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Michigan couple creates four acre field of flowers in memory of late son

Joan Donaldson and John Van Voorhees own and operate Pleasant Hill Blueberry Farm in Fennville, Mich. They filled a 4-acre field with poppies for people to come see.

FENNVILLE, Mich. — These past few months, all of us have been trying to navigate through the storm known as COVID-19. Now that things seem to slowly be heading back to normal, a calm in the storm is being found for many when visiting a field of flowers in Fennville, Mich.

The sea of poppies is proving that something other than life's stress is able to blossom during these challenging times.

"It's a four acre field and I plant the poppies in the fall," said John Van Voorhees, who is the co-owner and operator of Pleasant Hill Blueberry Farm in Fennville. "Poppy seeds are like dust; there's like 875,000 to a pound."

Credit: WZZM
The poppy field at Pleasant Hill Farm consumes 4 acres. If you stand at one end, you can't see the other end.

UPDATE: Fennville closes cemetery to vehicles after damage done by poppy field visitors

Ever since the first of the month, people have been driving to Fennville Cemetery, parking along the grass and walking through the row of pine trees where they find themselves delivered to an endless field of red, white and blue flowers.

"Two years ago, we started planting the poppies in this particular field," said John Donaldson, who also co-own and operates the farm. "We plant it with a wild flower nectar for our son's bees."

John and Joan's adopted son, Mateo Donaldson, was a bee keeper on the farm before he served a tour of duty in Afghanistan. 

"He came home with PTSD and took his own life," Joan said. "We decided to create the poppy field in memory of him, because all these flowers feed the bees and butterflies, which he loved caring for so much. He's not buried very far from this field."

Credit: WZZM
Army Sgt. Mateo Donaldson was John and Joan's adopted son. The poppy field was created in memory of him because he used to be a bee keeper.

Mateo's grave is located just 200 feet east of the poppy field. Both John and Joan know he's watching over it and, in many ways, helping other soldiers who visit and suffer from the same condition he did.

Credit: Joan Donaldson
United States Army Sgt. Mateo Donaldson suffered from PTSD when he returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He took his own life in 2015.

"A couple of other veterans have come to me and said, 'I have PTSD, but when I'm standing out there looking over that field, I can feel so much peace.'"

A similar peace is being felt by passersby, too. An unknown number of people have been visiting the poppy field on a daily basis. 

Most say they can't believe what they see, documenting the beauty with photos.

"It's been a hard year," said Joan. "Hopefully this field gives people a sense of hope and inner joy."

When visiting, John and Joan have only two rules.

Credit: WZZM
This year's poppy field is in memory of Mateo Donaldson (John & Joan's son), and a close family friend who died of cancer in 2019.

"We just ask that you don't walk on the field and please don't pick the flowers," Joan said.

The poppy field is currently in peak bloom, but by the 4th of July, the beauty will be all gone, Joan says.

"Everybody is welcome to visit," said Joan. "I enjoy watching people's reaction [to the field] when they're here.

"I think, for the most part, we live in a world where people don’t provide enough beauty, or think about it, or how much it could mean to them. So, maybe when they encounter situation like this, they begin to realize how much they need it."

Pleasant Hill Blueberry Farm is located at 5859 124th Ave. in Fennville, Mi. To visit the poppy field, you're asked to drive to Fennville Cemetery where you can park and access it from there.

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