When the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye is the perfect time to take a behind-the-stalks look at the Protinick family, who, with three generations of farmers still tilling the land, represent one of our area’s oldest farming families. If you stand at the edge of Plainsboro, right at the point where you look north to see South Brunswick and east to see Cranbury, you will see rows and rows of waving corn standing tall and proud, just as they have for almost a century now.
The Protinick family farm stand catches your eye as you drive into Plainsboro along Dey Road from the New Jersey Turnpike. This is the season that captures the height of the land’s bounty, and there at the Protinicks’ farm stand you will discover what helped define New Jersey as the Garden State: sweet corn, fat tomatoes, plump dark cherries, eggplant, squash, peaches, and more. The stand is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., through Labor Day.
Back in the heyday of their business, the Protinicks farmed some 4,000 acres of land stretching from East Brunswick in the north to New Egypt in the south. Not all of it was land they owned; some of it was leased, but all of it was cultivated and harvested by the sweat of their brows and pride handed down from one generation to the next.
“I remember a time when there more cows around here than people,” says Anna Protinick, 84, the family matriarch. “There were dirt roads and nothing but potato fields, potato fields, and more potato fields.”
She came to this farmhouse on Dey Road in 1949 as a young bride, just married that year to her husband, Michael. They raised all four of their children on this land: a daughter, Ann, and three sons, John, William, and Michael, who just turned 59 and is their one child who continues the family’s farming tradition, overseeing the day-to-day operation of the business.
Michael, sometimes called Mikey by his mother, is married to Linda, who teaches pre-school in Cranbury. They live on Eiker Road in Plainsboro and raised four children, all of whom came up through the West Windsor-Plainsboro Schools. Jennifer is now 29, Katherine is 26, Heather is 22, and the third-generation Michael is 17. He and Heather opted to switch to Allentown High School, which offers courses in animal husbandry and agriculture not offered at High School North. Michael is a rising senior. Of all of Anna and her husband’s 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, it is this Michael who is the one most keenly interested in continuing the family farming tradition. Pictures in his grandmother’s family photo album show him as a young boy of perhaps 10 or 11, side by side with his father at the family farm stand, helping customers, much as he still does today.
If you should stop at the farm stand, the chances are very good that you will observe a touching sight: three generations of Michael Protinicks — Anna’s husband, who will turn 92 in December, flanked by his son and grandson — doing what they have done for decades, manning the family farm stand and graciously helping customers.
The Protinick Farm was started by Anna’s in-laws, her husband’s father and mother, who moved to the land from Long Island in 1929 and settled on the farm that would become their home for many generations.
Anna’s own mother and father hailed from the Carpathian mountain region of the Ukraine. They had settled in Taylor, Pennsylvania, coal-mining country, and her father worked in the coal mines for 30 years. Her mother worked in a factory and made hand-rolled cigars. They had 11 children, of whom Anna was the oldest and one of four still alive today.
After she graduated from high school, Anna and her family moved from Taylor to Bucks County because her father had developed emphysema from working in the coal mines, and his doctor recommended he live on a farm. They settled on a farm in Bucks County, and they went to the Trenton Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It was there, one fateful day, where she met the young man who would become her husband.
Right from the start, Anna helped her husband on the Dey Road farm. The family had a second farm stand once upon a time, located where Prospect Plains Road meets South River Road. Potatoes were their big crop back then.
Anna’s frequent job was to work the harvester, a giant piece of farm machinery that made her small by comparison but that never fazed her. “I did everything and anything,” she says. “I was up there throwing out the lumps of dirt. We had to rake, sort, wash, grade, and bag the potatoes. We were up early before the sun and had to work from dark to dark. Nobody had to teach you how to do anything. You just did it.”
Over the years, the size of the land they worked grew smaller, some of it sold to help raise money for taxes, some of it giving way to roads and development. They faced the challenges confronting all farm families today.
“Eventually we got out of the potato farming business,” says Anna. “Quite simply the financial reward wasn’t there. The supply and demand wasn’t working out, and Mother Nature is the boss. There were lots of hard years when there was too much rain or not enough rain, and it was hard to make a living when the weather wouldn’t cooperate.”
Another challenge to the family business is competition from other stores that came into the area one by one. “We used to be the one and only act in town,” remembers Anna. “And then there were the supermarkets like Superfresh, and then the Home Depots came and started selling the mums and flowers we were selling, and now Target sells groceries too.”
There was also the shrinking pool of workers available to work the land. “We couldn’t find enough people who wanted to work on a potato farm; it is back-breakingly hard work,” says Anna. “Back then the work was done by migrant workers and crews from Trenton. Sometimes my children’s friends would come over to help pitch in.”
In the off-season, Anna and her husband love to travel and get out as much as they can, although their traveling has been curtailed somewhat in recent years by her husband’s health issues, including open heart surgery. Their favorite destinations include the Catskill Mountains and Florida. She fondly remembers their trip to Brazil and is hoping to travel to even more far-flung destinations.
As much as she would love for the Protinick family farm tradition to continue, she says that is out of her control. “You want your children and grandchildren to continue what you’ve been doing, but that’s for them to decide, not us.”
She points to a saying that hangs on her kitchen wall and reads it aloud: “The secret of happy living is not to do what you like but to like what you do.”
She says if you understand that, you understand exactly her life these last eight and a half decades as a farmer’s wife, mother, and grandmother. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in farming life so you have to love it. You have the good and the bad, but you’re on your own, you work for yourself. And that is the best.”
Protinick Farms, 330 Dey Road, Cranbury. Seasonal fruits and vegetables. Hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. 609-799-5285