David Coveyou of Coveyou Scenic Farm Market near Petoskey combines new tech and old ways to usher his family’s centennial farm into the 21st century. The story of the family farm and more was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
“Whatever you do, don’t go into farming.”
Like any parent who has forged a livelihood of backbreaking work, this was the message that Lorenzo and Hedy Coveyou made clear to their children. Life on their family farm along US131, south of Petoskey had been rewarding, productive, and long-lived—but never easy.
The Coveyous’ message was taken to heart by all four of their children, each of whom sought lives and careers off the farm. Son David took his highly technical mind far from home and applied it to engineering, designing communication satellites on both coasts, in California and Massachusetts.
For David, this was good work, hardly backbreaking, and in exciting places. For a kid who grew up on a farm in Northern Michigan, a new way of life had its charms, and what was going to be just a couple of years away from his home state turned into a few, then several.
But the proverbial “you can take the boy out of the farm, but not the farm out of the boy” had its staying power with David. His connection to home was kept alive as he made his way to any small family growers he could find dotting the farmland outside of the cities where he lived.
“I started seeing farms that I could envision Coveyou—which was really winding down—modeling,” he says. “This was 20 years ago, before the sustainability model was big.”
David had both the great opportunity, and simultaneous weight, of a long and deep history propelling his thoughts back to the farm. Coveyou Scenic Farm Market is, after all, an institution in the region, an official Centennial Farm nestled just above Walloon Lake and founded by David’s forebears in the late 1800s.
During that era, railroads opened up Northern Michigan to the rest of the world. The Coveyous were French Canadians who migrated to Petoskey by way of Pennsylvania just a year after the railroad was laid, in 1874. Eventually the family included a young Lorenzo Coveyou, David’s father.
The area was heavily into logging, which was taken up on the Coveyous’ 40-acre homestead farm. They built a sawmill and logged the entire region all winter long, shipping lumber far and wide on the small roads and trails in this pre-US131 era.
As the farm evolved and the region became logged-over, David’s parents grew potatoes, selling them to potato chip companies. Everyone around got involved in harvesting the potatoes, with schools closing every fall so kids could help out. They harvested massive amounts of potatoes in huge crates that remain in the barn today.
The hard physical work of the harvest was the mother of invention for the Coveyous, inspiring David’s father and grandfather to devise a potato harvester, a self-loading machine that spared them from bending to pick the potatoes from the ground.
“People came from all around the state to see it. Imagine how mechanically inclined they were to have built it,” David says with pride. “It was a neat machine. Five people would stand on it and pick out stones and bad potatoes as it loaded potatoes into a trailer. Pretty spiffy.”
David, born in the late ’60s, grew up heavily involved with the farm, especially in the summers. While at the time he might have preferred to be out playing baseball, looking back it was a special time. “We were exposed to many good things that most kids don’t experience,” David says.
Working side-by-side with his father was the highlight. “I was fortunate to have a father so gifted, so talented in innovation, creativity, and problem solving. I got to witness him thinking through things, and through osmosis or observation—I’m not sure how!—but I started gaining the same qualities. You’re exposed to it and you become a thinker yourself.”
And think David did, right through his undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, and his highly technical work designing satellites. There was no amount of problem solving, though, that could keep the rest of his family from thinking David was crazy for his growing desire to head back to the farm.
As David explored the farms near where he lived both in California and Massachusetts, his parents were winding down at Coveyou, farming fewer and fewer acres. Their warning to their family stayed strong: Whatever you do, don’t go into farming.
David’s interest in farming was just as strong as his parents’ warnings not to, but he knew that if he was going to make any attempt to take the family farm into the next generation, he would need a new, sustainable farming model, one that would sell the highest-quality product directly to the public.
He would also need to figure out a way to support his own growing family before moving them back to the farm—and a way to convince his wife, Kathy, a native New Englander, to become a farmer back in Michigan with him.
“Ever since Dave and I were dating, I have always known he would come back to Michigan and move back to the farm,” Kathy says. “So as we considered moving here, it really was not a surprise.”
Kathy’s mother-in-law, Hedy, made sure Kathy got the message too: farming is hard on you and hard on your family. “I really discounted it,” Kathy says. “I thought, We’ll be fine! But she was right. It can be hard because it can be so consuming. But most things worth doing in life are not exactly easy.”
They dipped their toes into the farming life with David coming back to Michigan for brief periods to test the waters, first growing mums to sell directly on the farm to the public—a hugely successful venture.
“I came back in the spring to plant, then in the fall set up a table on the highway with the flowers that my mom sold. People loved them. We sold 300 the first year, then 1,200, always selling out within weeks.”
David and Kathy became believers in the next generation at Coveyou Scenic Farm Market. In 2007, they moved their family to the farm full-time.
An organic way of life
Despite the growing movement toward healthier farming and eating, it was the words of another experienced farmer that tipped the scale for David into organic farming at Coveyou. “This guy was talking about chemical pesticides that go through the irrigation and directly into plants. He said, ‘There’s no way that green bean isn’t affected by the chemicals too, because you can’t wash it off, and I don’t really want to eat that kind of green bean.’” David realized he didn’t really want to eat that bean, either.
The desire to eat good food, and to keep his costs down while he built his business, propelled David on a quest to grow organically. “It wasn’t a priority before then,” he says. “I was just going to grow produce. Then I discovered—the more I learned—it was the only thing I could do to happily eat the things I was growing for me and my family and everyone else.”
“When my boys are out in the fields or here in the market with customers, I find them grabbing a cucumber or cherry tomatoes to eat by the handful—the idea of, Did you wash it? doesn’t come into play. I am totally at ease that this question is not even part of our vocabulary. The vegetable has never been sprayed with anything other than fresh rainwater.”
Certified organic farming is no small feat, but it’s one that’s well worth it to the Coveyous. “It takes a little more effort, and it’s more expensive because of that, but you can grow such healthy, quality organic food this way—far superior to food grown conventionally,” he says.
A walk out into the fields at Coveyou gives a strong sense of the health of the farm. The soil looks rich and the crops bright and strong—without any sign of the insects that could be expected without pesticides.
One of the keys to Coveyous’ success is the effort they make to build robust, nutrient-dense soil—this goes well beyond simply not spraying. The bugs will attack less because the soil is an environment with a strong immune system. “With plants it’s a lot like people,” David says. “If you have good general health, you are less likely to get sick.”
This ultra-healthy soil yields, in turn, ultra-healthy, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. Produce that is colorful, beautiful, and—above all—delicious.
When Kathy Coveyou “shops” for dinner on any given night, you’ll find her in one of two places: up at the Coveyou farm market barn selecting an array of vegetables, or in winter, in her freezer and pantry pulling out the produce she preserved from the prior season.
“We still have to do our share of practical shopping at the grocery store,” Kathy laughs, “so we’re not completely off the grid. But I really feel that at our house, we eat like kings. Especially when we put food on the table during the peak harvest. It’s remarkable to behold, and everyone gets a lot of pleasure out of it.”
This feast is what Kathy calls “a random thing.” But there’s harmony there as she roasts an array of vegetables and beans with olive oil. Or grills a pizza loaded with vegetables. Dinner is ready in half-an-hour, she says, from farm to kitchen.
This kind of cooking and eating gives convenience food a whole new meaning. “Produce fresh from the farm is the most unbelievable convenience food,” Kathy says. “It’s delicious, simple, and everyone loves it. It’s a real gift from the farm.”
Such remarkable access to fresh vegetables on a daily basis became an experience that David and Kathy wanted their customers to have, too. Their “Open Market” program allows a family to come and go any day of the week and take whatever produce they need at any given time, for a flat fee. The CSA baskets are still very popular, but sometimes people don’t want to receive everything for the week in one day, or some weeks they need more or less than others.
David and Kathy are firm believers that their organic produce does taste better than produce that is conventionally grown. “When produce tastes good, it’s to do with a complex mineral make-up that is much more complete and healthy,” David says. “We don’t talk about it all that much, but I really do believe it’s true. Not every tomato has the same health value. The ones that are grown really well are going to have much more depth and breadth of flavor. That’s my belief, and I’d love to run the test to prove it!”
The Coveyous and their market customers are far from the only ones who think their organic produce tastes better. A long list of restaurants Up North turn to Coveyou to deck their dishes out with all the exceptional organic, local produce.
A new pioneer on the farm
David knew when he returned to the farm that he would have to grow crops healthier and tastier than ever and do so in as low a cost way as possible. That meant relying on the spirit of innovation his father and grandfather had taught him, but he would have to carry it on in a 21st-century way.
Innovations, like his father’s potato-picker, come naturally to David. As he explored other farms in California and New England, it was clear they were spending a lot on electricity to run their farms. “I thought: how am I going to farm at Coveyou if I’m going to run coolers for a retail market?” David says. “It’s money I’d rather not have to spend.”
Starting from scratch allowed David to look at a technology he knew was great for heating to see if it could be used instead for cooling down to the 30-degree range. The experts he consulted didn’t know the answer, so he went for it himself. By pushing the boundaries of geothermal technology, David is able to use the heat energy that’s stored in the ground to run his coolers and cold display cases.
It works like this: a heat pump is used for cooling rather than heating. Piping is run through the ground, where the temperature is stable at about 50 degrees, 6 feet below ground in a large loop. Antifreeze water is circulated through this ground loop as the heat pump transfers energy from the loop into a large insulated storage tank chilling this secondary tank to 28 degrees. When the walk-in cooler’s thermometer says it’s too warm, the chilled water is run through the radiators in the cooler to chill the air.
He uses another tank of water chilled in the same manner to create an ice-cold bath for his produce. “When we harvest, we have this big vat of water to douse all of the produce,” he explains. “This takes the heat of the field out of it. Once you take the heat out, the produce doesn’t start breaking down. The flavor is locked in. Storage life is better. It’s simply amazing. Restaurants say our produce is really good and keeps really well.”
Then in the winter, David uses the system to heat his new greenhouse, where this past year he grew organic salad greens for the first time. “It was a real success,” David says. “But my boys didn’t like hearing that my idea of a warm spring break for the family was harvesting in the greenhouse at home.”
That heat pump is the key to the geothermal efficiencies because it can take five times as much heat energy out of the ground than the amount of electricity it consumes. A solar array that David installed provides nearly all the power for the farm, so much so that Coveyou paid only $60 for commercial electricity in the past year.
“Ten to 15 years ago this wouldn’t have been practical,” he says. “But the prices have fallen so far, and now payback on these systems are often 10 years or even just a few years.”
David and Kathy consider raising their family in this way, close-to-the-land, an important part of their goals. The four kids—baby Lillian joined three older brothers two years ago—are growing up in an environment that is, in its own way, “off the grid.” They have been slow to acquire mobile phones and iPads. “Our sons can run the farm market on their own, and I prize their ability to shake hands and look someone in the eye, make change, and communicate. They learn by watching and seeing that it’s something that we value,” David says.
“When they’re out picking barrels of cucumbers or bushels of cherry tomatoes, the little things they learn become part of who they are. It’s a neat way to grow up—it’s how I grew up. I couldn’t appreciate it when I was that young, but then at some point you do. And you want to continue it.”