A construction project brings together organic transplants and true Wisconsin originals
Vern and Ole have been running heavy equipment in Vernon County, WI for more years than Harmony Valley farmers Rich and Linda have memories—but shared work and food build mutual respect between these “locals” and their organic neighbors.

By Linda Halley
March 17, 2005

The winter here in the Midwest has been a blessing and a curse, as with most winters, I suspect. This past fall we began action on our long-anticipated building projects; a new cooler-wash space, a mechanic’s shop - machinery shed, and a new greenhouse. The abnormally warm weather has meant that progress continued most every week, right through the winter. However, the yard is littered with remnants of the construction, piles of dirt and disturbed soil, which is mostly in the form of mud! The machinery shed actually got built and even the inside is 95% finished. The hoops and purloins of the greenhouse are up, plastic, electricity, and end-walls await. But progress on the new cooler-wash area went only as far as moving what was previously there and leveling the building site. Instead of a new cooler-wash area, the view to the northeast is a vast, oddly flat and open space, covered with large puddles and something akin to the La Brea Tar Pits on warm afternoons, and a treacherous skating pond on cold mornings.

You have to understand, Harmony Valley is in a truly narrow valley. We seem to have grown to the point that no matter which direction you look you will see something fairly vertical not far away. From the middle of our yard, I see my house and its attached packing shed to the south. Then, on the east it’s the current too-small cooler. To the west lie the greenhouse, both old and new, the new machinery shed, and behind them the hills. Finally to the north, it’s the white farmhouse and green pole building we park the tractors in. Sometimes I walk to the northeast corner of the yard and luxuriate in the open, flat gap that will soon become the new, very badly needed, cooler and wash space.

In September, when Richard began planning our expansion, we wondered where all these buildings would go. After a couple of drawings and sitings with Richard’s transit we were reminded that there’s very little level land on this farm that we don’t plant to crops. No matter how we tried, something would have to be built across the road from our farm yard. This presented complications and forced us to make some hard choices.

If the new greenhouse was built across the road from the current greenhouse where the transplants would be germinated, how could we efficiently move the seedlings on a cold day? What about water and electricity which was now installed only on one side of the road? If we constructed the new cooler and packing area too far from the existing packing shed and cooler it would complicate bringing produce from the field to a central location. We’d need new ways to get product from the washing areas to the coolers if they were not nearly joined to the existing ones.

Ultimately, we settled on the greenhouse and machine shed residing on the other side of the road and the washing-cooler facility being built just north of our existing cooler, connected by cement so we can wheel pallets and carts of product from one area to another. Electricity and water would be pushed under the road to service the new shop and greenhouse. The new cooler, with its upgraded amp service was best kept close to the existing central electrical service pole and other buildings with complimentary electrical needs. Richard and I felt we had covered all our bases; taking into account electrical load, water supply, drainage, and equipment, truck and implement access. Richard even designed a tractor-mounted carrier to transport dozens of seedling flats efficiently from one greenhouse to the other. The final hurdle; how to make enough flat space in and around our yard to accommodate the buildings. We’d have to move considerable dirt from the upside to the down side to make flat building sites. That’s where Vern and Ole come in.

Vern and Ole are originals. They have lived in Vernon County for more years than we have memories. Both should be retired, but neither has heard the word. Vern has been bulldozing so long that he can remember when he worked on constructing the first airstrips for O’Hare International in the cornfields outside Chicago. Knowing their reputations, we called on Vern and Ole for some advice and for their professional skills operating heavy equipment.

One late September morning Vern and Ole both showed up at first light to begin the task of creating three needed building sites. We quickly got used to their habits; they take no lunch break and you know they are around because there is a constant hum of diesel motors and clinking of dozer track. In a few short days they transformed our hillside and pasture to the northeast of our yard into a flat, open space. The future machine shed and greenhouse across the road had an equally level home marked by stakes and pink ribbons.

When Richard watched Vern and Ole work their magic with big machines, he stood transfixed. At first he maybe didn’t understand quite how skilled they were. Vern took a look at the site, with the fence, some tall, scruffy box elders and cottonwoods and our summer farm cook’s humble trailer home. We all agreed, the fence would be removed, and then the trees would come down. But, Vern didn’t think our cook’s trailer would have to move at all. There stood Richard, eyes moving from the tops of the trees to the little white camper sitting just yards away, skepticism written all over his face. Before long Derek, our summer farm chef, was toting his stuff out of the trailer and Richard, on the Allis Chalmers, was pulling it to the other side of the yard. NO FAITH! By early afternoon the trees were gone, off in a pile, and the empty spot that had once been the camper’s location remained unscathed, not even a branch or twig rested nearby. Lesson one had been learned. For the next couple of days Vern and Ole teamed up; Vern on the seat of the dozer, shaving off the hill, and Ole scooping up the dirt with a giant end loader, moving it across the road. Then Vern began the tedious job of leveling the dirt Ole had hauled. That’s when Richard learned lesson two. Years of operating the dozer gave Vern an instinctive eye that really didn’t need the help of Richard’s expensive laser transit. The transit sat unused until Richard came along at the end of the work to confirm that Vern was dead-on.

One day, before Vern and Ole loaded their equipment back up we managed to coax them to the lunch table. Derek had made grilled cheese on his signature sourdough and vegetable stir-fry with carrots, broccoli, parsnips and burdock! Both men ate with gusto, but it wasn’t lost on them that at least one of the vegetables was unfamiliar. When Richard told them it was burdock, instead of guffaws, Vern told us a story.

He was hired by an old timer, a Polish immigrant, to “do a little work.” When Vern arrived, the 84 year old man had already begun the job. He had excavated 1 foot deep all around the foundation of his barn, moving it with a wheelbarrow and shovel; tons and tons of dirt! Vern was amazed. Vern later learned the man’s secret of vigor into old age. Balls of burdock burrs hung in the rafters of his barn. The man said it was the burdock tea he made with the burrs and drank daily that kept him strong, and not sick a day in this life! Wonder if Vern and Ole felt especially energetic after Derek’s lunch that day?

Although we’ll never be “locals,” -- Richard has only been here twenty years, and I, thirteen – being involved in farming has afforded us the opportunity to get to know many of the locals. Like Vern and Ole, they have much to teach us. We like to think that they learn a little bit from us hard working, burdock-eating organic farmers, too. There’s a satisfying sense of mutual respect born of every opportunity to work together. This latest building project was no exception.