While I blazed through two bouts of chunky hail plinking off the metal hood of my car, a chain of thunderstorms shot blue fingers of lightning across the prairie grasses at the Wisconsin border. The viscous tumult of rain had pushed wiser drivers to the side of the road, but I had a deadline to meet. I had to see about a farmer, Chris Covelli of Tomato Mountain farms.
As I pressed through I thought about how Covelli makes this three-hour drive twice a week to sell his organic produce and farm-made sauces and preserves derived from that bounty at Chicago’s Green City Market. Though the market is focused on farmers who practice sustainable or organic farming, Covelli is one of only a handful of farmers who are legally certified as organic.
I’d met Covelli at the market a few months prior. He was sampling raspberry preserves made from organic raspberries grown on his farm. Digging in with a cracker, I’d rediscovered the flavor of raspberry. Years of industrial jars of Smuckers had obfuscated the depth, sweetness and the slight tartness of the fruity patch that was then bursting in my mouth.
Covelli had also been selling a sweet and smoky tomatillo salsa and a spicy jalapeno-infused organic Bloody Mary mix. Tomatillos, domesticated by the Aztecs in 800 B.C., are generally a staple of Mexico. Outside of a few markets, or served as green salsa at local Mexican restaurants, the tomatillo’s a rare thing. I’d figured growing a fringe crop in southern Wisconsin and driving three hours to sell your produce was some kind of metaphor, or at least a testament of his dogged determination. It turns out it’s more of a calculated madness.
I should have known. The first afternoon I met Chris at the market I’d asked him how he got into farming, and he eyed me warily, saying, “It’s not important. I can’t tell you anyways. Use your imagination.”
He quickly regaled me with his passion for environmentalism, but then corrected himself saying, “Environmentalism is a stupid word that nobody knows what the hell that means. What I’m really interested in is earth, plants and growing processes.”
Over the course of five minutes he engaged in an attention-deficit-tinged soliloquy on his vision for growing his operation, the economics and politics of local farming and his belief that he was the hardest core of farmers at the market selling the best stuff. A few months later, after that first meeting, I’d bought a sampling of heirloom tomatoes from a selection of the farmers at the market, and my comparison seemed to support this boast.
Brooklyn, located twenty miles south of Madison (population 913 according to the 2000 census) is God’s country, a hilly expanse of swaying corn stalks and broken-down silos split by black rivers of county highway. The land is rocky, a legacy of the fact that it was a terminal moraine full of deposits from the glaciers that swept through in the last ice age.
There sure as hell ain’t no Starbucks out here. That morning Covelli had driven seven miles just to score his morning cup of coffee in nearby Oregon, Wisconsin. While waiting for him, I surveyed an army of plastic Quonset-hut-shaped hoop houses, a decaying barn and the hundred-year-old homestead. Out in the pasture there was a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain. It immediately brought to mind the famous William Carlos Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Standing in that pastoral moment with the dawn breaking, and the bugs chirping, I’d forgotten about Covelli’s intensity, and started thinking I’d be chronicling Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” ideal of Farmer John in fresh overalls wielding his pitchfork in the battle for great produce.
Just then, Covelli, fresh from his coffee run, pulled up in his purple Toyota.
There’s nothing iconic about Covelli. He lives in dichotomies. He likes Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, but he also grooves on Norah Jones. “I just like her sound.”
Even then, as he exited the truck and his dog loped toward me, I noticed that while he was wearing an old spotted turtleneck and tattered wind pants, he sported a pair of $100+ polarized Serengeti sunglasses. Later on he told me, “I wore my white work pants to my grandmother’s wedding.”
Covelli had just come off a string of fourteen-hour days, cutting down and tilling Sudan Grass, a cover crop of organic matter that regenerates nutrients in the soil, so he wanted to rest. We retired to the upper porch of his house overlooking a craggy sugar maple that looked more like an overgrown, bark-covered Saguaro cactus.
Covelli grew up in Whitefish Bay, a “semi-rich north side suburb of Milwaukee,” and graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a degree in geography. Not sure what he wanted to do, he ambled around, hiking, raking blueberries in Maine–“Toughest work I ever did”–and packing frozen seafood in Kenai, Alaska.
After traveling, he decided to teach earth science. While student-teaching, he was helping his mentor teacher build a hydroponics unit in the back of the classroom, and he offhandedly mentioned that he knew how to grow pot. It was a casual conversation, but his worried mentor mentioned it to his advisors at Wisconsin, and he was expelled from the program.
In 1992, while regrouping, he read John Seymour’s “Self-Sufficient Gardener,” and set up fifteen tomato plants and six pot plants. “I made great money from the pot and the tomatoes. I should have realized that it wasn’t from the tomatoes. I really should have thought that through.”
Emboldened and still on good terms with his mentor, he called her to tell her about his new passion. She offered him some land on her acreage in the Baraboo Mountain Range.
The Baraboo bluffs are another legacy of the Wisconsin glaciers, a range of exposed quartzite rock dating back 1.7 billion years. The valleys were filled with deer, mice and rats, and the environment wasn’t very hospitable. True to form, Covelli didn’t care about conventions, and he started growing tomatoes. The name of his current farm, Tomato Mountain, is a nod to this unpromising start.
In July of 1994, he made $820 one morning at the Dane County Farmers market and he was hooked. He moved on to another farm, which was too sandy to grow tomatoes–sandy soils don’t hold water long enough–and finally settled in his current fifteen-acre spread in 1999. Most of his farming knowledge is self-taught. He says, “I almost never go to other farms. I don’t want to learn bad habits. I’d rather come back here and figure stuff out.”
As we spoke, an incredible aroma of roasting onions and tomatoes roiled in my nostrils. The house smelled like a Roman trattoria. Covelli said, “That’s the new commercial kitchen making pasta sauce.”
The kitchen is the house that Frontera Grill built–well, partially anyway. Covelli received a $12,000 grant for a new steam kettle and roasting oven from Rick Bayless’ Frontera Foundation in May. The entire structure ran about $40,000.
As we walked through the kitchen, trays of heirloom tomatoes in a Skittles-like rainbow of colors dried on speed racks waited to be converted into soup, while ruddy Romas and Juliettes were slated for the pasta sauce (their lower water content is better for the soup texture).
Covelli’s as much a food scientist as a farmer. Touring the kitchen, he talked about how yellow Copra onions with their high sugar content mellow the acidic nightshade quality of the tomatoes in pasta sauce. He went through the specifics of immersion blending, PH levels, how to kill bacteria–“You really only need to can at a temp of 165°F at an acidic PH of 4.6, but we do it at 210°F”–pectin ratios and pressure statistics from the steam kettle. Earlier while we were sitting on the porch, he kept interrupting conversation to point out a Downey woodpecker or hold court on the biological nature of the nighthawk.
Throughout the morning, even on this “self-imposed day off,” Covelli’s running from the kitchen to the walk-in refrigerator, conversing with his pickers–“Pick the Sungolds before they get watered or they’ll split like a motherfucker”–and rehashing the sauce recipe with his kitchen hand Eric Davis. Covelli says, “If I was in school, I’d be one of those ADD kids. I’m either super-focused, or not focused at all.” He adds, “farmer’s aren’t patient, that’s what makes them so effective.”
Davis, an Illinois State biology grad, isn’t your typical farm worker. He travels the country crunching data and analyzing sick houses–homes with poor air quality from pollutants like mold or radon. Although farming is a side business, he’s worked on a lot of farms, and he puts Covelli in perspective: “He’s not like other farmers. He’s a mad scientist with vision.”
While Covelli does employ some typical migrant pickers and kitchen hands, Davis represents the trend of the farm’s labor force. Covelli’s farmer’s-market rep Ann Willhoite Bell is a psychology grad student at Northwestern, and he now finds his folks via Craigslist. Covelli says, “You know I can probably get any sous chef who’s interested in farming [to run the kitchen], but I’m interested in that one-in-ten sous chef, the guy who’s willing to experiment.”
When Covelli started Tomato Mountain, he sold plants and produce at farmer’s markets and to local restaurants like Harvest in Milwaukee and Frontera Grill in Chicago. (He still does today–Covelli butterball potatoes are on the current menu.) Tracey Vowell, former executive chef of Frontera and now a farmer herself, says, “He’s a very well-rounded, very productive farmer. He’s got very impressive tomatoes both in selection and quality.”
He sells very little of the organic produce today. He says, “If I can’t put it in a jar, I’m not sure why I’m growing it.” Yet Covelli still worries that by pursuing processed foods and the retail model, he’ll lose his direct relationship with the customer. “Relationships are important in this business. You can’t put a book on the shelf at Whole Foods to explain how tomatillos are grown.”
The shift in farm philosophy is partly a result of economics and also a result of the grind of farming organic produce.
Covelli, though he’d probably bristle at the suggestion, is also a CEO. He talks about “reversing debt flow” and “capital improvements” and “staying focused on core competencies.” He takes checks. “Why not? I’ve only had a couple bounce over the years.”
Covelli estimates that he and his partner have financed more than $120,000 on credit cards for equipment like tractors and hoop houses, and he says it’s a struggle to pay his mortgage–his father helps. “You know all these other guys have other jobs, or their spouses support them. The farm is all I do.”
According to USDA forecasts for 2006, the average retail price of tomatoes in 2006 will be $1.59 per pound, whereas a batch of Covelli’s salsa, which contains 250 pounds of tomatoes, retails for $2,000 or $8 a pound.
While he can rattle all the figures off in his head, he says, “I don’t balance my checkbook. It’s pretty simple. You just have to put in more than you take out.” He adds, “It’s the same reason I don’t make my bed. You’re just gonna sleep in it again. There’s no value added.”
Then there’s the grind. Covelli says that no one wants to pay for quality, that sometimes the transactions at Green City can be adversarial. “People come up to you and they want to know why I’m charging three bucks a pound when they can pay less at the supermarket. I just want to tell them to shut up.” He says that in reality most of the people at Green City are nice, but you tend to remember “the ones that suck.”
Tomatillos grow like weeds and are susceptible to larvae. After every rain, the pesticides run off and they have to be re-sprayed by hand. Contrary to popular belief, organic farmers still use pesticides, albeit microbial pesticides like Bacillus thuringiensis, or “Bt.”, a soil bacteria that is toxic to the larvae of several species of insects but not toxic to plants.
Seedlings require organic fertilizers like a “stinky” fish emulsion that “gunks everything up.” Covelli questions this practice, suggesting that the chemical Miracle Grow is about as harmless as a Centrum vitamin, whereas the fish emulsion, which is derived from ground-up Lake Michigan fish, is probably full of mercury-laden carcasses.
At $3-to-$3.50 a pound, Covelli’s tomatoes are on the high end at the market. He pays $4 for organic Sungold tomato plants, when his competitors are selling pints for the same price. He says, “If the price was a reflection of quality, I’d charge more. If I see someone else has more expensive tomatoes, it drives me nuts. I’ll raise my price.”
On our way to lunch at La Iguana, a Mexican restaurant located twenty-five miles from the farm in Judah, Wisconsin, for “great fajitas and salsa,” we pass acre after acre of farm. I ask Covelli why all these people continue to farm produce in the face of these challenges, why they haven’t transitioned to processed sauces? He says, “It’s a family-history thing. People just repeat stupid traditions like working in the coal mines or the steel mills, because that’s what their parents did.”
Covelli has been farming for fourteen years. He has an intense dark gaze, a thick bramble of black beard, ropy jowls that frame his mouth and deep worry lines that run the length of his forehead. The look makes you wonder if he’s going to burn out.
He says, “I don’t really live for this. I’d rather be backpacking at 12,000 feet in New Mexico, but it’s what I’m good at, and you have to pay the bills.”
Backpacking, like farming, is an extension of Covelli’s love for nature and his lack of patience with “normal” people. He spends his winters snowshoeing and camping on the Hillsboro peak in the Gila national forest in New Mexico.
Covelli has a picture of bear cubs on the wall of his office. I ask him if he’s seen “Grizzly Man,” the Werner Herzog documentary about Timothy Treadwell who lived unarmed among wild bears in Alaska for thirteen years, until he was finally mauled and killed on one of his expeditions. The film is at times an inspiring tribute to a man’s quest for beauty and a love of nature, but at other times it’s a saddening exploration of the loneliness of the human condition, distrust of society, and where the companionship of wild bears is more preferable than that of Treadwell’s fellow man.
Covelli says, “I actually identify with it a lot. He’s not a god or anything, but I don’t hate him.” I ask Covelli what he identifies with, and he picks up a copy of Edward Abbey’s book “Desert Solitaire” and quotes a passage:
“Labor day, flux and influx. They come in here [to Arches National Monument where Abbey was a ranger] like buffalo from the city…. sealed in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels, how can I pry the people free.” Covelli says living in the city is like a video game–that it’s unnatural and the people are packed in.
Just when you think the weariness is going to take over, Covelli’s love for the farm makes a reappearance. “I am the mom of the farm. I put more energy into the farm than most people put in their kids.”
He starts talking about time flows and efficiencies, mixtures of sulfur, calcium and gypsum that he wants to try out on the soil. He says that too many farmers rely on needless industrial processes like automatic seeders and weed burners. He’s tried them, but he’d rather do it by hand. “Weeding is an art. You can really screw it up.”
As the afternoon runs away, the roasted-onion smell has been replaced with a celery perfume–they’ve switched to making Bloody Mary mix in the kitchen. It’s a pure olfactory reminder that the fruits of Covelli’s labor are paying off through his exceptional organic canned products. The smell reminds you how industrialization and “natural flavorings” from New Jersey turnpike factories are ruining our food supply, that we may be eating more as a society because we’re striving for taste that’s no longer available, except in small niche products like Covelli’s.
Still I wonder if the incredible products he’s producing can overcome a marketplace where price and convenience are the ultimate bottom line. Covelli says, “It’ll work out. People love this stuff. It’s just a matter of time.”
Covelli’s sauces and produce can be found every Wednesday and Saturday at the Green City Market or online at Tomato Mountain Farm.
View a companion photo slideshow of Tomato Mountain Farm
This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago.