A Grace for Growing Things
Farmer-Philosopher Del Wisdom Reaps SPU’s 2010 Alumnus of the Year Award
It’s an early November morning and barely 30 above. Barren fields lie powdered in frost. Signs for “Ranch Fresh Eggs” and “Trenching Services” dot the roadside. Giant movable irrigation sprinklers sit idle. In the frigid morning sun, soot-black cattle graze butter-gold corn stubble.
This is Eastern Washington, a geological desert. But add water in the spring, lots of it, says 2010 Seattle Pacific University Alumnus of the Year Del Wisdom ’63, and nearly anything grows.
His uncle bought 320 acres of sage brush and native grasses near Basin City at Depression-era prices. In came Grand Coulee Dam to revive the land, and, by the time Wisdom purchased the land in the mid-’60s, the water distribution system reached south to his property near the Columbia River. Aided by hundreds of additional acres, the one-crop, dry-land wheat farm his uncle had nurtured soon yielded a garden of earthly delights.
Farming Through Innovation
The list of what the young farmer coaxed from the land reads like a compendium of leafy edibles. There were green peas and lima beans for the frozen foods market. Sugar beets for processing. Fresh carrots for Safeway that made Wisdom at one time one of the largest growers/suppliers in the western United States. Asparagus, cabbage, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, spinach, even catnip. And there was that brief flirtation with burdock, considered a weed in the U.S., which bears a 3-foot root delectable in Japan.
That has been the Wisdom way. Follow the niche markets. Do the research. Take acceptable risks. “When I started farming,” he says, “I was as green as the peas. Fortunately, there’s no place on earth you can grow better what grows here.”
The fun, he says, comes in working with God and nature; the anxiety comes when nature turns the tables. The unexpected freezes. The strong spring winds — hurricane force at times — that one year caused him to plant three times. The dirt drifts by the living room door that once measured 2–3 inches deep.
Nature isn’t the only nemesis, nor always the harshest. In addition, the vagaries of the marketplace, depressed prices, international politics, and overturned semis take their toll. “I’ve made my share of mistakes,” admits Wisdom, “but I love it. It makes a living I enjoy.” Judy, his wife, partner of 44 years, and one-half the amalgam of “Judel,” their corporate brand, says it’s Del’s “God-planted bent. He has a grace to grow things.”
Wisdom smiles at that. “The love of what you do moves you forward.”
Finding His Niche
And when what you love helps raise your family and provide work for others to raise theirs, the satisfaction runs deep. Wisdom, president and CEO of Judel Marketing International Inc. — which cleans, packs, and markets quality vegetables worldwide — explains it like this: “I love the food business. A grocery store is more enjoyable to me than a trip to Disneyland. And I like Disneyland.”
Neighbor, friend, and former manager of Judel Farms Jim Klaustermeyer tags
Wisdom as a leader and an optimist in an unpredictable business. “He is a great explorer of new opportunities. In agriculture, you can stagnate quickly. Not Del. He’s progressive … always looking to the future.”
Wisdom learned to lead at the feet of men close to him. From his school-principal father came a model of integrity, honesty, and fair-mindedness. His college football coach taught him the importance of taking ownership of errors, even small ones. In the Seattle Pacific College basketball players he met through his twin brother Darwin Wisdom ’63, he saw character in action. “They were influential in convincing me to transfer to Seattle Pacific,” Del says.
He began his college career at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, on a football scholarship and as understudy to
the senior quarterback. A significant knee injury ended the dream, but he remained
at Whitworth for two years. He took a
philosophy course and fell in love with the discipline.
Falcon basketball players staying in Wisdom’s home for an away game raved about then-Seattle Pacific philosophy professor Jerry Gill. Wisdom decided to transfer.
The Seattle Pacific years were particularly formative. He worked in the sports information office under Harland Beery ’54, and he was sports editor of The Falcon, for which he also wrote a column called “Dialogues of Diogenes” in which, he says, “I waxed eloquent, maybe a bit more full of myself than I ought to have been.”
“Elvis Cochrane’s ‘Plato’ class was superb,” remembers the man whose early dream was to earn a doctorate in philosophy, “and ‘The History of Political Thought’ with Wes Walls was a dream of a class.”
Wisdom’s uncle died in 1964, while Del was a doctoral student at the University of California. A year later, he left his studies to work the farm in Basin City. Later in 1965, he married Judy, a music major and former Central Washington University student he met through mutual friends.
Helping Others Succeed
In between harvests, the couple led their children, Kimberly Wisdom Kennell and Tony Wisdom ’90, on mission trips to Mexican orphanages and to Guatemala to lay water pipe for remote villages. “My dad always
demonstrates what it is to live life fully,
serve the needy, and love without limits,” says Tony Wisdom, general manager of Country Cousins Inc. in Mt. Vernon, Washington.
One of Tony’s strongest memories as a child
is of coming into the kitchen every morning and finding his father reading the Bible
and “cogitating and reflecting.” “He’d done more faith-building by 7 a.m. than many people do all day!”
For years, Del Wisdom served as “the farming guy” for Agros International, a nonprofit organization founded by Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li ’66 that helps break the cycle of poverty in Latin America through community land ownership. Wisdom educated peasant farmers in agricultural techniques and methods of marketing what they grew. He was also a director for the Agros Foundation.
His two private attempts to establish tropical fruit processing plants in Nicaragua ended in the face of world economic jitters and regional political instability. Nonetheless, his partnership with and respect for Latino people, who form the majority of Judel’s workforce, continues today.
Wisdom also volunteers with the International Executive Service Corps, a nonprofit agency that recruits and assigns American experts to assist businesses in developing countries. He has traveled to Hungary to consult on a corporate marketing plan and to Sri Lanka to assist a pickle exporter looking to expand into pearl onions. “I can certainly empathize with the Sri Lankans,” says Wisdom. “Their growing conditions are too hot. What I didn’t foresee was their number one source of crop destruction: elephant herds.”
Big Ideas and Common Sense
The founding chairman of the Washington State Vegetable Association, Wisdom attends Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Kennewick and served SPU as a member of the Board of Trustees and the Alumni Association Board. He was on the search committee that chose Philip Eaton to be Seattle Pacific’s ninth president.
“With deep family roots here, Del and Judy have been so loyal in their support of SPU,” says Eaton. “Del wants to engage with ideas. He is thoughtful and reflective, but he’s also a practical, common-sense businessperson. That’s a great combination. What a friend — and what a great choice for Alumnus of the Year.”
Daughter Kimberly Wisdom Kennell sees the “art of balance” in her father’s life. “He doesn’t take life too seriously,” she says. “He realizes that there are things of great value and things of less value. He has always set aside his work to take time for focusing on family; for that we are truly blessed.”
Now retired from active farming, the nearly-70-year-old would like to write a memoir for his grandkids and a book on grace. Knowing the reality of big agri-producers with deep pockets, he’s concerned for the small farmer and disappearing farmland gobbled up by urban sprawl. He ruminates that, priced out of the market, the U.S. will have to buy an increasing amount of food from foreign sources and be subject to steeper prices.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t get it back,” he says. “It’s the role of leaders to set the example. Show me a country that can feed itself, and I’ll show you a strong country.”
Son of the Soil
It’s November, and the conveyor line at Judel Marketing carries potatoes one day, onions another. The surrounding farms harbor mud-spattered pickups and piles of baled hay hunkered beneath yards of plastic tarp and bungee cord. The region is home to an increasingly rare breed of American still in touch with the soil and the food it produces. Some farm the land; some process and market the yield. Del Wisdom has done both.
He credits his success to his faith, hard work, love of the land, and to the people, Judy especially, who stayed beside him during lean times. “Scripture is full of instruction on how to live,” Wisdom says, “but it’s your family who makes you who you are.”
—By Clint Kelly [email@example.com]
—Photos by John Keatley
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