CSA NOTEBOOK: Harmony Valley Farm, Wisconsin

Finding the support in Community Supported Agriculture
After 30 years of full-time farming, Richard DeWilde experienced a farmer's worst nightmare--he was laid up with severe back pain and unable to work. How the heck would the farm survive?

By Linda Halley



Harmony Valley Farm
Viroqua, Wisconsin

Location: About 90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles south of La Crosse

Years farming: Since 1973

Total acres: 75 (approx. one acre per crop)

Crops: Over 60 berries and vegetables, from wild leeks and celery root to raspberries and pumpkins.

Season: Start harvesting in April, finish in early November. CSA deliveries start the first Saturday in May, and extend into December.

Regenerative practices:
Extensive cover cropping
Annual applications of compost, permanent hedgerows as habitats for insect predators
No-till vegetable production to reduce erosion and improve soil structure
Detailed record-keeping

Marketing: CSAs, farmers markets, wholesale distribution, restaurants, farm stand, local retail stories

August 17, 2004: Early in May the unimaginable happened: My husband, Richard, became unable to farm! We have been farming together for the past 12 years, and Richard farmed eighteen years on his own before that. Farming is what he knows and there has rarely been a day in those thirty years that he hasn’t done some kind of farming. Now, unexpectedly, and without warning, my partner was suffering from a pain so debilitating that he could hardly walk or sit in comfort, not to mention do any kind of physical work.

As you can imagine, we shifted into crisis mode. I took over some duties from Richard, employees did, too. We got the essentials done and, fortunately, Richard was still able to help us plan, organize and make decisions most of the time. Some things had to take the back burner, and writing a column for New Farm was one of those projects.

Richard is mostly recovered now, 3 months later. He still can’t do all the physical things that caused the injury in the first place, like driving the cultivating tractor and running the beet harvester, but he is pretty pain free as long as he watches how he uses his body and keeps up with his physical therapy.

It has been a long road to recovery. We have learned a lot about ourselves, our limitations, and our business. Along the way we learned something very important about our CSA, our customers, in general, and why we put so much of our heart and soul into growing food.

The following is a letter to our CSA members that appeared in a May CSA newsletter, when we finally decided that we should let them know how things were going on the farm.

Most of you don’t know that one of your farmers has been pretty much laid up for the past month. What Richard thought was the usual “spring kink” in his neck, brought on by hours of tractor operation while transplanting, turned out to be more serious. When it became apparent that his normal course of treatment, acupuncture and chiropractic sessions, had no effect and the pain became overwhelming, we began to get a bit concerned. Richard called his trusted family doc who gave him some pain medication and referred him for an MRI and a visit with the physical therapist. We thought help would be on the way and we’d find out what was going on with Richard’s back, neck and arm. We discovered that neither the physical therapist nor the family doctor could really give a diagnosis nor prognosis. Richard would have to wait until mid-July to see a specialist. Meanwhile, he faced debilitating pain or the dopey, spacey, exhaustion brought on by the medication and the mild, but short-lived relief after physical therapy. The realization that we were going to endure this for weeks, and then, perhaps be told surgery was the only remedy, and face weeks of rehabilitation after that, brought on a sense of desperation.

I think it was that desperation that showed on our faces on the Friday afternoon that CSA members Barb and John Dobbertin came to pick up their vegetable box. Barb advised us to try to get in to Mayo Clinic in any way we could. It is only about 2 hours away, and she knew people who had luck talking their way on to a waiting list at least. She and John offered to drive Richard over any day Richard was able to get in.

The next day Richard endured a horrendous drive in to Madison in the Market truck. With no one trained to drive his large straight truck, and with me driving our other delivery truck, he felt like he had no choice, using his bad arm to shift the transmission on the 5 hour round trip journey. I could hardly stop thinking about Mayo Clinic all weekend.

On Monday morning, just by chance, we got a phone call from a fellow farmer. We had made an agreement with him to help him set up some farm record keeping methods on his computer. He was calling to discuss some of his questions. When he found out about Richard’s situation he made a bold suggestion, “Let me call one of my CSA members in Rochester. She’s a physician at Mayo Clinic. I think she can help.” She must be a very compassionate person and really like her CSA farmer because she agreed to see Richard. I was to call her the very next day.

Tuesday found me in disbelief talking to Dr. Margaret Houston on the phone. She’d see him right away, she had the afternoon off. How soon could he be there? I stammered out a suggestion -- “1:00?” We agreed, and when I hung up the phone I realized Richard had less than an hour to get on the road. I woke him up, called Barb and John, and arranged for his prescription to be refilled so he could ride somewhat pain-free to Rochester. The Dobbertins dropped everything to be Richard’s medical taxi. They were here before the prescription could arrive. With a bed in the back of their station wagon they whisked Richard down the road. I was shaking with relief.

Barb and John are quite familiar with the clinic and knew right where to go. Richard was ushered past the lobby, past the nurses’ desk and into Dr. Houston’s office. Dr. Houston took Richard’s history personally, gave him an exam, and put him on the top of the Spine Clinic waiting list. He should return the next day and hope for an opening.

Our angels of mercy, Dr. Houston, Barb, John, and Rhyse, our farmer friend, all came through for us when we were desperate. Richard did see a specialist the very next day. His diagnosis -- two bulging disks and a small leak in a third. The leaking fluid was pressing on the nerve and causing all his pain. He must rest, not lift, and to ease the pain without the debilitating medication, he would need a corticosteroid shot. Prognosis was positive, 80% of the cases resolve without surgery, though it would take at least 6 weeks. Now at least we knew!

Today Richard went back with Barb and John for the shot. It takes a while to be effective but we are hopeful. There has been some improvement already. As for the past few weeks, we have come to realize the true nature of support available to this CSA farmer. Our crew has been amazing. Not one, but two members of the staff, have taken their weekends off to learn to drive Richard’s truck and be his stand-in at the market. Derek, our cook extraordinaire, has arrived at 5:30 Saturday mornings to help unload and organize the truck along with our regular market help. CSA member, and friend, Jim Munsch dropped in one day to lend a hand and cultivated for 9 hours, rescuing our parsnips from an impending weed jungle! Brian and Scott both came in to work on Saturday. Jose and Mike drove the transplanter under difficult, muddy conditions -- a job Richard has never turned over to others before. My sister and her partner came on Memorial Day to help me catch up on some office tasks that had fallen to the side as I took up the slack for Richard. And then, Dr. Houston called just to find out how Richard was!

When you are sick and vulnerable that is when small acts of kindness mean so much. We have been the recipients of great kindness and generosity. We are starting to understand what Community Supported Agriculture really can mean.

--- Linda

Two weeks ago, I updated members on Richard’s progress in the CSA newsletter again. So many people asked about him, and expressed their concern; it was time for another report. I was very happy to be able to tell them that he is really doing well. The most important component in his recovery is the return of his enthusiasm for farming again, and his joy in being able to fall back into most of his routine. Though he might not pitch in when the bales need to be tossed, he’s back at his most important contributions, like having the big picture, setting priorities, making sure all 80 acres gets inspected regularly for weeds, pests, crop health and yield projections. We are no longer doing just the essentials, we are attending to all the details and that lends a sense of security that was lacking for a while.

I was also very proud to report that we were celebrating Harmony Valley Farm’s 20th year! We were proud and grateful to be farming, and farming well! Each year throws a farmer a new challenge. Usually it’s the weather, but it can be land tenure issues, losing important markets, problems with machinery, staff or, in our case this year, health. Through all the challenges we have been able to survive, and thrive! We have a wonderful business, fantastic employees who help make it happen, and the most unbelievable group of supportive CSA members and farming colleagues. What more could a farmer ask for?