For the past three years, Frank Hester has grown cabbage instead of tobacco, starting with 10 acres and working his way up to 25.

That much acreage is unheard of in Vance County, where cabbage is a relatively unfamiliar commodity and production expertise is scarce. But after six harvests — a spring and a fall crop each year — Hester has met his challenges successfully and remains committed to his choice.

“When I first started out, I focused primarily on how I would market the crop, harvest it and store it,” Hester said, “but as I gradually increased acreage, growth problems demanded my attention. I wanted to blame the weather, but by the third season, I could see that sporadic, uneven growth was a recurring issue.”

When cabbage heads do not grow at a uniform rate, it takes multiple passes through a field over several weeks to harvest them as they mature. This process is inefficient and time-consuming.

Hester wrestled with the problem and found that, because cabbage had such a short window of maturity, adjusting its fertility was more difficult than with traditional field crops.

During the 2011 fall season, Hester noticed that one out of every five cabbages was not “sizing up.” He asked local agricultural experts for advice and got two tips right away.

First, submit soil and plant tissue samples to identify any nutrient problems.

Second, contact regional agronomist Kent Yarborough with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The department’s Agronomic Services Division analyzes agricultural samples for plant nutrient content and other properties that affect crop production. Division scientists review laboratory results and provide recommendations to correct problems.

Regional agronomists with the division work directly with growers to make sure they know how to take samples, interpret report data and implement recommendations. Because agronomists cover several counties, they become familiar with a wide range of crops.

“I sent in some samples before Kent came out to look at my crop,” Hester said, “but when he got here he focused on areas of poor growth and took more samples.”

Said Yarborough: “The primary goal on my first visit was to show Mr. Hester the step-by-step process involved in troubleshooting a nutrient problem . . . the strategy behind sampling. I wanted him to see that it is very important to take both soil and tissue samples separately from areas of good growth and areas of poor growth.

“Then you can compare and contrast test results in a meaningful way that isn’t possible if your sample represents an average of the entire field in general.”