Harvesting rhubarb, labor-intensively

May 08, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MACOMB TOWNSHIP, MICH. JHC ORB — MACOMB TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- There's a hint of disgust in Dolores Demil's voice when she talks about the people she saw at Bakers Square.

"They'll pay $6 for a pie and they could go home and make it for a dollar and a half! And they could probably make two! But they'll pay $5 and $6."

It irks her because Dolores and Henry Demil raise what was once a favorite springtime pie filling -- rhubarb.

Rhubarb is still a harbinger of spring for some people. But if a supermarket cashier has ever asked you what your plans are for "that red celery," then you know many people haven't had the pleasure of making rhubarb's acquaintance.

The Demils have been growing rhubarb since 1951. By the end of this week, they'll have cleaned out their fourth and final hothouse this season. The hothouse rhubarb season will end and the field rhubarb will begin. Hothouse rhubarb is more tender and less stringy than field and grows without the large dark green leaves you see outdoors.

When Henry Demil started farming rhubarb, just a year after arriving in the United States from Belgium, there were 262 hothouse rhubarb growers in Macomb County. Today there are only six in what'sleft of the rural area of the county north of Detroit.

As in many farming families, the children are no longer interested.

Every summer, they plant between 25,000 and 30,000 rhubarb plants in the field. Two years later in November, the root systems of the plants are large enough to be removed from the soil. The plants are plowed out and left in the field to rest. The process is similar to forcing spring flower bulbs indoors. The rhubarb plants, with roots and soil attached, can weigh anywhere from 25 to 90 pounds. They're carted into the hothouse and planted in rows.

Getting the heavy plants inside has become easier over the years. Farmers once believed the plants had to freeze in the fields before being brought in, and it was even heavier work carrying in blocks of frozen soil. Now, farmers know better. And they mound the roots up on skids instead of carrying them one-by-one to a wagon. But it's still difficult to hire help to move the plants.

"They come out one or two days and then they don't show up anymore," says Mrs. Demil.

Once the plants are taken indoors in November, keeping the hothouses dark and at a constant temperature of 55 degrees is key. The Demils use an old wood-burning furnace. By Jan. 10, the plants are sprouting red stalks of rhubarb. The Demils --he's 60, she's 55 -- do all the picking themselves.

"I keep telling him we've got to retire," says Mrs. Demil,

There are so few hothouse rhubarb growers these days that even though the Demils grow as much rhubarb as they did in the 1950s, they make more money. More money is a relative term, but it brings them more than their other crops: soybeans, greens, wheat, oats and hay.

For that reason, they can't see why more people aren't growing it.

Says Dolores Demil: "The young people today seem like they want everything that's ready. Buy it off the shelf and take it home."

"Can you imagine 10 years from now?" asks Henry Demil. "The rhubarb will be all gone."

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