July 2004

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Producer Profile:
Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony In The Valley
and Down On The Farm

Lynn Olson
Member Services Manager

Deep in the heart of Wisconsin’s most challenging land, Linda Halley and Richard de Wilde, owners of Harmony Valley Farms, have spent the last 30 years tweaking each valley and creek-side acre of their 200-plus acre organic farmland. Wisconsin’s Vernon County, with its meandering hills and valleys, presents a special set of natural barriers to farming. Good land management becomes the difference between farming for a while and farming indefinitely.

Linda and Richard’s vegetables are grown on the land along Spring Creek and the Bad Axe River where the landscape rises around them like a bowl. That specific area has been a focus for agricultural activists since the early 1900s when Aldo Leopold observed and reported the debilitating effects of erosion after farm owners began clear-cutting their properties to create more cropland. By the 1930s the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) had been assigned to develop individual plans for over half of the area’s 800 farms to address critical erosion in the area.

NRCS Plans
Original plans developed by the NRCS recommended a method of land use based on the particular topography of each farm and soil. Steep slopes with more than a 40% incline were to be to be left as woodlands. Fields with inclines of up to 20-30% were pasture, and only slopes under 20% were considered suitable for growing crops. Another part of the NRCS plan called for crop terracing—alternating sections of long contoured lines, barley then corn, or other crops. The practice of terracing is still visible among the area’s farms and all of those early efforts effectively succeeded in preserving the agricultural industry and beauty of the area.

Any number of tree and native vegetation species grow on top of the steep inclines surrounding Harmony Valley Farm. Beyond the trees, there are 500-700 downward feet of prime grazing land before everything flattens out. The farm Richard and Linda are on never received an NRCS plan but they practice a similar philosophy of using uplands for grazing horses, goats and a small herd of Black Angus cattle.

It Takes Two, Baby (or Three, or Four)
Part of what makes Richard a successful farmer is his commitment to continued learning. Linda says the fact that he’s self-taught contributes greatly to their success. “He’s the kind of person who, like a scientist, looks at his fields and says, ‘How can I do this better,’ every single day that he’s here,” she says.

Richard and Linda met at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and their quality vegetables and berries have now been a staple there for over 25 years. Both share the experience of being raised on farms and earning degrees in education. In addition, Richard’s engineering degree has brought another priceless asset to their work together. Willy Street Co-op shoppers have had seasonal access to their arugula, lettuce, carrots and root vegetables on an ever-increasing level since the early 1990s. Most famous are their fresh and delicate salad and sauté greens, which are also available at select local restaurants during growing season.

Learning through Experimentation
With their two sons Adrian and Ari, Richard and Linda frequently open their farm and home to visiting scholars, researchers, students and farmers to learn and share new or tried-and-true organic growing methods. Evidence of their experimentation and research is everywhere on the farm. Bats and swooping barn swallows are encouraged to make their home on the farm in order to eat up the mosquito population. A recently acquired flock of young chickens will eventually control flies around the farm by eating the larvae that grow in aging cow manure. Even at a glance, one can sense that the couple has had time to carefully consider every facet of the land. “We get into a pattern 'of this works great, let’s just do this forever,'” Linda says, laughing, “and just when we’re really happy with something he’ll [Richard] go, ‘you know, we ought to try this instead.’ He keeps all of us on our toes.”

Economic Impacts
Harmony Valley Farms has continued to prosper over the years, but the financial strain of farming in the area has sometimes forced other farmers to make dire decisions. Linda says, “There are still some unconservationally-minded practices going on. Loggers fly over all winter in their helicopters and approach farmers who need to pay their taxes and say, ‘We’ll give you $10,000, we’ll give you $20,000’ and it’s like a gold mine, a gift from God, then they just let the loggers do their thing.” And the realistic result is more and more topsoil in the area’s streams affecting its habitat, especially the trout population.

The cost of running a farm that supplies retail and restaurant clients as well as 400 CSA (community supported agriculture) shares would likely startle someone starting out in the field, but Linda and Richard have collected a lot of equipment over the years to aid them and their staff. Linda summarized their shift to more mechanical labor, “Everything, if you mound it together, is a big cost—the Bt [organic approved pesticide], the remay [cloth crop cover], the cultivators, the tractors, the plastic, the bins. There’s almost a remarkable, exhaustive expense to running a farm, any farm. And the more efficient you try to run it, you have to remember to make it more human-friendly. In other words, I think hoes are not human-friendly, or rototillers. Pretty soon you’re worn out, your back is worn out. So, if you can have a machine to help you, it’s a big expense but use whatever you can to save your body. It’s important to be good to yourself or you won’t be farming in 20 years.”

Working the Land
In addition to their own 12-18 hour days, Linda and Richard employ a crew of 20 people to handle the growing season’s work. Planting, weeding, harvesting, washing, packing and shipping—all of these are handled by the staff right there on the farm. Harmony Valley Farms provides healthy opportunities to people in their community and have been growing steadily year-by-year. As Linda says, “Not everybody wants to be bigger, but we’re providing good housing and a good job to people. It’s not bad to be big if you use your bigness for positive things.”

You Can Buy the Regulations You Want
Since October of 2002 when the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Organic Program (NOP) began controlling the legal definition of organic, some rather shocking and disturbing events have occurred, shaking up a nation of dedicated organic farmers. The advisory board of organic farmers, advocates and experts who make up the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) have worked with the NOP since its inception to provide information and advise the NOP on establishing the final organic criteria. As someone who has been farming organically for over a quarter of a century, Linda shared her impressions of the last two years, “It’s like an ever-changing pattern and what has happened since the USDA has taken control is that it has become a completely political process. You can buy the regulations you want if you can get your congress[person] to push it through by the dark of night…that’s already been done. The first year it happened—less than twelve months after the USDA passed this thing—they passed a law that says chicken producers, if the chicken feed just costs a little too much, they didn’t need organic feed. That is so far away from whatever organic ever was, and people noticed. They raised a ruckus and they campaigned against it and they overturned it. But in ten years, who’s going to raise the ruckus? Will ‘organic’ be co-opted by commercial, large-scale, corporate operations that understand how to tweak the laws? But if they (NOP) understand the whole picture, of how this is important for our whole world, the economy, environment, health of people, health of animals, everything, then we might actually be able to maintain some integrity, but I think the integrity is being eroded.

For More Information

Contact Harmony Valley Farm directly by calling (608) 483-2143. You can also log on to their website for pictures, recipes and information: