Meet Larry Cleverley
By Summer Miller | May 20, 2015
New Prairie Kitchen (Agate Surrey, 2015), by Summer Miller, pays homage to the outstanding chefs, farmers and artisans of Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. Some of their favorite recipes, organized by season and focused on regionally sourced meat, poultry, game and produce, appear throughout, along with profiles of these exceptional people. The following profile is from “Fall.”
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Farmer • Cleverley Farms • Mingo, IA
East of Highway 330 North in Mingo stands a big, white barn with peeling paint and crucifix windows. The hills and valleys surrounding it are plentiful with black walnut trees, fields of arugula, wildfire lettuce, retato degli ortolani melons, and the sagging branches of Matt’s Wild Cherry tomato plants.
On this crisp, early fall morning, Larry Cleverley crouches to inspect frost-nipped pattypan squash. His flowing white hair shifts in the wind to reveal a bright-orange Slow Food button pinned to the breast of his faded jean jacket.
“No one knows what food is supposed to taste like,” Larry says. “If they did know, they wouldn’t eat the crap they eat.”
He stands up to continue the casual walk from one field to the next. The sun has risen over the tree-covered hills that provide the backdrop to his farm. With each step, he gestures toward a vegetable, explaining both the value of arugula seed that’s been cultivated for more than 200 years and the origins of a Mexican grape tomato.
His grandparents first purchased this land and its sandy soil, with more than 100 acres of timber, in 1928. During trying times, they would grab a cast-iron pan, a few potatoes, and some meat, and hike into the trees for their evening meal.
“It was how they got through the tough times they had,” Larry explains. “They did that almost through their entire marriage. In the 1990s, when my grandmother was too old to walk, my grandfather bought a wagon for his riding lawnmower and drove her into those hills. That time together was important for both of them.”
Although Larry grew up on this land, he left for a life in Chicago, and then the East Coast, where he stayed for nearly 20 years. Then, in 1996, he realized that “New York is not a town to grow old in.” Upon his return to central Iowa, he took the knowledge he had gained while helping a farmer at the 97th Street Greenmarket in Manhattan and applied it to building a reputation for growing quality food, which has made him a favorite among Iowa chefs. He favors Italian varieties because, he says, the flavors are pure and vivid, and, above all else, they taste good.
“If food doesn’t taste good, what’s the purpose of growing it? I’m not looking to complicate my life with customers who don’t have any respect for what I do,” he says, handing me a slice of ananas melon, a heartbreakingly sweet muskmelon that dates back to the 1800s. “I have total respect for [a chef ’s] craft and they have respect for mine.”
The morning lingers on. Each slice of melon or sip of coffee is accompanied by a story of Larry’s farm—a place where the fields are better kept than the house, and where this man’s passion for plants is as obvious as the bright-orange button on his jacket.
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Reprinted with permission from New Prairie Kitchen, by Summer Miller, Agate Surrey, 2015. Buy this book from our store: New Prairie Kitchen.
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