At Campbell, we believe that real food has roots. Our company has worked closely with local and regional farmers since our earliest days – and we want you to meet one of them.
Jake Willbrandt’s family has been growing celery for V8 for more than 70 years.
“My great-great-grandfather emigrated from the Netherlands to Muskegon, Michigan, and started a three-acre celery farm in 1880,” says Jake, who runs the now 110-acre Willbrandt Enterprises Inc., which grows both celery and sweet corn in Decatur, Michigan. “My great-grandfather grew celery for V8 in the 1940s and 1950s and continued supplying the brand after Campbell bought it. He and my grandfather also worked for Campbell as buyers.”
Jake started his farm career walking behind a transplanter at age 6. Today his children also help run the operation, along with Jake’s mom, Deb, who does all the office work and, he notes with a laugh, “keeps me out of trouble.”
Celery season begins in mid-February. It starts in the greenhouse, where seed planting is spaced out over several weeks. Spacing out the seed planting means that, every week from mid-April to mid-July, two to three acres are ready for transplanting.
Harvesting the bushy plants continues from July through late October. Jake’s farm produces nearly 9 million pounds of celery every year. The celery is headed for grocery stores, distributors, a frozen packager – and, of course, V8.
“Cutters and packers cut, trim, wash, and bag, band, or box the celery, depending on what our customers need,” Jake says. “We hand-cut 95 percent of the harvest, and the trimmings…are put aside for V8. It allows us to use the entire plant, and significantly reduces waste and the volume of crops we need to grow.”
Everything grown on the Willbrandt farm is non-GMO. The land was originally a swamp, which has created a special, unusually dark and lightweight soil, called “muck.” It’s high in organic matter and ideal for growing vegetables like celery.
“We do a lot to protect the muck,” Jake explains. “For example, we grow wheat as a cover crop to build organic matter and prevent erosion, and we use raised beds to further enhance drainage.”
Celery farming involves steady, hard work, and long days. But for Jake, it’s a labor of love.
“It gives you a lot of pride to grow a quality product,” he says. “I love the freedom to have my family here, too. My kids work on the transplanters, and they take pride in what they’ve done. They won’t eat cooked vegetables, but they drink V8 Vegetable juice every day! And by running our farm efficiently, we’re caring not just for our own family, but also for our workers and their families – and for the entire country as well, feeding everyone else’s family.”
STILL BEGINNING WITH THE BEST: This April 27, 1959, LIFE magazine advertisement features Jake Willbrandt’s great-grandfather Greg Willbrandt, who was a celery farmer before he became a Campbell vegetable buyer. “There’s been a lot of loyalty between Campbell and our family for a long, long time,” Jake says. “I grew up as a Campbell Kid! Our plates and cups had the Campbell Kids on them, and Campbell was our bread and butter that bought a lot of groceries and put a lot of kids through college.”