Knowing Your Roots

Blog 15

The Central Sands is one of the nation’s premier potato and vegetable production areas, ranking 3rd in potatoes, 1st in snap beans (also called green beans) and 3rd in sweet corn, and the farmers who grow these crops are a vital component of the state’s economy — generating over $6 billion in revenue and providing close to 40,000 jobs.

This agricultural bounty is possible because of the area’s broad expanse of fertile, sandy soils laid down by retreating glaciers over 10,000 years ago, which are underlain by a deep groundwater aquifer providing the water for irrigation that enables the area to flourish.

Every Central Sands farmer is acutely aware of the need to balance the water that is withdrawn from the aquifer for irrigation with the water that is returned to it in the form of precipitation that recharges the system annually.

Farmers in the Central Sands are doing everything they can to maintain the delicate balance between the water they use and what nature returns by being more efficient in how they manage and irrigate their crops.

Every drop of irrigation applied is based on sophisticated scheduling programs that take into account exactly how much water each crop needs at each stage of its growth, how much water the soil can hold and how the weather will impact supply.  Water is then only applied to match the precise crop need.

The investments made by farmers to enhance the long term sustainability of this area and its precious resources are being enhanced by a gradual evolution of the crop landscape in the Central Sands.

This process, which is influenced by changing economic times as well as the need to conserve water, has seen crop landscapes move slowly from high water use systems based largely on potatoes to a mixture of potatoes and processed vegetables, such as sweet corn and snap beans that require significantly less water. In the decade between 1996 and 2006, potato acreage in the Sands decreased by 28%, while sweet corn increased 36%, and snap beans increased 26%.

But what does this mean in terms of water and a more sustainable landscape?  Well, potatoes need 15-18 inches of water, while sweet corn needs only 10 inches, and snap beans (the shortest season crop) needs only 5-7 inches.

To put this in perspective, sweet corn uses 54% less water than potatoes and snap beans use 68% less!  This means that today’s typical crop landscape uses significantly less water than those of a decade ago.

Water conservation is just one of the ways our Central Sands farmers are striving to become more sustainable. The potato growers have long been recognized as the national leaders in ‘green’ production with the 2000 release of the Healthy Grown® brand. They have since followed up with expanded ecosystem enhancement requirements and industry-wide sustainability assessments to track improvement over time.

Sweet corn and green bean growers have now taken up the banner and are expanding the concept of sustainable production across the modern crop landscape.  Working with University of Wisconsin Agriculture Economist Paul Mitchell, farmers have recently completed an assessment of growing practices used in sweet corn and snap bean production systems across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois where the bulk of U.S. production is located.

Dr. Mitchell has developed a unique analysis called the “Frontiers of Sustainability.” The analysis takes information from individual farmers and identifies key practices that drive sustainability for that grower. The resulting score cards enable farmers to identify practices that will improve performance and measure that improvement over time.

This capability raises the intriguing possibility of designing crop landscapes in the future that can be profitable and protect natural resources across whole ecosystems that include cropping systems, forests prairies and wetlands.

This region is fortunate that the farmers growing potatoes, sweet corn, snap beans and the myriad of other specialty crops in the Central Sands landscape, recognize the importance of developing and fostering practices that will sustain the area’s resources for future generations. This philosophy may not always be the most profitable in the short-term, but fortunately the satisfaction of doing things ‘the right way’ for future generations is often enough.

Know your farmer

As time moves from generation to generation—from baby boomers, to Gen Xers to Millennials—it seems that less and less is known about where our food comes from and who grows it.

This isn’t surprising as farmers are getting to be a pretty rare breed.  In 1910, it was pretty easy to get to know a farmer; about 1 in 3 people in the U.S. were employed by agriculture on over 6 million farms.

Today is a very different story.  Farmers make up less than two percent of the nation’s population.  It is hard to make a living turning the sod and growing food when you have no control over your input costs which keep going up and virtually no say in what the marketplace will pay for it.

Consequently, farming is an aging profession with 53% of its ranks over 55 years old. Only 6% are under 34 years old and recruitment is declining rapidly with a 20% drop in beginning farmers from 2007-2012. The reality is that it’s hard to make it just by farming. Shockingly, 52% of farmers have a primary occupation outside agriculture.

Yet, in the U.S., we continue to enjoy a stable food supply that is among the least expensive and safest on the planet.

Hard to believe?  Well, according to USDA-ERS data in 2014, food consumed at home represented only 7% of consumer expenditures in the United States.  To put that in perspective, food consumed at home represented 23% of expenditures in Mexico, 26% in China and 29% in Russia.  Of the more than 80 countries in the survey, eight spent more on alcohol and tobacco than U.S. citizens do to put food on their kitchen table.

How can this be possible?  There are fewer farmers and yet we still have plenty of food that is safe and affordable.

The answer is that today’s farmers are simply a lot more efficient than their parents and grandparents had to be. A farmer fed 72 people just 35 years ago but now feeds 150, and that number is expected to double over the next half century as the world’s population continues to grow.

This is not the ominous factory farming we hear about, these are still the same family farms that have been the staple of US agriculture for generations. In fact 97% of U.S. farms are still family owned and most often multi-generational, but they have used modern technology to produce more food on fewer acres for less money.

They must continue to do this to turn a profit and remain in business. Profitable agriculture is beneficial to the consumer.  Profitable farmers can invest in efficiency that keeps food affordable, upgrades that protect the environment and technologies that ensure a safe food supply.  And yes, they want to make a living just like the rest of us!

A turnaround may be in the making, however, as evidenced over the last decade by the remarkable growth in popularity and interest in locally-grown produce, farmers’ markets and CSAs.

It seems that the younger generation wants to know where their food comes from.  Even when we eat out, many of the finest restaurants now feature food items that are proudly identified with the individual farmers who produced them.

Maybe the time is right for stepping back and getting re-acquainted with our farmers and the food they grow. Let’s hope so because agriculture’s future depends on consumers who are willing to pay for a safe, healthy food supply and we, as consumers, need farmers who can continue to supply it.

Blog 13

People love potatoes!  They are fresh, healthy and full of nutrients; they are synonymous with comfort food.  Who can refuse mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, fresh potato bars during winter or grilled potatoes in the summer?  Then there’s potato salad at picnics, potato pancakes with sour cream, and who can resist, fries with burgers. People love them all!

Interestingly enough, however, potatoes are now used for much more than just human consumption.  Log onto Pinterest and you can find many interesting alternatives for potatoes, like cleaning silverware, removing rust or creating homemade stamps!   Read the rest of this entry »

Blog 12

Twenty potato growers from all over the Wisconsin converged on Madison last week for their annual “grill the professors” ritual. They came from Eagle River to Spring Green and Coloma to Plover and grow for fries, chips, fresh market and seed.

It’s an eclectic bunch, but they all have one thing in common — they are very good at growing potatoes and are committed to getting even better.

Like the best corporations in the U.S., Wisconsin potato growers are pretty sure that the only way to do this and keep the competitive edge they enjoy is to invest in the future — research and development is where the new ideas emerge, and new technologies are hammered into useful tools.

To make this happen, growers tax themselves annually to provide a source of funds that can be used to promote potato sales and fund research. It is only 6 cents per 100 pounds of potatoes, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you are the third largest producing state in the U.S., with around 62,000 acres averaging almost 45,000 pounds per acre, it adds up fast!

As a result, these growers come to Madison every year with over $350,000 to invest in research. They ask University of Wisconsin faculty to present proposals that will move the potato industry forward.

Proposals can be applied research to solve today’s problems or basic research that may not bring returns for a decade or more. Basic or applied, proposals are all treated the same- the faculty present ideas and hypotheses and then are questioned by the growers. If it’s good science, then it stands a chance!

The faculty members in the biological sciences, who are among the world’s best, respond enthusiastically. This year 27 proposals from 14 UW departments and program areas were submitted, which took growers two days to examine. They will meet again in a month to decide which projects will be funded.

The diversity of 2016 proposals was indeed broad and beyond the scope of this blog to include them all. A few examples will provide an idea of what it takes to stay on top in today’s competitive agricultural world.

Since potatoes are an irrigated crop, water conservation is the highest priority for the industry. This was reflected in six proposals that included: working with DNR staff to incentivize good irrigation practices; economic impacts of water; bringing water users together to discuss solutions at the local level; maintaining water quality; understanding effects of pumping on surface water in streams and lake sand analyzing groundwater fluctuations in a network of over 600 high capacity wells.

We all have our favorite kinds of potatoes — reds, yellows, whites, blues, chips, bakers, mashers — the list seems endless thanks to the Mendelian wizards in the potato breeding field.  These gurus presented four proposals to develop new, tasty and interesting new varieties in the years to come.

Protecting the potato crop from pests like insects, diseases, weeds and nematodes, an area where Wisconsin growers are already recognized as world leaders, garnered 10 proposals indicating that there will be no slowdown in this area any time soon.

Basic research abounded in this year’s proposals with at least 10 proposals using state-of-the-art molecular techniques as tools to develop new varieties faster; understand the role of genes in pest virulence, and examining how pests become resistant to our attempts to control them.

Finally, there are the ideas that are unusual but full of promise. Good examples from this year included: developing a natural community workbook to support restoration and conservation of Wisconsin’s natural ecosystems; delving into the mysterious world of soil microbes and soil health to examine how the millions of organisms down there exist together in harmony but sometimes get unbalanced and cause problems and finally, extracting antioxidants from potato peel to supply the increasing demand from the manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries for specialty potato byproducts.

This is an amazing assemblage of science and innovation, and Wisconsin’s potato grower support the bulk of it. The potato industry gets no federal handouts or subsidies and is used to forging its own future. So think of this at Thanksgiving this year as you tuck into those delicious mashed potatoes!

The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) is working on expanding in-state sales and recognition of Healthy Grown potatoes – certified as  ecologically grown, socially responsible,  and ecosystem friendly – and they taste great – what a bargain!

This promotion was made possible thanks to a grant awarded from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection agency’s “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” program.

This grant is helping the WPVGA publicize the Wisconsin Healthy Grown program and feature its ecologically grown fresh potatoes, which have put Wisconsin on the leading edge of sustainable potato production.

The Wisconsin Healthy Grown program started in 2000 with a strictly enforced, research-based production standard that differentiated these potatoes from others in the marketplace by its reliance on biologically-based approaches to managing pests. It has since expanded to encompass all aspects of sustainability, including environmentally sound production practices, a fair economic return to growers, social responsibility in the rural communities where the potatoes are grown and, most recently, a requirement to restore natural ecosystems on farms.    Read the rest of this entry »

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