Knowing Your Roots

Archive for March, 2013

Thoughts for Food: The Security of Our Nation’s Food Supply

It is estimated that we will need to double worldwide crop production by 2050 to meet the needs of a rapidly increasing global population, and yet the availability of agricultural land in the US is declining. Blog 11 - Thoughts for Food

  • How do we face this immense challenge when US agriculture is already operating at peak efficiency?
  • How can we guarantee that Americans will have a safe and reliable food supply at prices they can afford?
  • How can we ensure that our food supply is not dependent on imports (think of what our dependency on foreign oil is doing to our economy)?

The answers to these questions reside in the ingenuity and dedication of American farmers who for centuries have risen to the challenges of producing more with less on fewer acres. Nowhere else is this better exemplified than in Wisconsin (more…)

Portrait of a Sustainable Farm

Blog 10A medium-sized farm by today’s standards, 7th generation Isherwood Family Farms is nestled in the heart of Wisconsin’s Central Sands, bordering the Buena Vista marsh in Portage County. It began in 1855 when James Isherwood, an early settler, started a small farm in Plover Township and opened a stage house to market his potatoes and vegetables more effectively.  Evolving slowly from humble beginnings with just a few acres through the 1930s when it took two months to hand-plant twenty acres and yield depended on the water that nature provided, the farm grew with the potato crop always at the core.  Early farm mechanization introduced irrigation, which in the 1960s required back-breaking labor with hand-moved pipes.

Now in the present day, sophisticated center-pivot irrigation and modern machinery have reduced the intensity of labor, but new challenges have emerged related to balancing the use of natural resources with providing food security for a growing world population.  Even with these modern challenges, the current generation—Justin, his wife Lynn, brother Gary and their son Isaac—have not forgotten the roots that built the farm.  Justin, an accomplished author in addition to a down-to-earth farmer, says “I feel rather privileged to have come of age in that hand-wrought time. We worked hard, and we ate like wolverines. The crew sat down to supper and dinner at the farmhouse; it’s hard to shake the spell of those times.”

The farm is now around 1500 acres with a healthy crop diversity of potatoes, field corn, sweet corn, peas, oats, maple syrup, and hay intermixed with the wetlands of the Buena Vista marsh, woods, and streams. As an enthusiastic proponent of farming profitably and yet doing so in harmony with the environment and its natural resources, Justin was a founding member of Wisconsin’s Healthy Grown potato program—a program that helped lead the way in on-farm ecosystem restoration. His family now enjoys the restored wetlands and the re-invigorated trout stream where they hike, fish, and kayak. When asked if the effort they have put into Healthy Grown is justified, Justin has no doubts, “I think of this as training for the next generation marketplace. When it comes of age, when Wal-Mart and Sysco see the light, we’re ready. Wisconsin is ready.”

This type of economic foresight also helped shape the United Potato Growers of America’s philosophy, whereby acres planted and production across the US are linked closely with consumer demand to assure that production justifies the water use as well as nutrients; the objective is to gain an equitable return for growers, a fair price to consumers, and a worthwhile use of the land and its resources.

The Isherwoods continue their quest to ensure that the Isherwood Family Farms lives on for more generations by participating in cutting edge research on their farm with University of Wisconsin researchers with the goal to develop new, efficient irrigation tools  that will continue to protect valuable natural resources while providing a nutritious, safe, and stable food supply.

Sharing the Bounty – Part 2, Potatoes to Those in Need

Potatoes are among the most nutritious and satisfying of all the vegetables, and since they can be stored for long periods of time, they can be shipped and used to help to reduce hunger in faraway areas where food is in short supply.  To help people in need, Wisconsin potato growers have successfully provided potatoes to local food pantries, and now are looking to respond to needs in other parts of the United States and even overseas.  Examples of these efforts are:

Food for Hurricane Sandy Victims

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When the victims of hurricane Sandy were still reeling from the storm’s devastating effects and food reserves were dwindling, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association quickly stepped forward to supply healthy and hearty Wisconsin potatoes to some of the hardest hit areas like Staten Island. Under the leadership of Sowinski Farms in Rhinelander, over a dozen Wisconsin potato farms throughout the state came together in less than a week to assemble 80,000 lbs of potatoes and the necessary semi-trucks to deliver them to the City Harvest food pantry in Long Island City for local distribution to needy residents. This generosity, which can only stem from the whole industry working together, is typical of the Wisconsin potato growers.  As John Hein of Sowinski Farms noted, “Someday, our area may need the same kind of assistance, so it’s nice to be able to help.”

African Seed Potatoes

Blog 9 - African Seed PotatoesLarry Alsum, a founding member of Wisconsin’s Healthy Grown Potato program, has been active in promoting sustainable farming in Wisconsin and is now working in one of the poorest regions of Africa to extend these practical sustainability lessons to subsistence farming communities.

In January of 2012, Larry and Derrick Smith (also of Alsum Farms and Produce, a grower/packer of vegetables in Arena and Friesland, WI), traveled to the west coast of Africa and visited the countries of Ghana and Liberia.  While there, they focused on sharing their years of experience in sustainable farming in a very practical way.  Larry was convinced that helping the African farmers grow their own potato crops would be the most effective way to meet their future food security needs.  Working with Antigo seed potato growers, the best varieties for West Africa were selected and forty tons of high quality seed potatoes were shipped to those areas.

Larry admits that there are risks “The farmers don’t have the tools or technologies we have here in the states—they have machetes and hoes, that’s it. So each person farms about two acres.  They will each plant small patches of potatoes from this shipment, which should support about 125 families.”

Larry’s optimism has been rewarded; the potatoes arrived in great shape in both countries, and they were planted. On a follow up visit to Liberia, Larry reported that “the potatoes are sprouting, and the farmers are pleased to see that!”

It is rewarding testimony from a far-reaching program that will continue to feed the rural farmers of West Africa for years to come.


Sharing the Bounty—Part One, Wisconsin Vegetable Growers and Processors Join Together to Feed the Hungry

Blog 8Each year in the United States, over 160 billion pounds of food is wasted.  Un-harvested food crops account for about twenty billion pounds of this waste, with vegetable crops accounting for about 18%. In Wisconsin, growers and processors of vegetables are actively working to cut food waste on the farm by diverting excess production to area food banks to help feed the hungry. This is hard to achieve with large volumes of fresh produce which has a limited shelf life but, in a unique partnership with the Field to Food Bank program, Wisconsin’s processing vegetable industry, ranked 1st in the US, is helping to fill local food pantries with quality canned vegetables. “Being able to address ‘the last mile’ in food delivery is critically important to get food to those who need it “says Jed Colquhoun, from the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, “and our food processing industry has led the way in making it happen.”

Carrots became the first success story in 2011 when an unusually high yield led to 40 acres of excess carrots for a grower in central Wisconsin. The grower donated the carrots to Field to Food Bank, and the industry quickly united to solve the logistical hurdlesa harvester was found with trucks to move the crop to a nearby processing plant, cans were donated, and 450,000 pounds of delicious carrots were on their way to hungry families across the state. Field to Food Bank has now expanded to include sweet corn, snap beans, potatoes, and onions with the Wisconsin vegetable growers and processors becoming an integral part of this statewide program that provides food to those who need it most.

More Food with Less Water

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A new report released by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Feb 12,2013) stated that power generation and municipal uses account for 85% of total state water use compared with 4% by agriculture. Even in Portage, Adams and Waushara (among the highest use counties), municipal withdraws were higher (42%) than agricultural irrigation (33%). These counties “comprise much of the central sands area of the state known as a globally significant vegetable production region” according to the DNR report; production and processing of specialty crops, which are concentrated in the region, contribute $6.4 billion in economic return to the state and generate almost 35,000 jobs.

In recent years, concern over water use and availability in the region has sparked debate over the impact of climate, irrigation, and municipalities on groundwater resources.  While climate is an impact that local growers have no control over, they do have the ability to impact the efficiency of irrigation, especially during the peak use in July and August when crops require the most water. Mike Copas, field manager from Russet Potato Exchange, explains the importance of his irrigation strategy as “a complete approach to conserving the resource by supplying only what the crop needs. We understand the importance of managing our water resources wisely and are utilizing the most advanced technologies to be the most efficient in our usage for our potato and vegetable rotations”.

The majority of growers use center pivot overhead irrigation systems, which are monitored continuously to ensure uniform water distribution, precisely control the amount of water applied, and operated during off peak hours whenever possible to conserve energy demand on the system. To increase the efficiency of these systems, growers are adopting a range of cutting edge technologies including variable-rate precision irrigation, deficit irrigation and drip irrigation. Sophisticated irrigation scheduling programs have been developed and used to precisely match water applied to crop need and thus eliminate waste. However, growers are now pushing the envelope further by mapping the varying soil types and their ability to retain water across fields; water is applied at variable rates according to crop need in a new technology termed,  “variable-rate, precision irrigation,” which has been shown to not only save water but increase crop quality.

Additional technologies are also being tested in research funded by the WPVGA that include crop varieties and landscapes that require less water, withholding water during non-critical growth stages (deficit irrigation), and drip irrigation. Together, these innovative approaches make a difference. As Mike Copas concludes, “water management is a complex task, and we use all our tools to manage it as effectively as possible.  As a grower and land manager, I want people to know that we are working hard to maintain our water resources. They are an integral part of our farming operation, and to maintain it for the long-term, we will utilize our water correctly”.

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