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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
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Hoe improvement
Cambridge gardener teaches an old tool new tricks
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The CobraHead weeder can be ordered directly from Valdes at www.cobrahead.com.
The CobraHead weeder can be ordered directly from Valdes at www.cobrahead.com.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Not that it means much for the jungle that is my garden, but I have a fine collection of hoes and weeders in my tool shed: short-handled ones, long-handled ones, Korean style, swope style, hula style and more. But my absolute favorite is the long-handle CobraHead hoe.

It is a weapon of grace and precision. Anchored on an extra-long 60" ash handle, the head and neck are formed from a thin shank of steel arched like a cobra ready to strike a fear-stricken weed with a quick, fatal jab and twist. Die, you interloper!

Of course, I usually lose all interest in weeding by the third week of June and resort to blocks of straw to beat back the hordes of invasive species. Still, I was curious as I examined the harpoon-like weapon this spring. It was made just down the road in Cambridge. What was the story?

An interesting one, it turns out. Noel Valdes, 64, is a lifelong gardener dating to his days growing up in Warren, Mich. When he took a job selling glass for a Deerfield manufacturer in 1986, he bought four acres of land just outside of Cambridge.

He found an antique five-tine cultivator left in the barn. It quickly became his favorite tool. Influenced by the writings of John Jeavons and Alan Chadwick, who popularized intensive French-style gardening in the 1970s, Valdes is a serious organic farmer with a serious disdain for corporate agriculture.

That food is full of poison, he says with finality. "There's no reason not to be organic if you garden at home."

Valdes grows his tomatoes, peppers, squash and lettuce on raised beds - some 21 beds, 4½ feet wide and 22 feet long. The old cultivator was great for grooming the beds.

Then one of the curved tines fell out, and Valdes had his eureka moment: He used it as a hand tool to pull a weed. Soon he jerry-rigged a cherrywood dowel as a handle. For the next three years, his homemade hand weeder was his preferred gardening tool.

Out of curiosity, he searched for a similar tool online and in old catalogs and found nothing. He even checked farm museums to no avail. "In about 2000, I went to my lawyer and said I think I have an idea for a tool," he recalls. The lawyer told him to talk to a patent lawyer, who in turn gave him the best advice he received.

The lawyer said: Ask UW-Whitewater's Wisconsin Innovation Center Service Center for help (academics.uww.edu/business/innovate).

The center was just what the would-be entrepreneur needed. Whitewater's MBA students rolled up their sleeves and went to work, searching for similar patents, sizing up the potential market, advising on start-up funding and identifying manufacturers - "all for $500," Valdes says.

"I knew I was small potatoes," says Valdes, who continues to work as a glass salesman. "Philosophically, I had no interest in being a big-box supplier. I didn't want to do deal with Home Depot, Wal-Mart or Lowe's. I wanted to be an independent guy who sold to independents."

He also didn't want to contract with a cheap overseas manufacturer for fear his design would be stolen and copied. Instead, Valdes wanted to play up the quality, "Wisconsin-made" angle, so he searched for in-state contractors, eventually finding a Green Bay drop forge to make the blade and Zeier Plastic & Manufacturing here in Madison to produce a handle made from recycled plastic blended with flax fiber.

"I found out early on that Wisconsin people support stuff made in Wisconsin," he said, noting that both Johannsen's and Jung's were early vendors.

Today, the CobraHead is sold in about 120 hardware stores, mostly clustered in Wisconsin, and through catalogs like Johnny's Seeds, Park, Gardeners Supply and Duluth Trading.

It's very much a family operation, with wife Judy, son Geoffrey and daughter Anneliese handling everything from marketing to finance to shipping.

Sales have periodically surged after favorable reviews from garden writers and horticultural pros. But CobraHead LLC, which Valdes has self-financed, hasn't turned a profit since it launched in 2004, he admits.

Valdes is selling a little less than 20,000 units a year for a gross of about $225,000. "We need about 30,000 to break even," he notes. "About $400,000 a year in sales."

He's considering outside financing, possibly a state grant, to step up marketing. He says he can't afford to keep digging into his own pocket.

"Sometimes I wonder if this was smart to do," Valdes says. "We could have been retired already if I hadn't. But this is fun and interesting. And our two kids are working with us. I just want to make the CobraHead famous before the big boys take our idea."

The CobraHead weeder can be ordered directly from Valdes at www.cobrahead.com. The short-handle version retails for around $25, while the just-introduced long-handle model (available in 48", 54" and 60" handle lengths) sells for around $60.

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