DeWilde & Linda Halley
Summary of Operation
• About 90 varieties of
fruits, vegetables, herbs and root crops on 70
•Direct marketing, community
supported agriculture (CSA) operation
•12 to 15 Angus steers
Pasture, hay and compost on 220 acres
Running a successful
organic farm. Richard DeWilde
questioned whether to become a farmer at all,
but once he decided that’s what he wanted
to do, he never really questioned how he’d
go about it. For him, it was organic production
Once he made that decision, DeWilde determined
to grow crops organically for direct sale to individuals,
although he wasn’t sure whether running
a small farming enterprise would pay the bills.
He spent a number of lean years and long, hard
days finding the answer.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 14to 16
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
lies just outside Viroqua, in Wisconsin’s southwest corner,
near LaCrosse and only about 20 miles east of the Mississippi
River. It’s an area with a long tradition of small dairy
farming, and indeed all of Harmony Valley Farm’s 290 acres
were once part of dairy operations.
Farm or Not to Farm: Richard DeWilde questioned
whether to become a farmer. Now he and Linda Halley
earn most of their income at the Dane County Farmers
Market, one of the nation’s biggest.
DeWilde established the farm in 1984, moving to Wisconsin after
farming in Minnesota for 11 years. After, as he says, “St.
Paul reached the place and paved it over,” DeWilde leased
the New Farm® in Harmony Valley.
DeWilde had an initial 10-acre plot on which to plant his first
crops, and has since been able to certify the rest of the 70
or so acres he uses for produce. He and Linda Halley married
and started farming together in 1990, then began a community
supported agriculture (CSA) project that became a mainstay of
their operation a few seasons later.
Long before it became popular, DeWilde dedicated himself to
growing quality specialty greens, vegetables and berries organically.
That was 30 years ago, and he’s still on the cutting edge
with his careful production methods as well as his diverse marketing
Focal Point of Operation —
Vegetable production and marketing
Thanks to farming techniques that include diverse rotations,
cover crops and generous amounts of compost and rock powders,
DeWilde’s silt loam fields are high in organic matter,
humus and biological life. Although they raise dozens of crops,
DeWilde and Halley claim they are best known for a season-long,
high quality salad mix, saute greens and spinach. In the fall
and winter, they offer specialty root crops, from potatoes
to unusual varieties of turnips.
They sell produce to a 400-member CSA, at a weekly stall
at the Dane County Farmers Market, and to retail grocers and
wholesale distributors. They also raise Black Angus steers
on pastures in a rotational grazing system, then finish them
with organic grain.
DeWilde and Halley make most of their income from the farmers
market in the state capital of Madison, about 100 miles away.
They are long established at the market, which operates from
the last week of April to the first week of November, and
are sought out for both the variety and quality of their organic
It takes a full page in the farm’s newsletter to list
their seasonal offerings, which include such produce as asparagus,
butter beans, lettuces, radishes, strawberries, peas, three
kinds of beets, many types of herbs, melons, sweet and hot
peppers, sweet potatoes, many varieties of tomatoes and corn.
The farm is geared to the rhythm of the Saturday market, with
most harvesting done in the latter part of the week so DeWilde
can load the trucks for the weekly trip to Madison.
Not as important financially, but helping create the bond
Harmony Valley seeks with its neighbors, is the CSA project.
More than 500 families in the Madison area participate, and
its board of directors — made up of some of the participants
as well as community activists — helps them set policy,
select crops and manage the deliveries. This regular contact
keeps them in tune with what the locals want and provides
other marketing opportunities, such as selling beef.
One new marketing channel came when they decided to expand
into sales, mainly of root crops, to wholesale distributors.
DeWilde says this end of the business is more volatile, with
prices subject to dramatic fluctuations depending on competition,
but says it’s worth the effort to be able to extend
the possibility of sales farther into the slow winter season.
They market the beef from the dozen or more steers they raise
each year directly to restaurants and by word-of-mouth at
their many markets. Their beef cattle are Black Angus, and
are strictly organic, fed only grasses and grains from the
farm. They compost the manure from their own beef cattle as
well as the dairy cattle on a neighboring farm.
Economics and Profitability
“Things work around here,” DeWilde says. “That’s
one of the best ways I can illustrate how well we’re
doing.” He’s referring to his farm equipment,
his vehicles, and his harvesting and delivery timetables.
“We’ve made enough money to invest in good equipment
and can afford to pay for fixing it when it breaks down, so
we don’t lose a lot of time or money because simple
things don’t function well.”
Another way DeWilde defines success is to compare his income
to those of other professionals — because he insists
that’s what he and Linda are. DeWilde says he has always
hoped for an income earned doing something he loves that would
rival what he might earn from doing something else, and he’s
now reached it.
On sales of more than $400,000 each year in recent years,
he has achieved a profit margin of slightly more than 10 percent.
“Maybe I’d make more as a lawyer,” he said,
“but I eat better than most lawyers, and I get to work
As an additional note on the farm’s fiscal health, DeWilde
says he and Linda have been able to invest a considerable
amount toward their retirement, and that they can afford more
than adequate family health insurance. “It’s a
long way from wondering if you can afford a new pair of shoes,”
he says. “I’ve been at that point before in my
life, but things are good now.”
To control insect pests, DeWilde provides perennial habitat
in the form of refuge strips in the fields and structures
such as birdhouses, bat boxes, raptor perches and wasp houses.
Harmony Valley has become a magnet for wildlife and beneficial
insects. He calls raptors, song birds, bats, wasps and beneficial
insects his “allies” in the annual fight against
DeWilde has developed an effective plan to fight weeds that
doesn’t mean a lot of high-priced machinery. He integrates
shallow tillage; cover crops such as rye, hairy vetch and
red clover; stale-seedbed planting; and crop rotation with
precision cultivation —including using a flamer. After
one or more trips with a chisel plow to cultivate weeds, he
broadcasts a flame across the entire soil surface just before
the crops emerge. His underlying principle: Never let weeds
go to seed.
DeWilde continues to seek new ways to control pests and disease.
Some recent research looked at how compost-amended soil might
“But probably the thing I’m most proud of is a
better than 1 percent increase in the organic matter in the
soil of the fields I’ve used the most over the years,”
he says. “That’s no small feat.”
It’s a result of religious applications of composted
manure from nearby dairy farms and assiduous use of cover
crops, and it has resulted in soil that’s obviously
more fertile, more workable, holds water better and has a
higher resistance to weed pressure, he says.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
At the height of the season, Harmony Valley employs 15 people.
“That makes us the biggest employer in our township,”
As he sees it, he’s collecting money from consumers
in bigger cities like Madison and Chicago, and helping redistribute
it in his own community, making it healthier and more economically
And while most of his employees are seasonal, at least five
will remain on the farm throughout the winter this year, helping
to clean, sort and store root crops, cleaning and re-arranging
the greenhouses, and helping produce the homemade potting
soil DeWilde prefers for his seedlings.
Says DeWilde: “I like to think we’ve had a substantial
and positive effect on the life of this community. We hire
local folks, we don’t pump chemicals into the soil,
the water or the air, and we attract people who just want
to look at the place.”
As for his quality of life, and that of his wife and two sons,
DeWilde says they benefit from the good relations they’ve
established with their employees — though management
can sometimes be a trial. Even more gratification comes through
direct and regular contact with their CSA and farmers market
“I’ve gotten cards from some of our customers
telling us we’ve literally changed their lives because
our produce is so good and healthful,” DeWilde says.
“It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Anyone intending to produce a high volume of vegetables and
fruits organically needs to focus initially and consistently
on improving his or her soil, DeWilde says. “You’ll
have an easier time controlling weeds, pests, and disease
if you have healthy soil, so that should be focus of your
efforts from the start,” he says.
On the business side of the equation he says, “you need
to be a marketer.” He admits it’s exhausting enough
just running the farming side of his operation, but says it’s
vitally important to always be thinking of better ways to
stay in touch with customers, learn what they want, and supply
them with it.
Harmony Valley Farm is a “pretty mature” operation
by now, DeWilde says. He does not foresee expanding onto more
acreage or dramatically altering the combination of CSA, farmers
market and wholesale distributor sales that have made the
farm a success.
He and Linda expect to retire in their mid-60s, in about 15
years. By that time, both of their sons will be old enough
to take over the farm if they choose, though both seem to
exhibit little enthusiasm for it currently.
“They like the money I pay them for their work now,”
DeWilde says, “but they keep telling me they can’t
wait to go to college and get a ‘real job.’ We’ll
see about that.”
After retirement, DeWilde says he hopes to follow the lead
of one of his grandfathers, a pioneering South Dakota farmer
who read Rodale publications and practiced organic techniques
before anyone else in his area.
“He set aside 20 acres for himself when he retired and
had the best gardens and orchards I’ve ever seen. He
supplied the whole extended family with food for most of the
year, and I’d like to do the same.”
--Photograph by Tom Gettings/Rodale Inst.