Richard de Wilde, owner, Harmony Valley Farm — Viroqua, Wis.
Organic farming has grown from an offbeat environmental statement to a $3.1 billion industry with ever-increasing consumer demand.
Richard de Wilde didn’t like the answer he got when asking an extension agent for advice on starting an organic farm.
The agent told him there’s no way he could make a living farming organically. “He was totally negative,” recalls de Wilde, who now presides over Harmony Valley Farm, a $2.7 million organic farming business in far western Wisconsin.
That same man — now a consultant in the organic industry — came up to de Wilde 2 years ago at an event and admitted he was wrong. “He made it a point to say that things have really changed,” says de Wilde, 60. “I spent half of my career proving not that he was wrong, but that it could be done.”
Organic farming is growing across North America, so is consumer demand for vegetables, meat, eggs, poultry and drinks that organic farmers are raising without the pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers and hormones used on many farms.
Many small organic farms are bare-bones operations with vintage tractors and used equipment. But increasingly, the farms are becoming more sophisticated and run like a business.
Average annual sales are higher on organic farms than production farms, but expenses also tend to be higher. Regardless, 78% of organic farmers still plan to maintain or increase their production in the next 5 years, the USDA says.
Equipment dealers who educate themselves about organic farming might discover a growing niche market for compact tractors, hay-and-forage equipment, tillage tools and skid-steer loaders that can accomplish a specific purpose.
Skeptical? De Wilde — whose farm earns $16,000 per acre in gross sales — just purchased a brand new 4WD, 95-horsepower John Deere high-clearance tractor from his longtime equipment dealership.
“We made money last year, and it’s either give it to the government or buy a new tractor,” de Wilde says.
An Important Segment
Some equipment dealers say they’re familiar with the equipment needs and buying habits of organic farmers, but they report varying levels of success.
St. Joseph Equipment, which has 7 locations in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota, is surrounded by one of the heaviest pockets of organic farming operations in the U.S. The dealer network serves the farming and construction industries with Case IH, New Holland, Kubota and Massey Ferguson tractors and a variety of shortlines.
Sales people at St. Joseph Equipment’s agricultural dealership near La Crosse, Wis., say organic farmers are a small but important customer segment. They’re usually interested in smaller tractors, manure spreaders, balers, bale wrappers, skid loaders and some types of used equipment.
Once an organic customer comes in the door, dealers should prepare themselves for lots of questions and discussions about price.
Larry Tichenor, a veteran salesman at St. Joseph Equipment, says these farmers might already have ideas about the equipment they need and sought input from trade organizations or fellow farmers. He notes that organic farmers rely more on tillage and some are going back to moldboard plowing.
“A guy recently called me about a tiller. He’s going to grow organic grapes. Most
Richard de Wilde, owner of Harmony Valley Farm, has stayed loyal to equipment dealers who communicate with him.
guys call and make a deal and buy the equipment. But the organic farmers have such limited resources, it’s a big purchase for them. And we also have established customers trying to jump the fence and grow organic milk or beef.”
Tichenor says education is essential for dealerships hoping to make a buck with organic farmers. “You can’t just be an order taker. You have to be a consultant.”
The dealership is well aware of the money in organic farming. Tichenor points to a $14 million warehouse and distribution center that Organic Valley built in nearby Cashton, Wis.
“I didn’t realize there would be enough organic farmers around here to support something like that,” Tichenor says. “Close to 100% of the farmers coming here say they’re raising tomatoes or grapes or blueberries, and many of them are doing it organically.”
Chad Hofslien, service manager at St. Joseph, says a dairy farmer he knows got into organic production because the milk prices are higher. “They set their price in January and February and it’s the same all year,” he says.
Gary David, vice president of sales for Gary’s Kubota Tractors and Implements in Waukon, Iowa, says there are several organic customers in his area, but most aren’t in the position to buy new equipment.
“I went to a show in Wisconsin one year and the clientele was very diverse. I talked to people from Indiana, Utah and Montana, and you know that you’re never going to see them again,” David says. “And most of the people were still trying to figure out what they needed” for equipment.
“New equipment isn’t in the near future for most of them. They’re trying to get into lower-priced equipment and mechanize. With the older, more established farms, used equipment is what most of them are looking for.”
‘Young and Idealistic’
De Wilde isn’t a stranger to farming. He grew up on a 650-acre dairy, beef and grain farm near South Shore, S.D., and his grandfather grew several acres of organic vegetables.
He got into organic vegetable farming in 1973 with the Blue Gentian Farm near Eagan, Minn., but urban sprawl eventually pushed him out. One of his best fields is now covered up by a Northwest Airlines building.
De Wilde entered the organic farming profession not long after reading Rachel Carlson’s book, Silent Spring, which documented the ecological harm being caused by DDT. The book inspired a new generation of environmentally conscious citizens. “I was young and idealistic and I wanted to change the world,” de Wilde says.
Harmony Valley Farm opened in 1984. The farm grows 120 acres of fresh-market vegetables, including special varieties of beans, cabbage, garlic, cantaloupe, artichokes, kale, onions radishes, broccoli, salad mix, spinach, turnips and berries.
He also has 60 acres of pasture for his 24 head of angus cows and 20 pigs. De Wilde operates the farm and has two business partners.
About half of de Wilde’s sales come through 2,600 customers participating in Harmony Valley’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Customers sign up and pre-pay to receive weekly boxes of produce from the farm.
The other half of Harmony Valley’s sales are wholesale vegetables. De Wilde has 4-5 distributors that he works with regularly, including a $500,000 account “that keeps us jumping.”
Along with operating the farm, De Wilde serves as an organic farming consultant and commands $80-$100 an hour or more to advise customers on farm management, packing shed designs, composting, weed control, cover-crop systems and equipment needs.
Some veteran farmers are getting into organic production with the advantage of already having equipment and mechanical skills. But that doesn’t stop city folks moving to the country from trying it.
“Surprisingly, a lot of them do not have a farming background. They didn’t grow up on a farm and don’t know much about machines and cultivation,” says de Wilde. “Just a 2-hour tour on this farm is a huge education for them.”
“We made money last year, and it’s either give it to the government or buy a new tractor...”
Today’s organic market is not lacking demand, unlike the early days, de Wilde says. The farm picks and chooses its customers. “We don’t have a sales staff. We send out an availability sheet, and get regular orders back. We hardly ever make a phone call.”
But there are challenges de Wilde faces, too, and it relates to economics. Some organic farms are getting very large and enjoying lower cost ratios.
Organic Valley, for example, is the largest cooperative of organic farmers in the U.S. and one of the leading organic brands. The 22-year-old organization represents more than 1,400 farmers in 33 states and 3 Canadian provinces, and in 2009 reached $520 million in 2009 sales.
So it’s up to de Wilde to control his own costs. He estimates having $160,000 wrapped up in packaging material, including 6 different kinds of boxes. Four pallets of special reflective barrier film for the vegetable fields alone cost him $17,000.
“Some of the organic farms are very large, with thousands of acres, and they do stuff amazingly cheap,” de Wilde says. “It’s a tough row to hoe. It’s one thing to get in the door, but it’s another to get enough money for your product.”
Equipment for Every Job
Organic farmers tend to favor smaller equipment, and the tractors they use don’t look any different than those on traditional farms. Vegetable farms, however, rely much more on specialized equipment.
Organic farms under 5 acres may only have 1-2 tractors, with much of the field work being done by hand and the owners having little income to invest in equipment.
Tractors with a creeper gear or hydrostatic transmission are highly sought after by organic farmers for slow-speed tasks like transplanting crops or harvesting with hydraulically driven equipment.
“The first big leap you make is when you want to cultivate,” de Wilde says of smaller organic farmers.
“With organic farming, weeds are a big challenge. If you’re going to cultivate with a tractor, you need to seed with a tractor. You’ll need a tractor-mounted seeder and matching cultivator, and then you’ve just opened up a whole new world for them.”
To operate his farm, de Wilde has 19 tractors of various ages, sizes and capabilities, as well as tillage tools, sprayers, planters, spreaders and mowers. He also has various nursery structures and sheds that hold equipment and packaging materials, or contain cooling rooms that store seed and produce.
One medium-sized shed at Harmony Valley Farm contains 5 Farmall, International Harvester and Allis Chalmers tractors with various attachments for quick and precise cultivation. Those tractors, all very old but kept in good condition, each get used about 100 hours per year.
One of them, a Farmall 140, has an extended axle and a 5-row basket cultivator “that saves me thousands of dollars in labor for hand weeding,” de Wilde says. The other IH and Farmall tractors have discs, cultivators or “basket weeders” for specific tasks, and the Allis Chalmers WD 45 tractor pulls harvest wagons.
Also found in this shed are a Cub Cadet Time Saver zero-turn mower and Cub Cadet Series 2000 riding mower, along with a 5-row Planet vegetable seeder and 2-row finger transplanter he uses for strawberry plants.
For additional tillage tasks, de Wilde has a Howard HR 30 Rotovator with an attached bed shaper, and a Falc Type D2100 Rotovator.
In a 50 x 100-foot building, de Wilde has a spacious, modern machine shop and several newer tractors for more general farm work.
This includes two Deere 2640s for planting, one of them with narrow tires; a Deere 6410 with creeper transmission for primary tillage, planting and transplanting and harvesting (he’s accumulated 2,000 hours on it in 3 years); a Deere 2950 4WD tractor with step-up rims; a Deere 1530 narrow tractor to mow between rows of raspberries, and a Deere 2750 with narrow tires that he uses to side-dress fertilizer.
Also in this large shed is a Farm Star 250 spreader, a New Holland DC 80 bulldozer, MaterMacc vacuum seeder and CIMA air boom sprayer. De Wilde uses the bulldozer in the spring and fall to clear trees brush from the edge of fields.
The planter and sprayer are very important, de Wilde says, because of the high cost of seed and approved chemicals for spraying. One variety of seedless watermelons he plants costs 50 cents per seed.
“We have a market for every crop. So we don’t want failure,” he says.
Rounding out the fleet of equipment is a New Holland LS 160 skid-steer for carrying bins of firewood or compost around the farm, and at least 6 pressure washers used to clean and sanitize the nursery buildings.
De Wilde also invested in a software program, “KeepTrak” to organize parts numbers, maintenance records and suppliers for easy reference. “In the past we’ve had things like spare starters sitting on the shelf and we didn’t know what they went to, or if they were fixed.”
With only a 200-acre farm, 19 tractors might seem like overkill. But one of de Wilde’s biggest enemies is lost time — especially when the weather isn’t cooperating and he’s trying to plant vegetables. Having fewer tractors and more swapping of equipment would take extra hours.
“That could be the difference between having a crop or not having one,” he says.
‘I Like Relationships’
Despite having a full-time mechanic and shop on his farm, de Wilde is no stranger to equipment dealers in the area. He’s enjoyed many years of service as they handle major work like engine rebuilds or repairs of the hydraulic systems.
De Wilde’s had a long-standing relationship with Frontier Ag & Turf’s dealership in Westby, Wis., formerly called Horizon Equipment. Frontier has several locations in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“I like relationships. We do enough business with them that if the parts guys know us, and the shop guys know us, we can call them up and ask their advice sometimes, and maybe we can fix it ourselves. That’s the value of having a relationship,” de Wilde says.
“And other times, they’ll give us some priority, and they say they’ll have something back to us in 2 days, or they’ll send a truck out and fix it.”
He also buys some equipment and gets tractors serviced at St. Joseph Equipment. In
“You can’t just be an order taker. You have to be a consultant,” says Larry Tichenor, salesman for St. Joseph Equipment's agriculture division near La Crosse, Wis.
total, de Wilde estimates he spends $75,000 a year on service and parts for his equipment. He’s had some trying times with dealerships over a handful of repair jobs, but no bridges have been burned.
“I know which mechanics at which dealerships that I’d prefer to do my work. They’re the ones who really explain what they did, and show me the bad parts. I just like to know those things,” he says. “And maybe they’ll give us some tips on what we can do differently next time.”
The other big reason for de Wilde’s loyalty comes down to the almighty dollar. He can’t afford to be without his equipment. “If you miss a day of field work, and then it rains for two weeks, you never make it up. That’s crop you never have to sell,” he says.
“And instead of making orders and delivering, you’re saying, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t plant that week. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ If somebody else is delivering and you’re making excuses, they will get that market.”