Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food….Meet Farmer Richard de Wilde

By Gwen Anderson

I’ve worked with Richard for over a year, and seen him nearly every day.  I’ve always found it fascinating to talk with him; his enthusiasm and passion are contagious, he is a wealth of knowledge, and has a patience in teaching that I admire.  When Andrea asked me to write this article, I was more than happy to do so.  It was a chance to hear more interesting stories about the man straight from the source.  Many of our long time members may know Richard already, but there may be many of you who don’t know him so well.  After all, I see him all the time and I still found out a lot during our “interview” that I can share with you! 

Richard's Senior Photo
Richard grew up making hay and milking cows on a farm on the plains of South Dakota.  His father had a herd of 100 Black Angus beef, and for a few years they had some pigs and sheep as well.  Before his feet could reach the pedals on the one ton Chevy truck they used to haul oats, Richard was helping his father farm.  He would also help his grandparents’ garden, and loved to spend time in the kitchen with his mother making banana bread.

When he went off to college at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Richard thought “I want to work with my head, not my hands.”  He had an advisor who suggested he go into hard rock mining due to his love of nature.  The advisor told Richard he could have a “good, professional, high paying job and still be out in nature.”  After graduation, he got a job at Fort Snelling with the Corps of Mining Engineers, but not even a year had gone by before his thoughts began to wander. He would sit at his desk, his mind drawn to memories of beautiful fields of blue flax blossoms swaying in the wind.  It didn’t take long for the thought “I want to farm” to form in Richard’s mind, so he left the mining engineers, rented half an acre of land south of the Twin Cities and got back to doing what he loved.

Blue Gentian Farm, where Richard farmed with in the early years.
Once the farm was rented, Richard took the time to get to know his neighbors, one of which was a school for special needs children.  Richard has a soft spot for well-behaved children, so when he wasn’t farming, he would volunteer at the school. As he got to know the children better, he realized he had found a second calling.  Richard began studying and earned a master’s degree in Special Education with a focus on autism from Mankato State.  Upon graduation, he worked in special education in the St Paul public school system.  Later, he found meaningful work in being a foster parent for teenage boys who needed extra care and attention by running a specially licensed therapeutic foster home on the farm.

Being an organic farmer was never a question for Richard.  His Grandpa Nick was a dedicated organic farmer and had helped shape Richard’s opinions on the matter.  When agro chemicals came out after World War II, Grandpa Nick refused to use them, and suffered being called old fashioned and unwilling to change with the times because of it.  Richard always had a love for nature and all things wild, and Grandpa Nick’s success without using chemicals as well as Rachel Carlson’s book A Silent Spring cemented Richard’s desire to not use them himself.  “When I read about agro chemicals, I decided I didn’t want anything to do with them.”

Richard cultivating broccoli with his horses,
King and Prince.
Richard was one of the pioneers of organic farming.  He was a trail blazer for integrating cover crops, making compost, and attracting beneficial insects, birds and bats well before there were any large scale conversations happening about such things.  There was no such thing as organic certification when he started his farm, he just wanted to do what was right for the soil and nature.  So he experimented, learned what worked and what didn’t, and taught what he had learned to other farmers.  Richard sold his vegetables to the new co-ops in the Twin Cities where people went to buy healthy, organic vegetables.

In his early days, Richard had a chance to meet the Dakota County extension agent who told him “You can have an organic garden, but if you are talking about making a living farming, you can’t do it organically.”  The conversation spurred Richard to prove him wrong; he was going to do the right thing and he was going to make a living doing it.  (Fast-forward 20 years, that same County extension agent had changed his tune and met up with Richard again at a MOSES conference to say “You’ve been right all along: it turns out you can make a living farming organically!”)

By the mid-1980’s, suburbia was encroaching on Richard’s farm south of the Twin Cities to the point where it was time to move on.  When he left the fields he’d been farming for 12 years, he knew where he wanted to go: the Driftless Region.  Richard had been there several times before, and he loved the rolling hills and valleys, the waterways, and overall natural beauty the area had to offer.  The soil was rich and healthy, and the hills made a beautiful backdrop for the fields he worked.  After all, seeing a well-cared for field thriving in a natural surround is one of Richard’s favorite things about being a farmer.

Adrian (left) and Ari (right), The Melon Boys
Richard spent the first few years at Harmony Valley Farm building up soil health, structures, and business relationships.  He was still selling his produce in the Twin Cities and found a new market in Madison at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.  In 1989, Richard’s son, Ari, was born and soon became part of the daily farming operation.  Ari and his step-brother, Adrian, grew melons and sold them at the Farmers’ Market, becoming known as the “Melon Boys.”  As business grew, Richard began expanding the farm by leasing more nearby land and converting it to organic status.

When Richard and then partner Linda Halley added Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to their farming model in 1993, they did so out of a desire to have a direct connection with more people than they could reach at the Farmers’ Market.  CSA birthed on farm events like Strawberry Day, which allowed Richard to meet the families he was growing food for face to face.  Being able to watch the children from those first CSA families grow into smart, healthy adults makes farming worthwhile for him.  Many of those children are now graduating from college, starting their own families and joining CSA’s of their own!

Nowadays, Richard sees himself as a support for the great crew he has to help with the farm.  He gives information and direction when needed to a crew who want to do the best job they can.  Harmony Valley Farm is a mature farm, with all the systems and infrastructure in place, no longer looking to expand.  With growth a thing of the past, Richard is now focused on making the farm better.  “I believe if you aren’t making improvements, you are going downhill,” Richard said.  “We aren’t looking for more, but better; always better.”  He is also selecting and training the next generation of Harmony Valley Farm farmers

Richard helping the crew harvest winter squash
“There is a great deal of joy in seeing things work, when things go smoothly,” Richard said about his farm and crew.  He gets great satisfaction out of a job well done.  “How many people, for their life’s work, get to have a job where you are outside in nature, watching things grow, you grow a lot of healthy food for a huge amount of appreciative people, and everything works?  Yes—I’ve worked too hard for most of my life, but I feel fortunate to be where we are today.”

So who is Richard de Wilde?  He is a man of perseverance and innovation.  He is a visionary who is not afraid to take on challenges to bring his dreams to fruition.  In his own words, he is a hippie rebel with an “I’ll show you” attitude.  In my opinion, he’s a darn good boss and a great storyteller.  I encourage you not to take my word for it though; come to the farm and talk to him yourself.  You’ll be richer for the experience.

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