Ecological restoration is a process for recovering an ecosystem or natural community that has been damaged or destroyed. Agricultural landscapes present a great opportunity to identify damaged natural communities that coexist within working agricultural land.
Potato growers in the Wisconsin Healthy Grown Program voluntarily work with an ecologist to identify remnants of natural ecosystems on their farms and commit to long term practices that will restore these to their natural condition. These projects require a significant investment from growers, but they have already resulted in the restoration of 500 acres across the Central Sands region.
Nick Somers (Plover River Farms, Stevens Point, WI), a grower who is restoring forested wetlands on his farm, knows that stewardship and responsible management of the land is important for landowners. Somers says “people need to realize that the majority of land in Wisconsin is privately owned—and most of it is for agricultural use. We need to manage our lands to protect that balance in agriculture. ”
However, ecological restoration is a time-intensive process and requires a long-term commitment. Alison Duff, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate with the UW Institute for Environmental Studies, notes that “The greatest challenge in expanding conservation efforts in working landscapes is in recognizing the diversity that exists within the agricultural community, meaning that conservation efforts on private agricultural lands need to be adaptive to the ecological and economic reality of the farm in question.”
As a result, restoration projects vary from farm to farm with active restorations ongoing in wetlands, prairies, oak and pine barrens, and oak savannas. The results are worth it with Emily Acer (UW Environmental Resources Center, 2009) reporting that “restored natural communities managed through the Healthy Grown program offer significant reservoirs of biodiversity, native habitat, and increased ecosystem services.” These services benefit us all through the water infiltration and flood control provided by wetlands, soil stabilization and carbon sequestration provided by perennial vegetation, natural pest control (for example, insects and birds that prey on agricultural pest species), and recreational opportunities, such as hiking, hunting and fishing.
In the mid-1990s, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recognized the importance of preserving both Wisconsin’s natural resources and food production systems for future generations by entering into a precedent-setting alliance designed to promote sustainable farming methods. The growers worked jointly with University of Wisconsin scientists to adopt ecologically-based approaches to fresh potato production that would reduce pesticide risk, promote biodiversity and enhance natural resources. The result—the “Healthy Grown” label— was launched in 2002 and endorsed by the WWF. It was the nation’s first sustainable label for fresh produce and has gained widespread recognition from national and local environmental organizations.
The Healthy Grown program has enrolled 10-15% of Wisconsin’s fresh potato crop annually since its launch; growers must meet tough standards in all aspects of production to earn certification. The results have been impressive with growers achieving a 52% increase in adoption of sustainable farming practices and a 30% reduction in pesticide risk over the first 10 years.
Russell Wysocki, a grower in Bancroft, Wisconsin and owner of RPE, Inc., believes his farm and the Healthy Grown program have the same goal of actively conserving the landscape. Russell says “We are stewards of the land; this is an opportunity to do good things for the land and good things for the industry.” These accomplishments were recognized nationally in 2003 with the USDA’s prestigious Secretaries Honors Award for Maintaining and Enhancing the Nations Natural Resources and the Environment.
Rather than resting on its laurels, in 2004 the WPVGA, in partnership with the International Crane Foundation, embarked on an ambitious new project to protect and restore remnants of natural communities in the agricultural landscape to improve habitat quality for natural species and enhance biodiversity.
Most recently, Wisconsin’s potato and vegetable growers are once again demonstrating their pioneering spirit by expanding the scope of Healthy Grown beyond potatoes to encompass Whole Farm Sustainability which represents the core principles on which emerging sustainability initiatives across the US will be built.
Steve Diercks and his son Andy have worked hard to protect the land they farm–2500 acres of vegetables and rotation crops on their 4th generation family farm west of Coloma in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin. Their farm office proudly displays the three environmental stewardship awards that they have received from both state and national organizations. The sustainable farming practices they pioneer are often on the cutting edge– incorporating the latest University of Wisconsin research, much of it conducted on their farm. But operating a sustainable and profitable farm, providing employment to local families, and contributing to the community (Steve is the former Coloma town chairman), is no longer enough to guarantee the sustainability of the rural community that they are a part of. “We need to be looking at the whole area that we live in.” says Andy, who also serves on the State Department of Agriculture Board. “We all depend on our groundwater, and ultimately it’s our job to do everything we can to protect it.” To pursue this end, the Diercks are actively collaborating with UW researchers to use water more efficiently throughout their entire farm operation. They have shown that irrigation water can be withheld from some crops, such as soybeans and corn, at non-critical growth stages without reducing yield. For other water-dependent crops, they use innovative software that times irrigation to exactly match the crop’s demand, therefore reducing water use on those crops too. Beyond the farm gate, they are working with the UW to install monitoring wells that continuously track groundwater fluctuations and help predict the impacts of climate and irrigation on nearby surface waters such as Pleasant Lake, which has recently exhibited lowered water levels. “This will be a lifelong process,” says Steve “but if we all work together, we can ensure a sustainable future for everyone in the Central Sands.”
Protecting the region’s natural resources, participating in a statewide water-study effort
The Central Sands of Wisconsin is a very special place. Created by receding glaciers in the last ice age and covered by an ancient lake spanning seven modern-day counties, it is a unique and diverse blend of natural and agricultural landscapes. That is why region’s multi-generational, family farmers are committed to environmental practices that protect the land, water and jobs that sustainable farming create.
- The Central Sands are worth protecting. The region is the 2nd most productive growing area in the United States after California’s central valley for processing vegetables and specialty crops, generating billions of dollars in revenue into the states economy and providing tens of thousands of jobs for its citizens.
- It is home to vibrant and growing urban communities from Stevens Point in the North to Wisconsin Dells in the South with rapidly growing rural towns and villages such as Plover and Coloma scattered throughout its breadth.
- Its landscapes are a diverse blend of wetlands, forests, prairies, lakes and trout streams, interspersed with productive, irrigated cropland.
For these precise reasons, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers not only remain committed to protecting these natural resources, they are expanding their commitments as they join the Department of Natural Resources in its science-based study group , led by UW scientists, DNR water experts and private enterprise scientists to research Central Sands water issues. This is in addition to WPVGA’s existing Water Task Force established in 2009.
It is essential that all potentially impacted parties work together and become vested in seeking farsighted and holistic strategies that will preserve our water resources and meet the long-term needs of all citizens of the central sands.
The central feature that ties the various diverse landscape uses together is the groundwater aquifer that lies beneath the sands. Annually replenished by rain and snow, the aquifer provides the fresh water that drives agriculture, allows communities to grow and prosper, and sustains the natural ecosystems. However in recent years, climate change, municipal use, and irrigation have combined to raise concerns over the long-term sustainability of this precious natural resource. Understandably, these concerns have led to increasing tension in the Central Sands.
What follows will be a series of short biographical sketches describing farmers, food processors, and agricultural enterprises, and the close synergy between them to protect the resources that are so critical to us all – agriculture, the native ecosystems, and the natural resources that are necessary to ensure a safe and secure food supply. These vignettes outline some of the remarkable investments that agriculture has made in seeking long-term strategies to protect the resources of the Central Sands, grow a sustainable agricultural economy and maintain vibrant rural communities.