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The land has the flat, dark look of another planet.

Steam rises from a field plowed two days ago. Off in the distance, a vast sheet of plastic protecting seedlings shimmers like a mirage.The soil - they call it "muck" around here - is the blackest peat. It's so rich that, during dry summer months, you can light it with a match.

Here in the heart of the celery belt in northwestern Ohio, it's celery-planting time. Here, the celery grows straight and tall and crisp.

It didn't used to grow at all. Celeryville used to be a swamp known as the Willard Marsh, in honor of nearby Willard, Ohio. Spread across 5,000 acres, the Willard Marsh dried up every summer and swamped up again in the fall.

Sometime in the 1890s, an entrepreneur named Johnson - Celeryville historians neglected to record his first name - realized the Willard Marsh could produce some mighty fine celery if someone could figure a way to keep it drained.

It occurred to Johnson that if anybody could drain a 5,000-acre marsh, it would be the Dutch. The Dutch had lots of experience draining land, with all the dikes they'd built in Holland.

About that time, Johnson heard that Dutch immigrants were settling in Kalamazoo, Mich. He took the first northbound train out of Willard and offered the group a deal.

Three dozen Dutchmen and their families arrived at the edge of the Willard Marsh on March 4, 1896, at 6 p.m. - Celeryville historians are most definite about the time. Among those who followed Johnson back to the swamp was Henry Wiers. The following spring, Henry planted his first celery crop.

Today, Wiers Farm Inc. raises 180 acres of celery a year.

The corporation devotes twice as much acreage to radishes and lettuce, but it's particularly proud of its celery heritage.

It owns a fleet of 80 semis, which ship Wiers Farm produce to every major city from Houston to Chicago, from New York to Miami.

Henry's seven great-grandsons run the farm these days. They tend to be blue-eyed and blond, ranging in age from 25 to 40, six feet or taller.

At the moment, Ben Wiers is watching a crew of Chicano workers from Texas plant greenhouse-grown celery seedlings, eight rows at a time, in the muck. Ben, the corporation's land manager, is 26.

"This is Ventura celery, a California-type celery which is good for the early season," he says.

"The thing with celery is, it's 90 percent water. So you have to give it a lot of water, but it's a fine line. If celery gets too much water, it loses crispness. You really have to control the moisture."

"From the time we're 10, we're brought up working in the fields. All the other kids were going swimming, we were working on the farm. It takes a lifetime to learn.

"It's a family operation. Has been for 92 years."

A fifth generation of Wiers boys, six of them so far, is already beginning to learn. Ben's 14-month-old son, Tyler, will work the muck one day just as Ben did before him.

"He'll have the same opportunity," Ben says.

"He'll have a choice. I had a choice, too. But there's something about the land. If I went somewhere else, I'd feel like I was missing something."