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Growing generations


June 23, 2010
If my family history could be defined by one thing, other than ethnicity, it would have to be farming. That this is a relatively new revelation is laughable considering the memories of my grandparents almost exclusively feature greenhouses, muck fields and farmers markets. But as I put bits and pieces of family history together it's apparent that growing things was a way of life for the last several generations and defined just about everything they did.

I got the most dirt under my nails as a kid with Grandpa Mulder. I still shiver at the memory of washing carrots in the ice cold water with him and Grandma under the poplar trees at their place on Pennell Road.

mariacolumn
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Pete Mulder selling his radishes, romaine and green onions at the Port Huron Farmers Market.

My maternal grandfather, John DenHartigh, was a wholesale grower in bedding plants. Come summer, after the greenhouses were empty, he'd keep growing. Well into his 80s, he'd cultivate green beans, collard greens and peppers, load them into the trunk of his Oldsmobile Delta 88 diesel sedan, and sell them to the produce manager at the Family Fare grocery stores around Kalamazoo.

The vegetable auction house where my maternal grandmother's family brought their cabbages and kale is still in operation in a small town north of Amsterdam.

My grandmother, Catherine Van Doeselaar Mulder, and her nine siblings spent their formative years in the muck fields of Imlay City too. The boys, save for their service during World War II, did the marketing in Detroit. Some years, the potato and onion crops didn't amount to enough.

At times, I want to make a connection between their livelihoods and my hobby which consists of a half-dozen rows of beans, four tomatoes and a few pepper plants. But that's too romantic of a notion for me to stomach. How can they compare? My garden contributes to our two-person dinner table...a parcel of muck was meant to feed and clothe the Van Doeselaar family of 12.

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I wonder if they could even comprehend the conversations we have today about heirloom tomatoes, child labor laws and the poor person's lack of access to fresh produce.

Working the land was something they did because they knew how. There weren't a lot of other career opportunities when your education and language skills are limited. My life doesn't depend on the bell peppers in my garden...I just like the challenge they present. (Am I the only one?)

I suppose I should be celebrate the 'progress' we've made. Instead of peddling that five pound bag of carrots with a pair of shoes in mind, farmers today are expected to dole out their favorite curry and sesame oil-infused carrot soup recipe. The consumer is king.

I'd like to think that the more I garden, the more I'll understand what my ancestors experienced but considering we're not quite on level playing fields, I hope I can instead learn to appreciate their tenacity and be a little more grateful to the farmers—big and small—of today.

Maria Brown joined the Tri-City Times staff in 2003, the same year she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Calvin College. Born and raised in Imlay City, she now resides north of Capac where she enjoys working on the farm, gardening and reading.
Castle Creek
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