Farmer Tony Madone, 53, can only imagine the smiles on peoples’ faces when they discover sweet corn, acorn squash, cabbage and other farm-fresh produce at food banks and soup kitchens in and around Salida, Colo. (pop. 5,728). Last summer, with the help of 40 volunteers, the Madone-founded Colorado Farm To Table project helped supply families in need with more than 108,000 pounds of produce.
Farming has been a lifelong passion for Madone, who, at age 5, happily picked cherries all day at his parents’ orchard in Canon City, Colo. (pop. 15,431). Even as a student at Holy Cross Abbey, a boys’ school, he yielded to the springtime temptation of uncultivated fields. Skipping school was a serious offense, but because his teachers knew he was out plowing, they looked the other way. After he graduated, Madone was hired to manage the abbey’s farm.
For 23 years Madone farmed until health problems forced him to find less strenuous work. “I thought my farming days were over,” he says. So in 1992, he and his wife, Kay, and their two daughters moved to Salida, where he opened an automotive machine shop.
Eventually he regained his health, and the fields beckoned again in 1996 after he built a tractor engine for a rancher. “I saw him on the tractor disking ground for hay, and I went and rode along on the fender,” Madone recalls. “I smelled the dirt and told him I wanted to grow produce.” The rancher loaned him two acres to farm.
Growing and enjoying fresh vegetables had him thinking about poor people who weren’t so blessed. He looked for opportunities to give it away, and found that area food banks and soup kitchens always were in need of fresh produce.
One beneficiary is the Arkansas Valley Christian Mission, which serves 150 “working poor” families in Buena Vista (pop. 2,195). Mission President Paul McCollister says people are grateful to find fresh produce, which few food banks can offer. “Tony represents three miracles: great produce, great yields and he grows it at 7,000 feet.”
Growing sweet corn in the mountains is especially tricky. Madone creates extra-wide rows to allow sunlight through to warm the soil, and plantings are staggered to ensure that produce is continuously available during the harvest in August and September.
“You watch that last product go out on the truck, and you know you’re supplying something that wouldn’t be available to people,” volunteer Paul Douglas says. “We’re reaching out to show people that Christ cares for them.”
He and other volunteers like Brice Lewis and his three daughters began helping Madone about four years ago. “Tony had been doing it all himself,” Lewis says.
In 2005, Madone expanded his farming to five acres, after a food bank offered a deal: they would apply for a grant to cover costs in exchange for a truckload of produce each week during the harvest.
Counting on grant money, the Madones invested their life savings and took out a $10,000 loan. Tony even closed his machine shop to work 15-hour days in the field. Unfortunately, the grants never came through and the Madones were left to fund the entire operation.
“Tony took a leap of faith with his own money,” Lewis says. “It was hard on all of us. But he never quit.”
“It broke my heart,” Madone says. “I didn’t know how I could plant in the spring.”
But an article in Salida’s Mountain Mail newspaper and subsequent letters to the editor from local church pastors turned things around. People sent money and volunteer ranks swelled from a handful of people to around 40. Today, Colorado Farm To Table has a board of directors and nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service.
The Madones live on income from Kay’s job with a local cable provider, and Tony dreams of planting another 10 acres.
“I have a God-given talent,” Tony says, “and I want to share my blessings with those less fortunate.”