Profile: Richard DeWilde
Richard DeWilde, Viroqua, Wisconsin
|Richard DeWilde and Linda Halley earn most of their income at the Dane County Farmers Market, one of the nation’s biggest. |
Photo by Tom Gettings/Rodale Inst.
Let this be a warning to all Colorado potato beetles in the vicinity of Viroqua, Wis.: Richard DeWilde has a flamer and he's not afraid to use it.
Intended to control weeds, a flamer has instead become DeWilde's preferred instrument for dealing death to the beetles that have plagued his eggplant crops for years.
'It's kind of tricky, and you can end up singeing some leaves if you're not careful,' says DeWilde, who grows about 50 vegetable, fruit and herb crops on 60 acres for direct sale to consumers in Madison and Chicago. 'But it toasts beetles and larvae to the point that they just curl up and fall off. It's very satisfying.'
He and his crew of employees were forced to be especially creative and diligent about controlling both insect pests and weeds in 1999, when southwest Wisconsin got too much rain. That caused weeds and pests to bedevil DeWilde more than usual. It did not sound, though, as if they're going to get the upper hand any time soon.
With 25 years of organic farming under his belt, DeWilde could be considered a pioneer. He says his experience led him early to a conclusion others have followed: improving soil fertility should be the focus of his weed and pest control strategies. Flamer aside, cover crops and compost are his most effective tools.
'I grow a lot of rye as both a cover crop and for mulching,' he says. 'If I had 20 more acres, I'd grow rye on all of it and use it all for mulching - at $2 or $3 dollars a bale, it's too expensive to buy. But if I could grow and use more I would. It's that good.'
That problem - not enough acreage - is also a reason DeWilde relies more on compost to build the soil and control weeds than crop rotation, which usually plays a larger role on larger farms. He spreads about 300 tons of composted manure, which he gets from an organic dairy farm next door, on his fields each year. His neighbor includes cornstalks, partially broken down by hooves, from the cows' bedding.
'He doesn't test or measure any of the ingredients, but he's hit a perfect 20 to 1 carbon/nitrogen balance every time in the past two years,' he says.
While composting is believed to boost the immune systems of plants, DeWilde and a researcher from the University of Wisconsin found it raised instances of diseases like Rhyzoctonia solani. But even with a mild spike in some diseases, DeWilde says the attention he's paid to soil fertility has been worth it.
'Most of the time, weeds are indicators of the nutrients that are missing in your soil,' he says. 'When you get weeds with long taproots, that's a sign that the nutrients you want near the surface are down deep. The weeds tell you what's missing.'
In a season of heavy rains, weeds will grow on any soil, weak or strong. So he and his crew have been standing ready. He has three tractors outfitted with belly-mounted cultivators, offset cultivators and an implement made in Michigan that employs a series of rubber, finger-like attachments to pluck weeds.
'We don't hesitate,' he says. 'As soon as the ground is dry enough, we're out there trying to stay ahead of the germination the rain brings.' He's just as diligent against insect pests. In addition to the double duty borne by his flamer, he uses Bt against corn borers when traps tell him he's getting a significant number of moths in the field at night. He applies Rotenone, a pesticide made from the bark of an African shrub, against flea beetles in his greens and herbs. The powder is known to be toxic to fish and bees, so he doesn't apply it when rain is imminent, or on flowering plants like squash and melons.
That decision leaves his squash vulnerable to beetles, but DeWilde says he's reached at least a temporary understanding with them. Knowing their attraction to the color yellow, he lines an early stand of squash with yellow plastic mulch and stands back while they attack. They decimate that particular patch, he says, but tend to leave his other stands of more commercially desirable squash unmolested. This arrangement is fine for now, he says, but once he develops his flaming technique a bit more, even squash beetles may fnd it a little too hot to hang out at Harmony Valley.