It wasn’t all that long ago when celery packing sheds still dotted the southwestern Michigan landscape and Michigan celery was shipped to wholesale outlets across the nation. Although Michigan’s importance in celery production has diminished, the remaining growers here are still producing several thousand acres of celery annually. California has taken over most of the commercial celery production in the United States, with a conducive climate, large labor force and very large farms.

Hamilton, Michigan, was once home to more than three dozen celery growers. The region’s muck soils were a perfect fit for the crop, which requires good moisture retention and has high nutrient requirements. Today, much of those muck lands are still used to grow celery, but most of the growers have disappeared.

Eding Brothers’ Celery Farm has, through the years, acquired much of the land once farmed by Hamilton’s other growers – those who left the family business and sold the land. For cousins Jeff Eding and Mike Bosch, now co-owners of the family farm, their family’s reputation as one of the region’s premier celery growers has set the bar high as they carry on the family business.

Enduring legacy

“We’ve focused on celery production since the 1930s,” Jeff said.

Eding Brothers’ Celery Farm is named for Jeff’s father and uncle. His father, the late Dale Eding, co-owned the farm with his brother, Ron Eding, who remains an instrumental part of the farm today. In 2010, Eding Brothers’ Celery Farm received the Michigan Vegetable Council’s Master Farmer Award for the brothers’ dedication and willingness to contribute to ongoing research and to continually improve production practices on the farm. The Eding brothers were lauded by Michigan State University researchers for their many years of active participation in diverse research initiatives, contributions to the Michigan celery industry and their outstanding farming practices.

Previous generations of the family originally established the celery operation, which the Eding brothers expanded and improved after taking ownership in 1981. By that time, the family’s original 16 acres had expanded to 24. The brothers acquired more land, eventually expanding the farm to 140 acres of celery, with an additional 45 acres used for onions, a good rotation crop for celery. Today, about 160 acres are planted to celery.

A celery grower since the 1930s, the family-run company follows a planting sequence that runs from early April to early July and harvests and packages from July through October.

The Eding brothers “cooperated with Michigan State University on a number of projects,” which were not only beneficial to the farm itself, but to other celery growers as well. Those practices implemented as a result of the research continue to make a difference on the farm today, Eding said.

The farm has an extensive tile drainage system, as celery likes moist soil, but does not like wet feet. Since 1983, an Integrated Pest Management scouting program has helped the farm significantly decrease pesticide use. Some years, pest thresholds are low, or plants are found not to be infected despite the presence of pests and pesticides are not needed. On other occasions, pesticides are sprayed only when conditions warrant them, saving the farm money and enhancing their environmental stewardship.

Cover crop trials have enriched the land, prevented erosion and added organic matter back to the soil. The farm uses barley and a sorghum/Sudangrass mix for a fall-planted cover crop, as well as some oilseed radishes. They even experimented with a spring oilseed radish cover crop, to inhibit weeds, but clubroot was a concern and it was found to be impractical.

“All of our ground is covered in the winter,” Jeff said. “Cover crops are very useful for holding the soil in place and holding the nutrients in place and making them available for future years.”

The crop

Celery transplants, grown in the greenhouses beginning in February, are transplanted in the fields starting in April. Harvest starts around early July and continues through mid-October, a 14- to 15-week period. Fall frosts put an end to the crop, but cold weather is a threat during the spring, too. Cold can cause celery to bolt rather than grow vegetatively.

Irrigation sprinklers in the fields serve to protect the crop from frosts, as well as provide enough water for celery to thrive. The crop is normally irrigated every five days, but in hot, dry conditions “we do a lot” of irrigation, Eding said.

“Frost protection is something you can’t do with drip” irrigation, so the crop is primarily irrigated with Rain Bird sprinkler systems.

The shallow-rooted celery really cannot tolerate water-logged soils, however. Even with tile drainage systems, a big challenge is removing the water from the fields.

Jeff Eding’s father, Dale, co-owned the farm with his brother, Ron Eding.

“We can’t always move the water off as fast as it comes,” Eding said, and preventing flooded field conditions is always a primary concern.

Weed control is primarily by herbicides, which “do a good job,” eliminating most of the need for hand-weeding. Celery is easily damaged during weeding, even by hand. About 20 percent of the crop may need one pass at hand weeding each season.

While some growers in Michigan do hand-harvest the celery crop, mechanical harvesting is the norm. Eding Brothers’ Celery Farm mechanically harvests the crop, which is cut both at the root and at the stalk. Wagons transport the stalks from the field to the packing shed, where 25 employees immediately trim, wash and pack the celery to standard industry sizes.

“We wash all of our products with chlorinated water,” to reduce any food safety risks, Jeff said.

Markets

Three times per day during the season, a tractor trailer arrives from Superior Sales, the fresh produce company that Eding Brothers’ has used as their distributor since the 1960s. In fact, one former owner of the company remains on as a sales representative and is a trusted family friend. Eding Brothers’ celery is distributed under the Superior name, but there is a sticker with their name on the bottom of the package, tracing the product back to the farm for food safety purposes.

The farm packs 8,000 to 10,000 boxes of celery each week in season. They don’t store the celery on the farm, but prefer to sell it freshly picked.

“There’s too much loss” when celery is stored, Jeff said, and fresh celery just tastes best. “We make a real hard effort to have it sold before we put it in the box.”

The farm’s celery is distributed into some area supermarkets by Superior, as well as to outlets in other regions. The Eding Brothers’ celery makes its way to Canada and to the eastern U.S. During part of the year, some markets, like the Northeast, can be very competitive for the distributors.

The farm does sell a very small percentage of their celery directly to the community. They sell to a few retail stores, delivering an order each week, and take some product to local farmers markets. A few area restaurants are direct customers, too.

“We’ve always been primarily wholesale,” Jeff said, noting this has been true since the farm’s inception.

Jeff credits his uncle, Ron, with finding a way to continue the family legacy through the next generation. Not only is he “an incredibly valuable resource,” for celery production, he found a way to transfer the farm’s ownership to the next generation, while keeping it viable.

Margins aren’t very high on celery, and many families have had to sell the farm when the older generation passes, as farm transfers can be costly. The cousins could never have purchased the farm, with so many years’ accumulation of machinery, equipment, land and infrastructure, Jeff said.

“Ron worked hard to make it happen,” he said of the transfer of ownership and the continuation of the Eding Brothers’ Celery Farm legacy. “We are the only grower in Hamilton and one of the few in the whole state.”

Through the generations, the Eding family has cultivated not only celery, but also respect within the celery-growing community. Today, the tradition continues with every bunch of celery sold.

Eding Brothers’ Celery Farm is helping to keep Michigan celery’s industry growing, despite the odds.