Our Future Has Arrived

Chris with farmer Bob Ela

Thirty years of farming has taught me a lot. In that time we’ve tried just about everything regarding what we grow, how we sell it, and who we sell it to. I say “me” because it was my idea and energy that started and guided the farm initially. I say “we” because I could never have done all this on my own. Tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, winter spinach, farmers’ markets, the on farm processing kitchen, our CSA…, and dozens of combinations of these elements, has made for an interesting and enlightening journey. 

Over the last 10 years, we’ve increasingly focused on our CSA. While all ways of connecting with customers have their advantages, subscription-based arrangements like CSAs, and what they’re evolving into, give farmers and customers the best and most consistent opportunity to develop and maintain meaningful relationships. The big problem with CSAs has always been that they don’t offer enough variety or choice. Sure, it’s a great idea to eat locally and support local economic interests. But in the end, people also want variety and diversity. It’s incredibly difficult for one farm to satisfy everyone, or even one person, that well.

When you’re young, you think you can do it all. Early on, we tried growing dozens of very different crops like asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, garlic, tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli… and tried various ways of selling them (fresh market, processed jams and salsas, CSA). We found ourselves working 100 hours/week from May through October. By September of each year we could not wait for the first killing frost. The only thing we celebrated on Labor day was another 16 hour work day. We were basically killing ourselves to try to be and do everything for everyone. In reality there were still lots of things we weren’t doing (or well) and our customers were certainly shopping other farms to satisfy their needs and wants no matter how much we took on.

The one completely unique thing we did was home deliver our produce. We did it for the same reason we don’t all go pick up our mail at the post office – it’s inefficient, costly, and time consuming. Ultimately, I’m an efficiency freak, and it makes no sense for 50 cars to drive to a common pick up point when one car could deliver to those 50 households in ⅓ time, with ⅓ the carbon footprint. The last thing any city, especially one like Chicago, needs is a bunch of extra cars on the road, contributing to congestion, expanding the carbon footprint… Forget the fact that every week at least 5% of CSA customers forget to pick up their box at all. Delivery is a win-win situation when customers count the time and expense of getting to the drop off site. Our home delivery was ahead of its time, until Covid hit. Now it seems as though we’re right on time. The one thing we’ve been not up to speed on is doing the best job we can providing variety and diversity in our offerings. We’re going to change that now.  

Over the last 5 years, CSA and related arrangements have been evolving to give customers more choice, the ability to customize their weekly deliveries, and easier access to more farms. We started dabbling with buying from our favorite farmer friends and offering their produce as “add ons” in 2012, and nearly made a big switch to incorporate customization of boxes at the end of 2017. Ironically, our delivery feature was the extra variable at the time that foiled the effort, after months and thousands of dollars. Those of you who were with us in the fall of ‘17 probably remember that failed attempt to migrate to Harvie. 

It’s taken us three years to recover. We’re ready to give choice and customization another chance. If you like what you’ve been getting, and appreciate the challenge of getting a box of seasonal vegetables each week, and figuring out how to incorporate them into meals, you’re still good, no changes there. Add ons will continue to be a big part of what we do. 

If you, like me, would prefer to have choice over that base box of veggies, our new CSAware software will make that possible. We’re super lucky to now have on board a true information management professional, who also happens to be my partner in life (Kristin). She is leading our effort and migration to CSAware, a company with exceptional customer service. After one conversation with Guillermo (CSAware founder and software developer), Kristin, who has spent the last 20 years evaluating and implementing software for a local community college, proclaimed “I love Guillermo”. Why?, I asked. Because he listens, cares, and is willing to develop their platform in ways that serve our customers better. Sounds like we’re in good hands.

Our future has arrived. Be sure to stay tuned.  If you plan to continue with us on this journey and haven’t already signed up in the new system and input your payment information, be sure to look for the email about claiming your account or email the team at support@tomatomountain.com.

-Chris Covelli