Kalamazoo is known for the things it’s manufactured - guitars, taxi cabs, lots of paper. But it’s also got an agricultural claim to fame, as America’s onetime “Celery City.” In the first half of the 20th century Kalamazoo shipped trainloads of celery far and wide. In 2017, retired carpenter Carl Bussema told WMUK about growing up working his grandparents’ Kalamazoo celery farm in the 1930s and 40s.
“It was a long process, the time it was planted to the time it was harvested, and in my day we bleached all the celery,” Bussema explained. The bleaching, or blanching, was done by covering the plants with boards as it grew.
By the end “it would be yellow or yellow-green, a light color,” Bussema said.
Bussema, who died in 2019 age 95, said he used to find the green celery at the grocery store unappetizing.
“It didn’t taste good to us going from yellow to green,” he said, adding that blanched celery tasted “sweeter.”
Celery farming has all but disappeared in Kalamazoo. Listener Lorraine Alden wants to know, why? And how did get so popular to begin with?
The Celery State
Kalamazoo was actually just one center of celery growing in West Michigan. And celery is still farmed in the region, including in Van Buren County. Jake Willbrandt grows about 100 acres of it at his farm near the Village of Decatur. Standing in his front office, Willbrandt says celery farming is a family tradition that goes back to his great-great grandfather, who started in Muskegon County around 1870.
“He moved into Muskegon for the lumber industry but his neighbor was a celery grower so he learned from his neighbor and it just kind of blossomed from there,” Willbrandt said.
He added that the family’s raised other crops. Onions, and “at one point there was carrots."
“But the one steady crop was always celery," he said.
Willbrandt’s great-great grandfather immigrated from the Netherlands. So did Carl Bussema’s celery-farming grandparents. No coincidence, Willbrandt said. Celery likes a rich, moist soil – a “muck soil.”
“The Dutch immigrants moved into Michigan and these pockets of muck soil were swamps,” Willbrandt said.
Farmers in the low-lying Netherlands knew how to turn wetlands into farmland, “and get access to the rich muck soils around Kalamazoo, around Decatur, around Hudsonville area, there’s different pockets in the state.”
Sweet, crunchy Michigan celery caught on with the public. Willbrandt said it even became a faddish health food, the base of tonics and elixirs.
He added that the celery grown in the US today isn’t quite the same as what Michigan farmers raised 100 years ago. Not since it was been crossed with celeriac for blight resistance.
“You couldn’t blanch it anymore, it had a very bitter flavor,” Willbrandt said.
He said new varieties are much better, but still not as sweet as they used to be.
Pests and disease played a role in the decline of Michigan’s celery industry. But also, by the mid-20th century, Michigan growers had stiff competition from California, which had more forgiving weather for celery-growing.
California now grows about nine-tenths of the country’s celery. But Michigan is still the second largest U.S. celery producer, with an annual crop worth about $20 million according to the Michigan Celery Cooperative.
Some of that celery is grown on Willbrandt’s farm. We drive a short distance from the office to the field, where the air smells like celery. We walk across soil that’s pitch-black, to the plants a field crew is harvesting one by one. They’re followed by tractors piled with waxed cardboard boxes for packing.
Willbrandt takes an L-shaped knife, cuts a stalk and trims the top. At which point it looks just like the celery you’d pick up at the grocery store.
And since Willbrandt says the stalks taste best right out of the field, before we leave, we try some. It’s crunchy and mild – almost sweet.
“A lot of people complain about the stringiness of celery and the bitterness. And you don’t really see that in this,” Willbrandt says, adding that it’s because the plant has been grown to the proper stage.
“You don’t get strings stuck in your teeth.”