De Willard began serving the agricultural community in 1948 when at age 16 he purchased a harvester to do custom work for local farmers in Montgomery County, Maryland. As a result of De’s total focus on the customer’s needs and profitability, the business flourished.
The location, in still-rural Montgomery County, was considered ideal: close to the busy C&O Canal, where barges moved local crops to market.
DeWalt’s son, Harry L. Willard, soon saw opportunities beyond the farm. Demonstrating an aptitude for business, he opened a saw mill, feed mill and Poolesville’s first telephone company. He also operated a thresher machine, launched a general merchandise store (which included the local post office), and built a structure that housed both a beer parlor and an ice cream store.
The introduction of electricity in the early 1920s inspired Harry’s son, Joe Willard, to explore further possibilities. Entirely self-taught, young Joe learned to wire homes and repair the radios and appliances that farm families were buying. The Great Depression made an indelible impression on him, recalled his son, De Willard: He always believed it was coming back. As young De matured, he displayed the entrepreneurial talents of his grandfather, and lost no time in starting a career of his own. In 1948, just out of high school, the 16-year-old decided to try his hand on the family farm, which had been lying fallow. Using savings he’d earned as a 25-centan-hour grocery clerk, he bought seed, borrowed a plow, planter and tractor, and put in his first corn crop.
That July, I heard there was a new combine for sale over in Leesburg, De related. It was six feet wide. I went over there and bought it for $1,650, borrowing $400 from my Aunt Tatie to do it. I took in $1,200 in the next four weeks.
In September, De enrolled in the University of Maryland, and spent several semesters there studying botany and agriculture. He also planted barley on the farm. By the following summer, his equipment was bringing in nearly twice what it had the previous year, and De’s path was clear: I bought a corn picker and didn’t go back to the university. In his second year of business, the teenager already had more than two dozen customers. Embracing the possibilities presented by new equipment, De offered local growers opportunities to save labor costs and maximize profits. There was a new machine called an ensilage harvester, which harvested the crop right in the field and loaded it for delivery to the silo. It looked to me like it made sense, and the farmers were all glad to have something to save money, he said. Thinking back later, I appreciated the fact that the farmers would trust me, a young kid, with their crops, De noted. In the last 20 years, I’ve been recognizing and thanking those people, many of whom stayed my customers for years.
When the owner of the local John Deere dealership in Poolesville went bankrupt in 1951, De saw his next move. I called the John Deere representative and showed him the family’s old beer and ice cream building. Soon they were shipping me orders on consignment “I just paid the freight, he explained. De owned the dealership for the next 15 years, eventually expanding it to sell appliances, outboard motors, seed, Surge milking equipment and fertilizer.
In 1952, at age 20, De Willard hired his first employee. His basic concept “providing services to growers that would increase their profits “laid the foundation for a business that would become one of the mid-Atlantic’s most successful agricultural companies.
In 1970, after 20 years in custom farming and related ventures, De launched Willard Chemical Company, Inc. (later Willard Agri-Service). The new firm specialized in the manufacture and delivery of liquid fertilizer. His sons grew up to learn the business from their father, joining De in the field for hands-on experience. When we were eight, nine, ten years old, we’d sometimes spend all day with Dad at work. Those were some of the best times of our lives, recalled Billy Willard. That’s where I developed a real passion for agriculture and growing crops. Mom would pack lunches for the three of us, and Billy and I would go out with Dad, said Bobby Willard. At 12 years old, I even gave up Little League so I could follow his combine in the pickup. We learned all kinds of skills “I was welding before I could drive. Later I did spraying, application, and ran the combine. The business was ingrained in us at an early age.
De enlisted his sons in inventing new equipment on his own farm. One venture was a homemade 40-foot sprayer that used two 55-gallon drums for tanks. When you sprayed 24D, it seemed like magic “the weeds were twisting up by the time you came by on the next round, recalled Bobby. Also, 12 rows at a time was much faster than the two-row cultivator. Business grew steadily, and De Willard purchased Meyers Liquid Fertilizer in Mt. Airy in 1973. Four years later, Willard built a brand-new plant on Rising Ridge Road in Mt. Airy to accommodate the expanding business. Looking to the Eastern Shore for further opportunities, it purchased Flo-NGro in Lynch, Maryland in 1982.
Willard’s Marion, Pennsylvania plant, new from the ground up, came online in 1985. In 1993, Willard formed an outside Board of Directors, inviting Bernie Grove and Waddy Garrett to share their expertise in operations review and planning. In 2003, it built the new Greenwood, Delaware, facility on acreage it had acquired more than two decades earlier. And in 2004, the company joined with Ken Clemmer to form Synatek, which specializes in fertilizers for golf courses and lawn care. As he guided Willard Agri-Service to regional prominence, De became a leader in the U.S. fertilizer industry, serving a term as president of the National Fertilizer Solution Association. His sons, Bob, Billy and Jim, rose through the ranks to join him in the firm.
When Willard opened its Eastern Shore facility in 1982, Bob took the helm, with a degree from Iowa State University and many years of experience on the Western Shore. Billy, a graduate of Purdue University, assumed the general manager position in Frederick in 1986 after serving as an applicator, sales rep, and operations manager. Dad didn’t believe in us having silver spoons, added Billy Willard. The older we got, the more responsibility we had.