Taking the winding Spring Rose Road off WI Hwy 18/151, you have to keep a sharp lookout for the Farley Center sign at the side of the road. The road continues to snake through dappled light and finally reveals the hoop houses and growing fields of the Farley Center, where Chef Reina Gonzalez and her brother Juan Gonzalez Torres grow 60 crops on three acres, maintaining an active presence at multiple markets throughout Madison, a fast-growing CSA, and supplying fresh produce and herbs to Tamaleria el Poblano, the business Reina runs with her husband Waldo and daughter Arely.
Reina joined Juan in tending the plots at Farley a few years after Juan, a founding member of the Spring Rose Growers’ Cooperative, established a presence there in 2008 with the help of Janet Parker, Farm Incubator Director/Project Facilitator. At the same time, Reina was beginning to make traditional tamales and salsas, working up the underpinnings of what would become Tamaleria el Poblano. The businesses gained ground together—a demanding proposition for Juan and Reina, but one which resulted in a level of integration between farming and prepared food that vies as one of the most substantial in the city.
Tamaleria el Poblano was introduced to Willy Street Co-op early this year by East Produce Assistant Manager Jackie Sobolewski. We met with Reina and her husband Waldo and were hooked on the flavor of the cheese, pork, and chicken tamales they were making and had been selling in other markets, including farmer’s markets, in Madison. The Delis began carrying tamales to buy by the piece in May, and they rapidly became a popular staple of our menu. Recently, we also added the fresh pico de gallo, guacamole, salsa roja and salsa verde to our menu, just in time to take advantage of the best of late season tomatoes, peppers and herbs.
Walking us through the fields at the Farley Center a couple of weeks ago, Juan and Reina discussed their transition to organic agricultural methods over the past 4 years (certification of their produce will be complete very soon). The stringent standard of MOSA (Midwest Organic Services Association) meant a longer fallow period than some other certification processes and a lot of learning, but Juan still characterized the organic growing process as both less expensive and more accessible than conventional methods. “I’ve bought maybe two gallons of organic pest control in the last two years,” he said, gesturing out to a field that might look unkempt to an eye used to endless row crops—but which yields up a wide variety of vegetable crops to a CSA membership that has grown from 10 to 110 members in the last three years. Both said that the process or organic growing requires a big up-front labor investment, but is not more difficult to maintain over time than other farming methods. They speak from experience: five other siblings are also farmers, but on a very large scale and not using organic methods.
The working life of a farmer and chef is enough to put the teeth into a phrase like “labor investment.” Reina farms and cooks four 12-hour days each week and supplements that with farmers’ markets every other day of the week. Balancing this investment in her businesses with family—or, perhaps, not finding use in distinguishing the two—she loves Monday work because she can bring her children out to the fields with her to work. Talking to her about her work and family calls up the sense of the truly traditional way of working as a way of life—no meaningful separation between farm, family and food is evident. She and Juan smile often talking about the work on the farm and if something is acknowledged as hard to do, it is not with complaint. Each seems willing to take on whatever work is needed to do something right, as Juan did when he taught himself beekeeping to fill a vacancy at the Farley Center.
It can be hard to imagine the real life of food when you’re in a grocery store—fluorescent lights, signs, recorded music fill your eyes and ears. Rows of bags and cans in order do not resemble rows in a field. This story is of one family who pulls these worlds closer together than most of us do, are able to, starting in the field and ending with tamales and salsas made to traditional recipes and methods and tasting, as you would expect, alive. Culinary herbs like papalo and pepicha, not widely known here in the North Country, are grown with care and found in their cooking (and maybe in some of your favorite restaurants in town). When you eat food from Tamaleria el Poblano, you’re supporting a business that is rare in its commitment to self-sufficiency, biodiversity, tradition and sustainability. And this is one of the most enjoyable political gestures you will ever make.
In addition to selling tamales and salsas to Willy Street Coop, Reina markets fresh produce on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:00am-6:00pm outside Hawthorne Library (2707 E. Washington Ave), Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7:00am-1:00pm at Hilldale Farmer’s Market and Sundays 8:00am-1:00pm at the Northside Farmers’ Market. Information on their CSA can be found at: https://springrosegrowerscooperative.com/los-abuelos-farley-farm/.