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Celebrating Celery : An abundance of the vegetable has brought prices down. There are 11,200 acres devoted to its cultivation in Ventura County.


It's time to stalk up. Ventura County's abundant celery harvest has recently kicked into high gear. Low prices and high quality are sure to please enthusiasts of this low-calorie vegetable staple.

And while celery remains Ventura County's third-largest cash crop--totaling $84.4 million for 1990--it is also one of the costliest to grow, according to Jeff Foster, a salesman with Boskovich Farms in Oxnard, a major producer of a wide variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. (Lemons and strawberries rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, as the top moneymakers.)

Farmers use two planting methods, Foster said. Celery seeds are sown directly into manicured beds, or nursery-raised seedlings are transplanted to the fields.

"It's much more common to transplant," he said, "but it is by far more expensive than direct seeding."

Not only are seedlings expensive, but celery also requires a lot of water because it remains in the ground longer than most vegetables, Foster said.

The costlier transplanted alternative can prove more lucrative in the end.

"It ensures a more even crop growth and better yield per acre," Foster said. "Anytime you grow direct from seed you'll have problems, such as water erosion." And birds can enter the field to feast on the seed.

On average, farmers can expect to incur costs of about $3,000 per acre to grow the crispy, stalked vegetable.

"And that's just to grow the stuff," Foster said. "It's even more once you factor in packing and carton costs." Lettuce costs about half as much per acre to grow.

Ventura County's celery harvest--the largest in California and second only to Florida's--commences in mid-November. The vegetable is planted in 90- to 120-day cycles.

"The harvest continues through July 15," Foster said, a date that is strictly enforced by the state.

"After that, the fields must be fumigated," he said. The intention is to cleanse the soil of a pesky fungus, the mosaic, which can prove detrimental to the plant if its growth cycle is not broken.

"It's different for other areas--such as the Salinas area--they have to stop Dec. 31," he said.

Although you might not notice taste-wise, a variety of celery strains are grown for differing climatic conditions.

"We plant different types for different periods of the year," Foster said. "Some are resistant to cold weather, whereas in the spring the seedlings will grow a little quicker and are resistant to the warmer days we might have."

According to the California Agricultural Statistics Service, 11,200 acres are set aside in Ventura County for celery. A lot is grown because a lot is consumed.

"Celery is one of the more versatile vegetables," Foster commented. "This time of year a lot of it is purchased to be used in stuffing."

Commonly sliced up for salads and relish trays, celery has many more useful culinary applications.

"We mostly chop it up and use it in soup stocks, like chicken or beef," said Marty Gay, co-owner and chef of MK's Restaurant in Ojai. Celery, he said, is a great flavor enhancer because it contains a lot of sodium.

"I like celery but it's incredibly boring," he commented.

If you're watching your caloric intake, celery might be a noshing favorite. "It's about one of the only vegetables with so-called 'negative calories.' It takes more calories to digest celery than you ingest by eating it," Gay said.

To ensure freshness after purchasing, Foster suggests placing celery in a plastic bag. "Keep it open, allowing the celery to breathe, and place it in the (refrigerator) crisper," he said. "If you've had the celery for more than two or three days, shoot it with some cold water before you serve it and that will crisp it up a little."

Consumer prices, which have been good, should remain quite reasonable, Foster said.

"Prices have been pretty low due to an increase in acreage" and a sluggish economy, he said.

"Normally farming is insulated from the economy, but this recession is really affecting the sale of fruits and vegetables," he said, adding that low prices should continue possibly until May.

"It's bleak for the growers," he said, "but good for consumers."

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