“I’m trying not to panic just yet,” said Atlanta soul food chef Deborah VanTrece of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours. VanTrece’s signature dish is a collard roll—a mix of braised greens wrapped in a blanched collard leaf. Patrons are so devoted to it that some order the rolls five servings at a time, without a main dish.
VanTrece is building her collard stockpile by searching supermarket aisles. Wholesalers and farmers don’t have enough of what she needs.
“This is the first time in 20 years that I’ve had to wonder whether I’ll be able to actually continue to produce the collard roll,” VanTrece said.
Blame the weather, which has lowered yields across the U.S. In the Carolinas, extreme summer rains flooded out the greens, pushing growers in Georgia and elsewhere to harvest early to make up for the spoiled crops. California’s fall Santa Ana winds scarred leaves so badly they were too damaged to sell, while smoke from nearby wildfires kept workers from harvesting, said Megan Ichimoto, a spokeswoman for San Miguel Produce in Oxnard, California, which produces top brands of precut and washed greens.
October's Hurricane Michael stunted crops in Georgia, which has the largest reported acreage of harvested collard greens of any state in the nation, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census. High winds tore at their roots, halting their ability to soak up nutrients. Then came the clouds, which have rarely let up since.
"It's been kind of a perfect storm," said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. "Normally there are areas of good production at this time, but all our major production areas have weather- and disease-related issues."
Farmers said they don’t expect a recovery until after New Year’s.
This shortage stings the most below the Mason-Dixon Line, where devotees regard collards as more Southern than a mint julep. VanTrece, a Midwestern transplant, said she did not feel Southern until she ate collard greens.
“It’s humble, and it’s simple,” VanTrece said. “But it is just packed with a whole lot of traditions. A whole lot of memories, a whole lot of stories.”
The greens are such a recognizable symbol of the South that jazz legend Thelonious Monk performed with a collard leaf in his lapel to remind audiences of his roots, said John T. Edge, founder and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
“They are kind of cultural sacraments for the South,” said Edge, who grew up eating collards every New Year’s during his youth in Clinton, Georgia, north of Macon. “They’re a green symbol of rebirth, the possibility of hope and new money.”
That hope was in short supply on a recent morning in southwest Georgia, the heart of the state’s collard country. Heath Wetherington, director of operations at Baker Farms in Norman Park, stood in a raincoat and boots in a muddy field, marveling at the season’s string of bad luck.
Holiday-season collards went in the ground in September. The eye of Hurricane Michael passed just 20 miles away from Wetherington’s farm the next month, he said, twisting and yanking at his tender collards for hours.
“You can imagine those plants, how they were just struggling to hold on with the roots,” Wetherington said.
Turnip and mustard greens sown directly in the ground came out fine, but the collard seedlings sprouted in greenhouses before they were moved to the fields. The winds were too much for the young transplants to handle.
“The plants seem to be in shock after Michael,” Wetherington said. “I don’t know how to describe it, but they just sat there. The plants just sat there in the field.”
The collard shortage feels personal. Wetherington’s grandmother made sure he ate them with black-eyed peas every New Year’s as he grew up.
“As short as they are this year, you almost worry about whether you’re not going to have enough for grandma,” he said.