extra income. While cabbage was typically around $5 a ton during the 1940s, an overabundance of cabbage in 1941 saw cabbage at a low price of $2.50 a ton. Just a year later in 1942, a scarcity of cabbage drove the price up to $80 a ton.
Preble has an ideal climate and perfect soil for cabbage crops. According to an article written by former Preble historian Dorothy Rofe, the first acre of cabbage was planted in Preble in 1885 by Perry Haynes. That cabbage was then sold door-to-door in Cortland County. The first boxcar load shipped from Preble to Scranton in 1890. In time, Preble farmers sent cabbage seed to farmers in Maryland to start the seeds in a more moderate climate and then the seedlings were sent back to Preble to be planted.
Sauerkraut is an amazingly simple product. It requires only salt, water, and time to change cabbage into sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is aged anywhere from two months to one year. This is a pickling process called lacto-fermentation and when done, sauerkraut can be kept for months in the right conditions. The sauerkraut industry in Preble arose because of cabbage farming. The crop had the potential to secure extra funds for the farming families, but they also turned tons of cabbage into sauerkraut for their own consumption. Families had large vats in their basements for this purpose. As more farms became specialized, the opportunity arose for the sauerkraut industry to evolve from a small household activity to larger enterprises. Around 1929, Snow White Kraut, Inc. was founded by Robert D. Knapp and Carl L. Allen, but was in business for only two years due to poor cabbage crops. Preble Produce was started in 1946 by Louis Kaplan and Harry Resnick. Another sauerkraut plant opened in Preble in 1958 that was called Victor Kraut. Victor Kraut had other facilities and eventually merged with Preble Produce in 1960. Sauerkraut was sold as "Cortland Valley Kraut" and "Victor Kraut." These plants were family owned and operated. They relied on local help and purchased most of their cabbage locally. The facilities where sauerkraut was made were modernized in the 1970s and largely mechanized. In 1983, Victor Kraut was bought out by a much larger company, Comstock. At this time Comstock owned five sauerkraut plants in New York. They would close both the Preble and Phelps plants in 1988. At the time when Preble Produce began business in 1946, the facility had 13 vats for preparation of sauerkraut. When it was closed as Comstock in 1988, the plant had 31 vats. There was a tremendous amount of growth in the business over time before declining production and the ultimate cessation of this industry.
Cabbage was a niche market that paved the way for an important industry for Cortland County. With all of the interest in unusual foods, heirloom varieties, and a growing agri-tourism industry in Cortland County, perhaps cabbage and sauerkraut will make a comeback.