Stalking the Winter Celery: Crop Know-How Passed Down Through Five Generations

1/11/2014 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

WASHINGTON BORO, Pa. — By now, fresh local vegetables are all but gone for most people, except, perhaps, for some remaining kale leaves or brussel sprouts in a snowy garden plot.

Other than that, it’s usually canned or frozen fruits and vegetables that feed folks through the winter, or produce shipped in from warmer states or other countries.

But for the Funk family, part of a larger clan in and around Washington Boro in Lancaster County, that is not the case.

Dan and Janelle Funk, their four grown children — Eric, 23, twins Breanne and Brad, 20, and Amanda, 16 — and Dan’s father, Leroy, produce crunchy fresh celery for sale throughout the winter months.

They have learned how to operate a special kind of “winter celery” business, a tradition passed down by the children’s grandfather and his brothers, who in the 1970s and ’80s planted as many as 12 acres of celery a year, with 20,000 celery plants per acre.

They, in turn, had learned the secrets of growing winter celery from their parents.

But now, on a much smaller property subdivided from the original farm near the banks of the Susquehanna River, the Funks continue the family heritage, raising about a quarter-acre of winter celery each season — about 6,000 plants total — along with operating Funk’s Riverview Greenhouses, a year-round diversified business.

Advertised as a homegrown “Lancaster tradition,” the Funks’ winter celery is sold wholesale or at the family’s farmstand, beginning just before Thanksgiving and continuing through January — or until it runs out.

The celery is typically planted in the spring and harvested around October. Then, the Funks use a special in-ground method that both blanches and ripens the celery so that it develops to a peak of sweet flavor and light-green crispness.

The Funks’ special method consists of boxing the celery, then transferring it to deeply dug trenches that are covered with black plastic and piles of leaves for protection from the winter cold.

But here is where it gets tricky.

“Warmth is good but can also ripen it too quick,” Dan Funk said.

There is also a great risk of damage from fluctuating temperatures and moisture.

Luckily, generations of experience have taught the Funk family exactly how to manage the buried celery depending on the ups and downs of the weather.

The trick is not to cover it too early or it rots, Funk said. Cover it too late, and it could freeze.

“The celery did really well this year,” he said.

The blanched and ripened celery is sweet and crispy with none of the stringiness sometimes found in mass-produced celery stalks.

Most consumers are likely unaware that grocery stores that ship in celery — mostly grown in Arizona and California — also store it in the dark for a while.

Some home gardeners will even tie newspapers around each bunch of their celery for a few weeks to blanche it to the desired whitish color, Funk said.

The Funks’ celery is dug up in truckloads from the trenches as needed to fill customer orders. It is priced slightly higher than other celery because of the intensive labor required.

Funk said the price of celery in Lancaster County usually ranges from $3 to $4 a pound, or $2 to $2.50 wholesale.

The Funks’ niche celery is popular with those in the know. Its reputation in Washington Boro and the surrounding area brings customers back year after year.

The family also has little trouble finding other outlets for the profitable celery, although Funk conceded that wholesaling to stores and markets is a bit of a balancing act. It has to be sold within a specific time frame because it won’t last forever outside.

Funk said 85 percent of the family’s winter celery is sold wholesale, and 15 percent from the farmstand.

In contrast, the Funks’ greenhouse business is 75 percent retail.

A wiry, energetic man, constantly moving, talking and working all at once, Funk also has a full-time job with nearby Manor Township Public Works.

He said his children are a major force working to keep the celery and greenhouse businesses running. They are home-schooled and have learned from running the farm business alongside their academic lessons. Their hours of work are tracked, though, and they are paid accordingly.

“But I don’t pay myself,” Funk said. “I put it all back into the greenhouse business.”

Besides vegetables and fruits such as apples, peaches and raspberries, the family’s greenhouse sells annuals, perennials and herbs.

It advertises itself as having more than 6,000 geranium varieties and also sells the Jet Star tomato, a flavorful local variety that has made Washington Boro tomatoes famous.

Vegetable sales in the greenhouse have risen significantly since the 2008 economic downturn, Funk said. The ratio of vegetable to bedding plants has grown from 10 percent vegetables to as much as 40 percent now.

Funk said his daughter Breanne has been taking a leading role in the enterprise, especially with farming and growing vegetables for the farmstand.

He said that now, when customers want to know specifics about the plants, they often bypass him and seek her out — or her 89-year-old grandfather, Leroy — for answers to their questions.

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