At A Glance
DeWilde & Linda Halley
Summary of Operation
• About 90 varieties of fruits,
vegetables, herbs and root crops on 70 acres
•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.
Valley 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.
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
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 strategies.
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 produce.
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
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
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
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 outside.”
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 pests.
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 suppress
“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,
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,” DeWilde says.
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 secure.
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
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 customers.
“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
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
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.”