Knowing Your Roots

Blog 30

When we look back at the last thirty years of the potato industry in Central Wisconsin, we marvel at the advances growers have made and wonder how much further they can go! Major changes in practices, technologies, and tools—driven by engaged and innovative growers, working side by side with other growers and UW researchers—have occurred to solve challenging production and environmental issues.  This has enabled the industry to increase productivity by over 25% in the last decade alone.  Due to these advances, the acreage of the potato crop has been reduced from 84,000 to 61,000 acres; inputs like water, energy and pesticides have also been reduced, and yet we produce as many potatoes now (we rank 3rd in the US) as we did a decade ago.  

The process began in the 1980s when the inputs used to grow potatoes began to elicit concerns from both citizens and growers.  When water quality in the Central Sands was threatened, growers decided to look for innovative solutions; they reached out to the renowned, multi-disciplinary team of potato researchers from the University of Wisconsin. Together they were determined to develop a comprehensive program for potatoes that would allow growers to integrate all aspects of production into a single approach—one that would be profitable and at the same time, protect natural resources and the environment.  This new paradigm was to lay the groundwork for what we now call “sustainability standards.”

The emerging field of computer software was the foundation.  Beginning with the release of the Potato Disease Management software in 1985, followed by Potato Crop Management in 1989 and ultimately, the most advanced version, WISDOM, in 1995, innovative management systems enabled growers to manage crops in new ways.  These tools helped research/grower teams use cutting-edge technologies to tackle far reaching challenges such as using water more efficiently to reduce groundwater concerns, reducing reliance on pesticides to enhance environmental services and preserving natural ecosystems in the rural farming landscape.  Modules in the tools included forecasting the arrival and development of major diseases, predicting and pinpointing the most vulnerable life stages of key insect pests, predicting crop emergence and canopy development to help manage weeds naturally, comprehensive record keeping for on-farm tracking, and pest profiles detailing extensive information on key potato and vegetable pests to aid crop scouts in identification and management.

One of the most advanced tools is the irrigation scheduling program— which incorporates complete hourly weather data, the ability to accurately forecast short term weather changes, solar radiation, crop development, the plant’s precise and changing needs for water, and the ability of the soil to retain water over time into a sophisticated program— that tells growers when and exactly how much irrigation water to apply to meet crop needs without over-application  The irrigation scheduling tool has been credited with saving energy, limiting water use, improving water quality by avoiding leaching, and improving productivity by accurately predicting needs of the crops.  Today, the irrigation scheduling module is still being modified and improved to enable growers to take advantage of rapidly advancing technologies in the fields of remote sensing and GPS-linked variable application.

These computer-based, cutting-edge programs became the basis of the Wisconsin Healthy Grown program, a grower-driven initiative to grow potatoes sustainably that was launched in 2000 and has since been recognized nationally as a pioneer of the new wave of sustainable farming programs that are emerging across the US.  Healthy Grown has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the amount of pesticide used in certified fields and an increase in alternative pest control strategies that aid in limiting pest impacts while protecting the environment and restoring natural ecosystems.  This program also includes social and economic components; the triple-bottom-line of sustainability includes all three factors –environmental, economic, and social.

So when we look back to the days when concerns over environmental degradation and grower and consumer safety were in the forefront, we can see that the growers have indeed made dramatic changes over the past three decades and are now leading the country in implementing sustainable production systems.  But the good news for all of us is that they are not done; these innovative growers continue to push the bar higher to make sure their systems continue to build on the foundation they have established.  The next thirty years should be very interesting…

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