Why Michigan Is The Center Of The ‘Pickleverse’
Michigan harvested nearly 35,000 acres of pickling cucumbers in 2018 — more than any other state. The state’s well-drained, sandy soils and temperate climate are conducive to cucumber growing. The pickle industry emerged before WWI and now counts Heinz, Hausbeck, Vlasic and Topor’s among its giants.
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 Vilasic, 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.”