‘Growing Pickles’ Into Cucumbers

This article is reprinted from The Times-Union, Jacksonville, Florida, September 14, 2000 issue and was provided to us by Ted Beechum of Pinconning.

PINCONNING, Mich.--Robert Johnson of Pinconning, Mich., is one of the scores of farmers who help make Michigan the pickling cucumber capital of the country.

Johnson’s cukes grow just down the road from Bay View Foods, an industrial complex that looks something like a petroleum tank farm. But, inside those 1,038 huge, cylindrical tanks, millions upon millions of cucumbers soak in salty brine, awaiting purchase by commercial buyers who will turn them into crunchy pickle spears, dill chips for hamburgers or perhaps sweet relish for hot dogs.

Cukes are grown, processed and pickled in many parts of Michigan, but here, in a few square miles of the Saginaw Valley, you can see the whole pickle-making process unfold, from seed to harvest, to processor to crisp sandwich topper.

It’s a trip that can be filled with pitfalls for the cukes and the people who grow and process them. But when all goes well, pickles are a sweet business for Michigan farmers.
On the vine

First, though, what is a pickle? The rather stubby green fruits--yes, fruits, not vegetables--that grow in the fields on fuzzy vines are cucumbers--not pickles, despite what the signs on the produce counters often say.

To be even more precise, they’re pickling cucumbers--different from the longer, thicker-skinned slicing cucumbers or the extra-long English cucumbers often sold in plastic wrap.

Pickling cucumbers don’t become pickles until they’re preserved with salt, vinegar and spices, (Farmers, though, have their own jargon and often talk about “growing pickles.”)

Johnson began planting his cucumbers this season on May 29 and finished July 13. He plants by machine, 12 rows at a time, 20 acres a day every third day. He puts in 20-acre sections because that’s what he can harvest in one day. And he plants sections every third day because it helps reduce his vulnerability to spells of bad weather.

After parking his planter for the season, he stood at the edge of his last field and gazed over the dark, level ground. His face, clothes and cap were covered by a film of the Saginaw Valley’s powder-fine, chocolate-brown earth--some of Michigan’s most fertile farmland. And he was a happy man.

“It was just perfect today,” he declared with satisfaction.

Then he waited and hoped for the best; 85 degree days, nights in the 60’s, moderate rainfall and no hailstorms like the one that shredded dozens of acres of this tender vines in early July.

Barring hail or high water, this late-season field will be ready for picking 52 or 53 days from planting, he says, and he will have to be ready, too. When the time is right, he’ll move machines into the field to strip the cukes from the vines.

But if he can’t get in on exactly the right day because of rain or equipment problems, he could easily lose this day’s entire 20 acre planting.

That’s because even one extra day on the vine can let the cucumbers grow bigger than the 1 3/4 - 2-inch diameter that makes them commercially salable for pickles, says Randy Hugo, head of agriculture for Bay View Foods, which buys Johnson’s crop.

If that happens, Hugo says, the cukes are simply discarded. The 1 3/4-inch size “is what hamburger slices are made of, so that’s where the money is.
...For something over 1 3/4 inches, they get paid less; if it’s over 2 inches, we can’t use it.”

On the positive side, cucumbers grow quickly and turn into greenbacks faster than most other crops. Recently farmers were getting $3.90 for a 50-pound bushel of the 1 3/4-inch cukes.
“From the day you plant the seed, you can plan on being paid in 55 days,” Hugo said. “It’s probably the shortest turnaround of any crop you can grow”
In the brine

About 1.1 million bushels of cucumbers a year are trucked through the gates of Bay View Foods 40 acre processing facility--5 percent of the entire U.S. pickle output, says operations vice president David Schubert.
Here they re cleaned, graded, sorted and washed. Some are chilled and shipped fresh to pickle makers such as Dean Foods, Vlasic Foods International and H.J. Heinz Co.

But most are brined, which means they’re put into one of Bay View’s 10,000 gallon salt-water tanks at precise acidity levels. And in the covered, aerated vats, they ferment in the same kind of process that turns apple juice into vinegar.

“The naturally occuring organisms that live on the surface of the cucumber...begin to grow and live and use the sugars inside,” said Richard Hentschel, executive vice president of Pickle Packers International, an industry trade group in St. Charles, ILL.

“Once they multiply and grow--and they do this quite rapidly--they use up all the sugar. Then the fermentation process is complete. The product is now “Pickled,’” he said.
In Bay View’s tanks, that takes about 20 days, depending on ambient temperatures, Schubert says. And once the cukes are completly pickled, they can safely remain there for a year or more, awaiting final processing.
While fermentation is the traditional way of pickling --the process is 4,000 years old--it isn’t the only way. “Fresh-pack” pickles are made with fresh cucumbers that are put into jars, covered with flavored liquid, then sealed and preserved by heat pasteurization.

The third way--refrigerator pickles--involves no heat-treating, but these pickles must be kept refrigerated, even before they are opened.
Tastes so fine

The millions and millions of pickles waiting patiently in Bay View’s tanks are ready for sale to pickle-packing companies. But, don’t eat one yet. So far they’re only salty. “If you bit into one, you’d be puckered for days,” Hentschel said.

Before it can be a pleasing part of your picnic or can perk up a pallid salad, the brined cuke must be desalted, cut into the proper shapes, packed into jars and covered.

The Pinconning Journal

110 E. 3rd St.
PO Box 626
Pinconning, MI 48650

Office Number: 989-879-3811
Regular Office Hours:
Monday-Thursday 9:00 am - 5:00 pm,
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