Chinese cabbages coming in from the cold

The cabbage season is in full swing.

No less a personage than Vice-Premier Chen Yun, second only to Deng Xiaoping in prestige, has trumpeted a call for a determined campaign against losing cabbages to frost and rot. Mr. Chen is China's top economic planner.

''This is a good year for cabbages,'' says Li Hongqi, Communist Party secretary of the Daliangtai production brigade on the outskirts of Peking.

The frost is late this year, and the cabbages (of the greeny-white, long Chinese variety, not the round Western kind) are full and firm. The Peking vegetable marketing company has inspected his cabbages and pronounced them good, and the brigade expects to earn 38,000 yuan (about $20,000) from the 15,600 kilograms (over 7,000 lbs.) it is harvesting from 21.6 acres this year. The whole process from harvest to consumer must be run like a military operation. Time is of the essence.

Cabbages are sown around the fifth of August after the wheat harvest, said Mr. Li. The longer they stay in the ground, the better, but of course they must be picked before the frost comes.

''In 1979, we had a marvelous growing season,'' he recalled. ''But then the frost came and we lost practically all our cabbages.''

This is where Chen Yun's call becomes relevant. The amount of cabbages that rot before they reach the consumer is undisclosed, but very high. When frost assails the cabbages, they freeze. Then, stored in a warm place, they rot.

The cabbages must stay in the ground as long as possible. But once they are harvested, they must reach the consumer quickly, while the good weather lasts. This is largely a matter of having the vegetable marketing corporation send sufficient trucks around to the various production brigades as soon as it receives word the cabbages have been harvested.

It is the marketing corporation's responsibility to get the cabbages from the fields into its storehouses and on to the consumers as quickly as possible. This year, like last year, every Peking citizen young or old is entitled to 10 kilograms of first-class cabbage and to an unlimited amount of second-, third-, or fourth-class cabbage. A family may buy as much as 50 or 60 kilograms to be dried on roofs and balconies and then stored for the winter under burlap or newspapers against the cold.

''What happens if the cabbages are frozen before the marketing corporation has a chance to pick them up?'' Mr. Li was asked. ''Well,'' he answered, ''the corporation won't give us as good a price as it might otherwise have given. I know that in a capitalist society, the growers lose if their crops are hit by frost before they can be sold.

''That doesn't happen under our socialist system. We growers will get almost as much for frost-attacked cabbage as we do for first-quality cabbage.''

So in 1979, the year Peking citizens experienced a severe shortage of cabbage because of the frost, Mr. Li's commune did not do too badly. Well, then, who pays for the rotted cabbage?

''Under our system,'' a city-dweller said, ''no matter what happens it's always the consumer who pays. We have no choice.''

That is the situation Chen Yun's call is designed to avoid. To be successful, the campaign must coordinate harvesting, transportation, and retail selling. Last year's operation was reasonably successful. This year's is expected to do better.

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