"Just look around, what do you see but acres and acres of corn, soybeans and hay," Chris Covelli says. "Our little 12 acres of vegetables stands alone and it's like that all over the state."
Covelli was talking about his 15-acre farm called Tomato Mountain located on an absolutely flat stretch of rich Green County land some 25 miles south and west of Madison and a mile or so from the once-upon-a-time town of Attica.
Of course, he's right. Wisconsin is a state devoted to dairy cattle and the crops they eat: corn, alfalfa, soybeans and various small grains.
Covelli's point is that Wisconsin has a lot more people (5.7 million) than cattle and calves (3.4 million). So why isn't the state raising more food that is eaten direct from the field for those millions of people?
Covelli was not a farm boy. He born and raised in Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in earth sciences.
After college he began growing things: First on an acre of land in the Baraboo hills (thus the Tomato Mountain name), where he stayed for five years growing and marketing his vegetables at farmers markets; then on the 15 acres of farmland that includes an old farm house, barn, two silos and a few out buildings at Brooklyn.
Today, the Tomato Mountain organic farm produces an almost unbelievable amount of vegetables (40 different kinds) that are sold at the Dane County Farmers Market, farmers markets in Chicago and to members of his Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA).
But, in contrast to most of the half a hundred Madison-based Fairshare CSA's Coalition members, Tomato Mountain markets most of its products in Chicago.
"It's a big city, some 30 times as big as Madison," Chris says. "It's a big market."
Why a CSA?
The Tomato Mountain website explains: "While conventional food production systems are extremely efficient at the point of production, they forfeit most of this efficiency (not to mention freshness, taste and nutritional value) by shipping produce thousands of miles. Food delivered in this system is relatively inexpensive because the two main players - namely farmers and the environment - are not sufficiently valued and compensated."
A more familiar way to think of a CSA might be as an investment.
A farm offers a certain number of "shares" to the public in exchange for an upfront payment, and the farm pays the shareholder "dividends" in the form of a weekly box of vegetables. This arrangement allows the consumer to develop a relationship with the farmer and learn more about how food is grown.
Tomato Mountain does something most food marketers don't do: They deliver right to the consumer's door in Chicago and surrounding counties.
That sounds like a lot of work in contrast to the normal system of using drop-off points where consumers pick up their food boxes.
Covelli explains their home delivery.
"We focus on direct home delivery for several reasons: (1) one vehicle delivering 10 boxes has a smaller carbon footprint than 10 cars driving to the nearest drop-off and then home; (2) we know you're getting your produce in the best condition possible; and (3) you won't have to remember the day and time for pickup. Your time has value - and you'll be freeing up more time with the convenience of home delivery."
Yes, there is a cost to home delivery.
"Unlike most products you purchase, we break down our pricing into our "share price" and our "delivery fee," the company explains. "The share price includes everything it takes to get the produce into your box and the delivery fee includes everything it takes to get the box from the farm to your home."
Tomato Mountain share costs range from $13-$45 per week depending on the size of the box ordered and the length of season - early, mid, late or full.
A growing business
Although temperatures were in the mid 90s when I visited Tomato Mountain, about 10 workers were busy in the 22 hoop houses and fields, and the irrigation system was running.
There were flats of plants (lettuce, broccoli, cabbage) just emerging from the soil, row after row of raspberries still months away from picking, tomatoes close to reddening and mature vegetables ready for eating.
It would seem that such a large and rather complicated operation would require a couple of graduate horticulturists/agronomists to keep everything on schedule. No, at Tomato Mountain, Covelli - the city boy with a non-ag degree - is the one who sees that everything gets done on time and in the right way.
"Chris is really good at managing it all," Kurt Meuzelaar, crop manager, says. "He really excels in raising vegetables."
Meuzelaar is a Chicago boy - his dad a computer programmer, his mother a banker - that always had the desire to be a farmer.
He first worked for De Young Brothers, "the last vegetable farmers in Cook County," he says.
Then, while working for a dairy processor in Chicago, he saw a Tomato Mountain help wanted ad on Craig's List.
After leaving the dairy company, Meuzelaar and his wife Christy moved to Oregon about a year ago and he now oversees much of the production on the farm.
'I'm a food grower," is how Covelli classifies himself. "We grow as much food as we can - 40 vegetables and 10 herbs - and are aiming to gross $1 million a year, which we'll do in a year or two."
Like many businesses, Covelli says finding good employees is a major challenge.
"People are not eager for hard work in the hot sun," he explains. "They've gone away from the physical work that farmers did in years gone by. They actually do not know how to work."
"I need good employees," he says. "A third of my expense is labor."
In addition to selling fresh vegetables, Tomato Mountain offers a variety of canned (in jars) products ranging from Bloody Mary mix to salsa (see tomatomountain.com).
The former milk house attached to the old dairy barn has a commercial kitchen where the canning is done and the boxes of bottles are stored in a portion of the former dairy barn.
The salsa sells for $8 a pint and tomato juice goes at $10 a quart.
"Isn't that a high price?" I asked.
"No, it doesn't have the additives many such products have," Covelli says. "Those who buy it know the value."
He espouses the value of producing vegetables for people who want to buy locally and fresh, although he does not make speeches or write about organic or vegetarian issues.
"I eat a lot of meat," he says. "I'm not a crusader - just a grower of good vegetables."
Tomato Mountain is not on a mountain, it's not a showplace or a site for visitors or tours - but the hoop houses and fields of vegetables are first class and very productive.
I suspect that Chris Covelli is a true genius when it comes to growing things and perhaps he's right in thinking that there might well be more fresh food grown for direct sale consumers.
There seems to be a market.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.