Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Evolution of a Farmer

By Dennis de Wilde

Dennis was out checking the crops with
Farmer Richard on Monday. Looks like the
tomatillos will be ready soon!

So, I am on my semi-annual visit to my brother’s Harmony Valley Farm….always an enjoyable experience to be in “the valley” and observe the bustle of more than 40 people engaged in the work of raising and marketing over 100 different varieties of organic vegetables while hearing how this large “farm family” is dealing with the accompanying weather and every year’s new business challenges. (As a retired business consultant, I find the depth and breadth of these challenges and the solutions to deal with them to be fascinating and inspiring.)  And, I often wonder, “How did this brother (Farmer Richard as he is now known) evolve, from the teenage rebel I grew up with, into the successful businessman/Farmer he is today?!”

Now and Then: Richard with his
high school yearbook.
In some ways, it is not so hard for me to look at who he was and to see how he became who he is today.  As brothers who were born only 16 months apart and were more or less of the same physical size since age 8/9, we shared equal responsibility for yard chores and later farming duties on the 800 acre family beef and grain farm in northeastern South Dakota.  But, it was clear from the start that Richard was the leader (or the brains of this duo), while I was a skinny version of the brawn - in other words, he laid out our daily work program and I executed (Richard also did his share). But more importantly, he answered to (or argued with) Dad regarding the planning decisions he made and the results from our efforts – Dad had a part-time day job, once this two-son crew was able to take on the farming duties.  Richard was leader, yes; but no one would have thought he was destined to be a Farmer – he left the farming to me and a younger sister every summer after his sophomore year in high school.  He spent the first summer weed-walking bean and corn fields in Nebraska, he worked a salmon fishing boat in Alaska the next and it was the stone quarry after that.  Now, while some might observe that he was a young lad mostly interested in young ladies during those summers away from the farm, I remember him returning with observations connecting the how and why regarding the way they did things in these different environments – he was an explorer and a learner.  When he returned at the end of the summers, he saw no reason not to put his new learnings into practice – an independence that may not have always been appreciated by the farm owner, his father.  No problem for Richard; he just did it his way – at the farm and, now that he had used his summer earning to buy a ’55 Chevy,’ in his personal life!  A rebel was born in of all places, South Shore, South Dakota.
As he entered college, his explorations, learnings, and independence became a way of life.  It was the late sixties; long-hair and non-conventional ways were in.  The rebel bought a motor bike (650 BSA) and chopped it!  He spent a summer hitch-hiking to California. He met people who thought differently about the world – where it had been and where it was going.  Earth-day was born – the seed of a cause was planted and Richard was a welcoming vessel.

He graduates college, with a degree in Mining Engineer and takes a conventional position with the US Bureau of Mines – a “new age” rebel with a bureaucratic day job. The Earth-day cause has far more pull for this explorer and learner than coming into an office day after day.  The questions “What is the purpose of this work, how can I change things, why am I here?” must have been bouncing around his head every day and night.  Without a connection between his cause and the work he was doing, the passion was missing – the separation from the Bureau of Mines was inevitable.

Blue Gentian Farm, Eagan, MN,
where Richard started exploring organic farming
Richard starts hanging around a day-care center for autistic children.  He enrolls in a graduate program to study autism.  He rents an old farm house – he is effectively back on the farm!  He wonders if there is a connection between chemical proliferation in the farming industry and the increase in the rate of the development of autism.  He re-connects with his farm upbringing, but he connects that with his Earth-day passion – he explores organic farming before organic farming was a defined methodology in the US agricultural community. It is 1973 – he has a cause and the rebel is determined to make it a career.  He will do it his way.  He will prove that you can integrate the honoring of “Mother Earth” and business success.  He will commit to a holistic lifestyle as a businessman (oh, that word was not used until years later, but it is fair to say it was that even then).  He will commit to making the world a better place by changing how farmers feed us.

Richard in the early days at Harmony Valley Farm
Over the following 40 years he goes on to train and inspire many new young farmers.  Learning to manage a business, manage employees, inspire employees and educate consumers.  And now I watch as he works to transition Harmony Valley Farm to dedicated employees. 

Thus, in hindsight it is easy to see how a first-born son of a strong-willed father accepts the challenges and opportunities that grants; becomes a leader who pushes boundaries and meets the complex challenges of growing and marketing organic produce to be enjoyed by those who understand, you are what you eat!

1 comment:

John Farmer said...

Beautiful tribute to Richard--a fabulous human being.