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Why Michigan is the center of the ‘pickleverse’

 

Long before Michigan became the automotive capital of America, it was the leader of another, perhaps more humble economy: the cucumber pickle. Unlike the automotive industry, the pickle industry in Michigan has grown steadily throughout the years. The state is the No. 1 U.S. producer of cucumbers for pickling. In 2016, the value of Michigan’s pickling cucumber crop reached $47 million.

Climate, soil, history, infrastructure and demand converge in Michigan to produce optimal conditions for what metro Detroit pickle manufacturer Larry Topor terms the “PickleVerse.” It’s a constellation of growers, manufacturers, processors and sellers — a cosmos that comes together to produce those crunchy green flavor-bombs served with your overstuffed deli sandwich or topping your hot dog.

The cucumber pickle economy in Michigan provides a peek into the state’s diverse and massive 10 million-acre agricultural industry, second only to California in crop diversity. More than 300 crops are grown here, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau. The cucumber pickle tells a story about how just one of those items can spin off an entire industry and tradition.

A pickled history

No discussion of cucumber pickles can commence without a mention of the origins of this spoil-resistant snack. According to the NY Food Museum’s Pickle History Timeline, pickles date back to ancient Mesopotamia and are mentioned twice in the Bible. By 1659, they were grown and processed by Dutch farmers in what is now Brooklyn. Between 1870 and 1900, large numbers of Eastern Europeans, including Jews escaping religious persecution, began emigrating to the United States. With them, they brought recipes used to preserve vegetables for the long, harsh winters of Eastern Europe. The first commercial pickle district with pushcart pickle vendors was established in New York in the early 20th century.

In Michigan, the pickle industry started growing before World War I. In 1907, the Detroit Free Press reported that Detroit pickle processors were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to pickle farmers, who were growing 5,000 acres of pickles at the time. (Today that number is closer to 35,000 acres.) The report describes how pickles were placed in large salt brine vats and sent by special tank car to Detroit, where they were washed and machine sorted into six sizes, much as they are today.

Many of Michigan’s venerable pickle names herald from this era. Heinz opened a pickle factory in Holland, Mich., in 1897, the Freestone Pickle Co. opened in 1903 in Bangor and Benton Harbor, and Hausbeck Pickles launched near Bay City in 1923. Later-comers include Vlasic, which opened its pickle plant in Imlay City during World War II, Bay View Foods, which opened in Pinconning in 1946, Swanson Pickle Co., which opened in Ravenna (near Muskegon) in the 1960s, and Topor’s, which launched from its Detroit deli in the 1970s.

Topor’s was acquired in 2018 by corned beef maker E.W. Grobbel. Owner Jason Grobbel, who also acquired the Sy Ginsberg brand of corned beef from United Meat and Deli in 2017, is hoping to keep history and traditions alive by combining the two esteemed brands under one roof.

“This region has a wide array of European immigrants that brought many different recipes and profiles for pickle produce here,” Grobbel said. “We’re passionate about taking these great old traditions, which otherwise might fade away, and keeping them alive and vibrant.”

To grow a pickle

It all starts in the ground — in Michigan’s well-drained, sandy soils, to be exact.

Michigan’s two main pickle-growing belts run through the Saginaw Bay region (Saginaw, Bay, Gratiot, Allegan, Tuscola and Midland counties) and West Michigan (Berrien, Arenac, St. Joseph and Montcalm counties).

“Our climate is very conducive for growing cucumbers,” said Chris Dyk, a crop specialist with Nunhems, a seed brand of BASF. “The warmer days with a little bit of a cooler night and the high humidities are very conducive.”

Cucumbers are easy to grow, Dyk said, but difficult to harvest, with a very short harvest window.

“Your window can be as short as eight hours. You can be in a field in the morning and you’re like, ‘Hey, they’re just not ready yet’. But they could be ready at 8 o’clock that night,” Dyk said. That’s one reason why Michigan’s pickles are almost exclusively harvested mechanically. Farmers need to be ready to harvest at a moment’s notice, and they have to do so quickly, which leaves no opportunity to organize farm labor.

Michigan leads in cucumber production by a hefty margin; in 2018, the state harvested 34,400 acres of cucumbers, 28 percent more than the next highest state, Florida, reported 24,900 acres, according to USDA statistics. Other large cucumber-producing states include North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, California and Wisconsin. The 2018 Michigan harvest yielded 231,168 tons of cucumbers, accounting for 27 percent of the national market.

Processing and pickling

Michigan is clearly a great place to grow pickles. But why exactly is Michigan cucumber pickle central?

“It’s a chicken or the egg thing,” Grobbel said. “Michigan has ideal growing conditions. But then once those major operations build their silos, then obviously it became more profitable for the farmer to grow nearby because transportation costs are very low.”

Those silos are actually massive wood or fiberglass vats, either half-underground or above-ground, expressly designed for preserving the fruit. Over the years, major pickle companies including Vlasic, Bay View and Swanson’s invested capital to store and process the bounty of cukes. Meanwhile, Michigan’s cucumber growers responded to the demand for their crops by locating close to the processors’ facilities. This symbiosis is what keeps Michigan’s blockbuster cucumber economy running.

Growers must harvest the pickles during a short six-eight week period in late summer, delivering them to processors. During peak season, silos might receive a new truckload every 15 minutes. Once they arrive at the storage facilities, sorting machines grade them into a range of size classes. Finally, the processor stores the pickles in a super-saturated salt brining solution, which preserves them and begins the initial fermentation process.

Once ready for use, processors ship the brined pickles to manufacturers, who soak them in fresh water to remove the salt and then process them into dill, bread-and-butter, hamburger stackers, sweet, kosher or any of a number of pickle varieties.

Katie Hensley is a fourth-generation pickle processor; her great-grandfather, Wesley Swanson, founded Swanson Pickle Co., in Ravenna. The company grows pickles and brines them in massive fiberglass tanks.

“The size of our workforce very much changes as we go from around 80 employees during harvest to 20 employees during the winter,” Hensley said. “We’re shipping out every week of the year. We supply manufacturers with a product that goes directly out to their line, and into jars or into pouches where it gets the final flavor.”

About half of Swanson’s brined pickles supply the Kraft Heinz plant in Holland; the other half goes to TreeHouse Foods in Green Bay, Wis. A small amount of fresh produce is sold to customers for fresh pack applications. Very little of the crop is discarded, according to Hensley. That’s because ugly pickles make a perfectly fine relish.

Most pickles you find in a grocery store are pasteurized, making the product shelf stable without refrigeration for up to two years. Exceptions include fermented pickles, which are soaked in barrels, often in strict accordance with recipes brought over from Europe by grandmothers like Lillie Topor. Refrigerated fresh-pack pickles are packed directly from the field with vinegar and spices and are then vacuum-sealed with no pasteurization. These varieties have a shorter shelf life than pasteurized pickles; fermented pickles are truly perishable, lasting only weeks or months, while refrigerated vinegar pickles can last 18 months.

Manufacturers that specialize in using fresh pickles, such as Topor’s and McClure’s Pickles LLC, cannot rely on Michigan growers year-round. They must follow the cucumber harvest south through the winter months, all the way to Mexico, to secure a constant supply of fresh cucumbers.

“We’re not adding anything to extend the shelf life or make it crunchy other than the great quality fresh fruit that is the cucumber,” said Bob McClure, co-founder of McClure’s Pickles. “So we have to find a year-round supply. We have direct relationships with growers no matter where it’s coming from because it’s very important that we understand how and what they’re producing for us so that we can get the best quality produce. Because you can’t take a bad cucumber and make it into a good pickle.”

Pickles of the future

The growth of the craft and artisanal food movement is bringing about a new era in Michigan’s pickle economy, according to Grobbel.

“There’s a huge proliferation in the business right now. Just go to the supermarket, and you see this huge amount of shelf space with all the different brands,”  he said. “Because of this craft foods movement, people are interested in it and they recognize pickles are a fun snack and at the same time, they are healthy.”

McClure’s, launched in Detroit in 2006 by brothers Bob and Joe McClure, specializes in a hand-crafted spicy pickle recipe created by their grandmother. McClure’s pickles and Bloody Mary mix can be found in Whole Foods, Meijer, Kroger, Costco, Cost Plus and specialty stores across the globe.

“We think there’s a great opportunity to really help tell the story of the process so that we can reconnect people to what it really means to have food and not to take it for granted,” McClure said. “We’re so easily persuaded that at a click of a button we can get anything we want. But we forget the amount of time and care and resources that it goes into creating it.”

And that’s why Grobbel is so passionate about preserving the legacy of Lillie Topor’s pickle recipe.

“People don’t realize that in many businesses, and especially in the food business, making the products to be the same as you have over your life requires a massive amount of effort,” Grobbel said. “The old-time businesses are finding it hard. They’re not easy businesses to run and the younger generations don’t necessarily find it appealing.

“That’s our goal, to reinvigorate a passion, find the nobility in what you do and to understand how important it is and how many people are affected by it.”

 

Posted By: Crain’s Detroit Business on April 6, 2019.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

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