Knowing Your Roots

Archive for March, 2013

Why is Agriculture Valuable to Rural Communities?

Agriculture does more than provide food and fiber for the world; it also helps maintain vibrant rural communities. In Wisconsin, it accounts for about 60 million dollars in sales each year, and rural communities need this agricultural base to thrive. Without it, the tax base would be unable to support activities essential to county and local government—school initiatives, road and park maintenance, and many of the services we take for granted would no longer be possible in these areas. Employment in rural communities is also dependent on a thriving agricultural economy. In the Central Sands region (a seven county area in central Wisconsin where potatoes and vegetables are primarily grown), over 17% of the jobs are derived from agricultural production, and over 100 million dollars in agricultural revenues are provided to local and state governments. Although rural landscapes are appreciated by everyone, 80% of the rural land is privately owned.  The green spaces, forests, wetlands, open landscapes, and other countryside features that we all treasure are maintained by generations of farmers who manage the natural resources, provide clean water and air, wildlife habitat, and other ecological benefits both on-farm and for the surrounding community.

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The primary role of agriculture, however, is to provide food security for our society by maintaining a safe, high-quality, affordable, and consistent food supply. To meet the food needs of a rapidly increasing global population, it is estimated that we must double worldwide crop production between now and 2050.  Achieving this goal, continuing to foster vibrant rural communities, and protect the natural resources that we all depend on is a challenge that is being embraced by the farmers of the Central Sands region. It is very important for all citizens to take the time to stop and appreciate the beauty of the mosaic of crops and natural areas interspersed with vibrant small town communities and remember how important farmers are in both making this all possible and providing us with nutritious food for our families.

Wisconsin’s Vegetable Industry Is a Vital Part of State and National Food Production

Wisconsin’s temperate climate, proximity to major urban markets, and abundant rainfall put the Wisconsin vegetable industry in the top 5 of most productive agricultural centers in the nation.  Wisconsin has emerged as the 2nd ranked state in the US for growing and processing potatoes and vegetables. Key processing crops include potatoes (3rd nationally), sweet corn (3rd), green beans (1st), peas (3rd), carrots (1st), pickling cucumbers (4th), red beets (1st), lima beans (1st), and cabbage (2nd).  Production of these processed vegetables and potatoes in Wisconsin is concentrated in the Central Sands region, an ancient glacial lake bed encompassing parts of seven counties; this region is ideally suited for growing vegetables because it has abundant sandy soils and a groundwater aquifer that can be used for irrigation and is fully recharged annually via natural precipitation.

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The concentration of food production and processing industries include major companies such as Del Monte Foods, Seneca Foods, Lakeside Foods, General Mills, Bonduelle (Canada), McCain Foods, Frito Lay, and others; they all contribute significantly to the statewide economy in multiple ways. In a direct sense, each sector creates economic activity and jobs within its own industry. However, both crop production and processing also benefit nearly every other Wisconsin industry. For example, growers and processors purchase equipment, fuel, electricity, fertilizer, and farm supplies from local suppliers, pay farm and plant workers, invest earnings, and pay taxes.  In turn, employees use their earnings to raise children, pay for housing, groceries, and other personal expenses. In this way, one dollar received by a farmer or processor creates more than one dollar in value as it is spent over and over within the local economy. Paul Mitchell (UW, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, 2010) estimated the total value of the specialty crop (this includes potatoes and vegetables as well as cranberries and ginseng) production and processing industries to be $6.4 billion and a remarkable 34,700 jobs.

In addition to their contribution to the state’s economy and the nation’s food supply, the processing industry is now teaming up with the Wisconsin potato growers to ensure that the farming practices used in the region are sustainable, and protect both the ecosystems and natural resources they depend on. Nick George of the Midwest Food Processors Association reports that his industry is contributing $1.3 million to a new USDA grant headed by Paul Mitchell to assess and build the sustainability of sweet corn and green bean production nationwide. “The future of our industry ultimately depends on how well we protect the resources we depend on, that’s what we are committed to.”

For more information on the economic impact of specialty crops in Wisconsin:

Grand Marsh Farming Family Leaders in Sustainability

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Andy and John Wallendal and their family have farmed 3,000 acres of vegetables, potatoes, forage and grain crops on their land in Grand Marsh for over a half century. Typical of the farms in the Central Sands region, the Wallendal family farm encompasses a rich diversity of crops, prairie remnants, woodlands, and wetlands nestled close to the Wisconsin River and sustained by a groundwater aquifer replenished annually by rainfall.

The Wallendals have always recognized the delicate balance between their farming operations and the natural resources they depend on; they have been pioneers in preserving and enhancing that balance by following the vision of their father Pete, who established the farm in 1967.  That vision is based on understanding the underpinnings of successful practices; “Science is a cornerstone in enhancing both pest management and sustainability” says Andy, emphasizing the long established and ongoing collaboration with the University of Wisconsin to jointly seek solutions to emerging challenges in successful farming.

n the 1980s, when potato production was increasingly becoming dependent on external inputs, the Wallendals donated 20 acres of prime irrigated land and worked with UW specialists from four departments to establish an unprecedented, multi-year, farm-scale experiment that put all the latest research in biologically-based pest management to the test. The result became the foundation for the nationally acclaimed Healthy Grown potato program in the 1990s.

When water conservation became increasingly important in the 1990s , the Wallendals were once again,  among  the first to experiment with state-of-the–art TDR (Time Domain Reflectometry) soil probes to determine exactly how much water was needed for the crop and at what growth stage. The probes were expensive but well worth it; Andy confirmed that “we improved both water use efficiency and fertilizer performance”.

In recent follow-up experiments, Andy and John were again one of the first to use site specific, precision irrigation where water is applied at differing rates across fields according to the varying ability of soils to hold moisture; “we are encouraged that we were able to use water more precisely and still improve sweet corn quality.”

All of the sustainable practices that the Wallendals have pioneered on their cropland are equally complemented by their long-term commitment to improving the ecosystem that their land is part of.  Projects to restore prairies and oak savannas, return unproductive land to wetlands, and connect with neighboring public lands to create wildlife corridors have earned them national awards as conservationists, but most importantly, as Andy states; “our roots are in this land and our goal is to preserve it for generations to come.”

Andy aptly describes the family philosophy as “the rhythm of the land is what we look for; we listen and make adjustments to what the ground and the crops tell us.”

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