Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
When Carlos Fontana saw a jet flying over his family’s home in Brazil he realized that the skies really are the limit. That experience set him on an upward trajectory that landed him in Battle Creek where he found success, first as an executive with the Kellogg Company and now as a farmer who supplies local restaurants and businesses with the fruits and vegetables of his labor.
His journey began as the youngest of 11 children born in a house with a dirt floor and no electricity or running water. He and his siblings got up at 5 a.m. to do chores and feed the animals on his family’s modest farm before beginning the one-hour walk to school each morning. Curiosity and a love of learning that he continues to embrace were instilled in him there.
He credits his father, who had the equivalent of a fourth-grade education, with nurturing his inquisitive nature and desire to master subjects taught at school, especially mathematics. Often this support occurred in seemingly simple moments that on one particular day became momentous.
“I was about 10-years-old. It was a sunny day like today and I looked up in the sky and there was a shiny thing up there and I asked my dad what that was and he said it was a jet, a new kind of plane that is carrying people from one country to another,” Fontana says. “I pictured in my brain that I would someday get inside one of those things and that was it. I saw myself visually up there inside that jet.”
His vision became a reality in 1979 when he took the first of five different flights to get to Michigan State University where he had been given a scholarship to earn his Masters and Doctoral degrees in Agriculture Engineering Technology. At that time, he spoke almost no English and was told by a professor that there was no way he’d finish both degrees in the four years he had allotted himself.
Carlos Fontana picks tomatillos which are grown in his farm garden.
He saw that professor’s comment as a challenge and earned both degrees in just under his self-imposed four-year deadline. He returned to Brazil and was hired as a professor at the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria (Federal University of Santa Maria) where he had earned his undergraduate degree. He also was hired by that university and worked there prior to leaving for his studies at MSU.
By the time he was 28-years-old, Fontana says he had risen to the highest level possible at FUSM at the time and was becoming restless.
“When you get to the top at 28, you’ve got to find something else,” he says as he's sitting on a folding chair underneath a tree at his East Leroy home. “In 1986, I emigrated to America and started working for Kellogg as a Food Engineer.”
Food engineers are responsible for ensuring the safe and efficient processing, packaging, and delivery of food to every store shelf in the world.
In 2007 when he left Kellogg, he was Director of Cost Innovation and charged with finding ways to drive costs out of the system. During his time with Kellogg, he traveled extensively, by air.
“That was the biggest blessing when I worked there. I had the opportunity to work in 17 countries on six continents. It was wonderful to have that ability to travel,” Fontana says.
Even so, when he started with Kellogg, he had a very clear plan to achieve financial freedom by the time he was 50. He left the company when he was 51. “The idea of a job, especially a corporate job, didn't appeal to me anymore. I wanted to be free to do what I wanted on my own time,” he says.
Carlos Fontana sits near a raised bed containing romaine lettuce seedlings. He says these plantings will produce thousands of heads of lettuce.
Now 65, he says he was able to do this by saving 25 percent of his salary from the company and investing it.
“There came a time when I was earning more money on what I had invested than what I was making at Kellogg. They keep throwing money at you and praising you, but then it gets to the point that it’s never enough and not what I wanted anymore,” Fontana says.
Writer, Speaker, Farmer
Life after Kellogg has included writing several books, one of which has been published. It's titled “Priceless, Sixty-Six Simple Stories of Reflection, Love and Legacy” and one that is soon to be published titled “The Law of the Farm, The Seven Principles for Success in Business and Life.”
Those principles: purpose, planning, protection, preparation, planting, prevention, and performance are what he follows in what he calls his fifth and latest career as a farmer.
Drawing on his experience as an engineer, Fontana says, “If you follow those, a sequence of proven principles, you get a predictable performance. There are many things that you don’t have to leave to chance.”
A voracious reader with a library of more than 2,500 books, he learned to farm by reading and doing.
Okra, which is among the vegetables grown at Carlos Fontana's farm garden, produces a yellow flower on the stalk.
His exit from Kellogg gave him the time to become involved with organizations like the Cereal City Sunrise Rotary Club and opportunities to develop relationships with people who had a passion for the written and spoken word.
“I went after a true self-education and self-discovery,” Fontana says.
That resulted in a number of different pursuits, the most visible being his farm which draws unannounced visitors who are curious about his growing enterprise and the more than 30 crops of vegetables he grows on one of five acres surrounding his home.
“I take what I need and give away a lot of stuff,” Fontana says. “I get a lot of visitors. I love people and I love to show them the different things that I’m growing out here.”
Carlos Fontana studies a red onion that he picked from his farm garden which will go inside a bag he is holding containing freshly-picked tomatillos.
He mixes this passion to engage and give back with a practical business sense which gives him the ability to earn money so that he can share freely with those who may not be able to afford to pay. About half of what he grows such as tomatoes and arugula, basil, and Lacinato (Italian kale) are purchased by local restaurants including the Griffin Pub, Station 66, and WACO Kitchen. Businesses such as Horrock’s and Sprout buy his produce, too. He also grows vegetables requested by customers.
As he walks among vines bursting with tomatoes and tomatillos and rows of beds filled with arugula, Lacinato, okra, and leeks, he talks about the choice he has made to grow vegetables in harmony with nature.
“Harmony with nature means adding to nature instead of subtracting from it and exploiting it,” Fontana says.
This includes nurturing small microsystems that exist underneath the plants that attract frogs, bees, and birds. Each of these species plays a critical role in his vegetable garden providing balance in an ecosystem that is both fragile and strong.
One frog, he says, “can eat 200 bugs in one day,” which eliminates the need for pesticides.
His hands are his machinery and everything he uses comes from the land. The split logs used to make the raised beds come from trees growing on his property as does the dirt, peat, and topsoil where the plants take root after he digs holes in the grass for them.
He is an eager teacher who welcomes the opportunity to teach others about the farming techniques he has adopted. Often these lessons come through casual conversations against the backdrop of the raised beds and vines.
During the first three Saturdays in August, his lessons will take a more formal approach. Using his skills as a leadership development speaker, he will give tours of his farm and show people how to produce their own food in their backyards as a way to achieve self-reliance and sustainability. A fee of $100 covers each of the three-hour sessions that will begin at 8 a.m. Fontana says people may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (269) 924-8688 to register.
Fontana says these sessions are aimed at youth ages 8-14 who will need to be accompanied by a parent or an adult who is caring for them, but anyone who is interested is encouraged to attend.
“I want to teach these kids about nature and how to produce their own food and get them to eat vegetables. I want to plant that seed for them,” Fontana says. “Once a parent and kid do something like this together, they develop a bond and a relationship.”
He speaks from experience having done this with his daughters, Marina Fontana-Hentz, 34, who lives and works in Kalamazoo, and Andrea, 31, who lives and works in East Lansing. They are the two biggest reasons for his decision to remain in the Battle Creek area.
His most recent endeavor includes growing enough rosemary plants to adorn dinner plates at his youngest daughter’s upcoming wedding. He says he has one year to do that as he bends over to inspect the progress and pick a few sprigs to smell.
“Farming is mental hygiene. It propels everything else that I do. It’s a high-pleasure activity that fills your mind with good things and nature becomes a part of you,” Fontana says. “For me, every day is about observing and paying attention. If you put love, care, and attention to detail into everything you do, you can do amazing things.”
All photos by Jane Simons.