Growing up organic, by Don Curto

“Organic” is old stuff to some of us who remember well what we ate in our youth. We grew up organic, but didn’t know it. The term was not used for food grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc. because mostly there were none. Any family that did serious gardening in Marquette during the Great Depression Days grew what we today call “organic” food.
Many backyards around town had a compost pile. My father, a very good gardener, fertilized our garden with sheep manure dissolved in water in a fifty-five-gallon drum. The second drum, sitting beside the sheep manure drum, had Lake Superior water, left to warm in the sun. I forget the proportions used from each drum, but he had some firm rules for that. Regularly, my father’s beefsteak tomatoes got first prize at the Marquette County Fair.0709foo (1)
The 1930s decade was divided roughly between early “bad” depression days and later “good” depression periods. The degree of affluence between bad and good depressions was small.
Everyone was desperately poor in the early bad depression days, and not quite as desperately poor during the good depression days because Roosevelt created a rare feeling of optimism. The nation did not get out of the depression period until WWII came along; the need for everything was so great that there were jobs for everyone, the pay was good for the time, money began to flow and we began to eat well, go to movies, and maybe even take a Sunday ride around the area with a friend who had a C Ration gas card.
Many of us in Marquette enlisted or were drafted into service. At the beginning of our entry into the war, I suspect there were far more enlistees than draftees. After December 8, 1942, enlistment was stopped and everyone was drafted. Allotments were made as need dictated to each of the services. I enlisted in the Marines in Detroit (as a freshman at the University of Michigan) just before the enlistment cutoff took effect. If my memory is not faulty, I recall that at one time early in the war Marquette had the highest percentage of Marines on a per capita basis. Usually this honor went to Philadelphia or Brooklyn. At one time, it seemed that every other Marine I served with was from either of those cities.
After WWII, everything changed. The needs of serving people all over the world dictated some changes in our foods. For instance, dry instant yeast was developed during this time so bread could be made for overseas servicemen. Food-serving systems became very efficient. People who had come from poverty stricken families to serve got to eat healthy food for the first time in their lives.
My old Camp Lejeune Gunny Sergeant John Lilly (Korean Conflict times) told me the only reason he enlisted in the Marines was to get something to eat. In 1934 in Alabama, he said he was starving. He survived several Pacific campaigns, all the time eating well.
All the Marine units I served with here and overseas got good food. Perhaps it was not elegant, but no one went hungry. Of course, the U.S. Navy always had the very best food, especially shipboard. I recall with pleasure the time I left Guam to go to North China aboard an AKA cargo transport.
There were only twenty-nine of us, all second lieutenants without enough overseas points to return to the United States. We ate that first night in the troop officers mess, a small dining area (seating was eight or ten persons at a time) separated from the clearly more deserving Navy officers. The mess man came to our table and told us he was serving roast beef for supper. We cheered. When he got to take my order, he asked, “Would you like your beef rare or well done?” Honest, that’s what he said. Some of us had enough presence of mind to quickly ask, “Is there au jus?” What a meal after a Guam mess of mostly C Rations.
In later months in China, many of us learned how to appropriate some of that very good Navy food from the many ships docked at Taku, port to Tientsin, for our own use. Basic appropriation rule for the Marines was: food from the Navy, vehicles from the Army Air Corps. Ah…they were blind, those people.
Returning to the subject of vegetables and fruit in Marquette in the 1930s, everything was more seasonal than things are now.
For instance, in January of 1936 (a very poor economic month for our city), newspaper advertising shows that a shopper could get grapefruit, apples, celery, cabbage, turnips, sweet potatoes and head lettuce (which was selling two heads for fifteen cents at the A&P store). This is slightly more than its nutritional value.
Iceberg lettuce got its name because in the early shipments from California to the Midwest the lettuce was stacked in insulated box cars and covered with crushed ice, making the pile look like an iceberg. (In the same month you could get a “Men’s jacket, blue Melton, double breasted, four-pocket all-wool, regular $6.95, on sale, $4.95.” You can get this today at the very same great Getz’s Department store still at the same location, but the prices are up just a little.)
By the time July 1936 came around, you could get two heads of iceberg lettuce for ten cents, and now you could buy in any of the local stores green onions, cucumbers, cantaloupes, radishes, eating peaches, tomatoes, jumbo celery, eating apples, oranges, lemons, watermelons, plums, seedless grapes, strawberries, waxed beans and grapefruit.
A lot of our summer and fall produce came from our own garden or from farms in the Skandia-Green Garden area. My grandmother usually got milk from the Buck Dairy, with headquarters where the Dairy Freeze is on Third Street. Sometimes she got unpasteurized milk from a Skandia farmer, with cream so rich at the top of the glass container that she would scoop it out, spread it on freshly baked bread and sprinkle some sugar over it for a dessert. Potatoes came from farms along Green Garden road (good name, then and now).
Today, at the correct season, if you go to the Green Garden road area you will find Seeds and Spores, a family farm run by farmers Jeff Hatfield and Jeff Chiodi (along with a lot of help). This is a remarkable venture, begun about nine years ago. Planning and hard work have brought into existence, quoting from their pamphlet, “a small diversified farm, south of Marquette on the banks of the Chocolay River. Our farm consists of fields, pastures, woods, swamps, ponds and meadows. Our main focus is growing five acres of vegetables. We also grow shiitake mushrooms and woods-grown ginseng. The farm includes a flock of laying hens, Scottish Highland cattle and Shetland sheep. We seasonally raise pigs and turkeys.”
I visited the farm last week and took some pictures that give a good idea of the size and layout of the farm. It is an amazing operation. In my ride around the farm, I saw a lot of good things growing and I saw a lot of work—unending work. There were a lot of handsome chickens clucking and clawing the ground, a few great looking pigs very interested in my vehicle, and vegetables just waiting for rain or their turn on the sprinkling system.
Seeds and Spores probably is the granddaddy of local farms with great variety listed in their 2007 produce list.
So, as Jeff Hatfield said to me, “we are raising food as our grandfathers did.”
I agree, but in many ways it is better food with far greater variety. There is a growing number of small farms around the U.P. with a concentration in Marquette County, Alger County and Delta County. You can get a comprehensive list of them from the Marquette Food Co-op. Right now, as fall harvest time is close, it is a good time to visit some of the farms.
So, I grew up organic and didn’t even know it. Maybe that’s why I am so healthy. My father believed two of the most important things for a growing child were good food and quality shoes.
—Don Curto
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