The DeBruyns’ Final Chapter
David DeBruyn was born in 1877. In 1893 he started working in the LaHuis grocery store and haberdashery. He married Henrietta “Trixie” Bosch and together they had three children: Robert, Donald and Evelyn.
Evie DeBruyn Van Dorp has been the subject of two previous columns.
More story:The first figures of Zeeland’s business district
More story:The Story of Evelyn DeBruyn
More story:Port Sheldon, Harmon Bosch and Evelyn Van Dorp
In 1927, while working for LaHuis, David began buying produce from local farmers. In 1928, after the unexpected death of the LaHuises in California, David bought out the business.
Then, during the Great Depression, David not only traded farmers’ produce, but also sold them seeds. As his geographical boundary expanded and because he had to monitor the quality of the products he bought and sold, he traveled frequently and took his sons, Robert and Donald, with him.
Sometimes he sent his three children on the road for collections. Not yet ready to give up the grocery, cleaning and haberdashery businesses, he entrusted them to Evelyn.
As commodity brokerage was his passion, David sold the grocery business to George Van Eenenaam, the flooring business to Jason Wagoner, and the dry goods and clothing business to Cory Poest.
During World War II, DeBruyn Produce and Seed supplied produce to military camps. To do this, David built a modern refrigeration and cold storage unit and employed German prisoners of war.
David died in 1947.
After the war, and under the direction of his sons, DeBruyn Produce and Seed continued to grow, aided by the development of the interstate highway system and the growth of supermarkets.
To secure a reliable supply of produce, Donald and Robert traveled extensively and contracted with farmers in the west and south, which Robert valued more than Donald. In fact, Robert spent up to six months of the year in Texas and Arizona, bidding on fields, inspecting crops, contracting truckers, and employing salesmen.
In 1955, the DeBruyns separated the more volatile, travel-intensive commodities brokerage business from the more predictable seed business. Based on their personality and passion, they also separated responsibilities: Robert, Sr. took on the commodity business and Donald took on the seed business.
Eventually, Robert’s son, Bob, joined the agricultural products business. Like his father, Bob loved to travel. He also loved one-on-one negotiations and onions. Between the 1970s and 1990s, DeBruyn’s supply chain expanded to Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Georgia – as well as Mexico and Peru – and included company-owned farms, processing and packaging facilities.
One such facility was near Byron Center and included a machine invented by Bob to efficiently cut large carrots into mini carrots. On the demand side, DeBruyn’s customers, in addition to supermarket chains, included fast-food restaurants, including Taco Bell and Red Lobster.
Tragically, Bob passed away in a bicycle accident in 2009.
Bob’s cousin, Ken, joined his father, Donald, at DeBruyn Seed when he was a student at Hope College. On the way to class, Ken stopped at Smith Douglas near James Street and River Avenue and the Holland Co-op at College Avenue and Seventh Street. He also spent a summer out of state with a seed supplier. After Don’s death in 1990, Ken took over DeBruyn Seed.
Back then, retail customers bought seeds from a clerk, who collected them in bins. On busy spring days, customers lined up outside the door and around the building.
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To improve efficiency, Ken’s operations manager, Jan Meeuwsen, introduced a self-service system, which involved pre-packing seeds and putting pictures of mature plants and plant care instructions on packaging. To get photos, Jan grew plants herself. Later, Ken added lawn, garden and bird seeds to DeBruyn’s product line.
On the wholesale side, DeBruyn Seed continued to sell to farmers. Over time, they added many garden stores as customers. In 2004, DeBruyn sold nearly 225 tons of seed potatoes, 10 tons of garden sweetcorn seed, 38 tons of lawn grass seed and 130 tons of black sunflower seed for bird feeders.
Today, DeBruyn also supplies flower seeds to Disney’s EPCOT theme park and lima bean seeds to the Max Planck Society in Germany.
Information for Van Dorp’s and DeBruyn’s articles comes from interviews with Evelyn, Bob and Ken DeBruyn in 2005, and a recent interview with Jan Meeuwsen.
Other sources include Hope College’s Digital Commons, MiGenWeb, and Wikipedia.
— Community columnist Steve VanderVeen is a resident of the Netherlands. Contact him via start-upacademeinc.com.