Knowing Your Roots

Archive for August, 2013

Farm Perspectives: Packing up the Season

PotatoesBeingGradedNow that harvest is well under way, it’s time to start looking toward our packaging facilities. At Wysocki Produce Farm, that means working side-by-side with our sister company and packaging facility, Paragon Potato Farms (Paragon). However, moving our focus to packaging doesn’t mean we don’t need to keep thinking about our impact on the environment. (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Partnerships and Prosperity

Blog 34

Nestled in the middle of the Central Sands, surrounded by fields of potatoes, sweet corn, green beans and carrots, lays a vital link that holds the key to the amazing productivity of this unique region. The Hancock Agricultural Research Station (HARS) is a mere 412 irrigated acres, and yet many of the innovations and breakthroughs that have enabled Wisconsin’s vegetable production industry to become national leaders can trace their origins to this important research center.

What makes the Hancock Station so successful?  The answer lies in its ability to provide the interactive hub that connects the research arm of the University of Wisconsin System with the farmers of the Sands.  Founded in 1919, the Hancock Station is an excellent example of the Wisconsin Idea—the research conducted by the University of Wisconsin should be applied to solve the problems and improve the health, quality of life, the environment and agriculture for all citizens of the state.   (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Potato Early Dying – Why Do Some Potato Fields Look Dead in August?

Blog 33

As you drive through the Central Sands in August, it’s not unusual to see brown and wilted spots in those potato fields that were so lush in July.  What causes potato crops that once looked so good to suddenly turn brown?  Ironically, it is the same problem that many homeowners have in their gardens.  It’s called potato early dying, and it results when two common soil inhabitants get together to prevent plants from taking in and transporting the nutrients needed for growth.

The two soil dwellers are a fungus and a nematode.  The fungal disease attacks roots and stems, blocking the cells that move nutrients. The microscopic nematode, which is invisible to the human eye, feeds on root hairs making it easier for the fungus to enter the plant. Mid-season conditions, such as heat and dry areas in fields, stress the rapidly growing plants in August; the seemingly innocuous critters then get together and stop the plant’s growth in its tracks at the very time when the plant is putting all its energies into enlarging its tubers.  Soil survey results show that the majority of Wisconsin’s potato fields and many home gardens are routinely infested by both the nematode and fungus; without proper management, plant growth can be reduced by 60% and result in potato yield losses of 20-50%.  Unfortunately, the only consistently effective management technique is chemical fumigation.   (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Conserving water and changing the landscape

Blog 32

The Central Sands is one of the nation’s premier potato and vegetable production areas, ranking 3rd in potatoes, 1st in snap beans and 3rd in sweet corn.  Agriculture in the Central Sands is vital to Wisconsin’s economy, generating over $6.4 billion in revenue and providing 35,000 jobs.  This agricultural bounty is possible because of the area’s broad expanse of fertile soils (developed as a result of retreating glaciers over 10,000 years ago), by our mild temperate climate, from the hard work and dedication of the farmers who settled, manage and continue to operate on the landscape and ultimately, the groundwater.   (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Balancing the water, how we can all contribute

Blog 31

When the glaciers retreated from central Wisconsin over 10,000 years ago, they left behind a broad expanse of sand and gravel outwash plains to create the area that we now know as the Central Sands. In the intervening years, this mostly featureless area of lakebed and sand has evolved both naturally and with our help into a cornucopia of lakes, streams, wetlands, forests and irrigated agricultural fields.

In relatively recent times (the kind that can be measured in half centuries), the changes have been little short of spectacular. Specialty crop agriculture has expanded with improvements in irrigation and production technologies and become one of the premier vegetable production centers in the US.  As our ability to grow high quality vegetables expanded, the food processing industry grew with it; the potato, green bean, sweet corn and pea canning and freezing plants in and surrounding the Sands have become the envy of the nation.   Both the  proximity of the Wisconsin River and the availability of groundwater— often only feet from the land surface—have allowed the paper industry to grow pines and prosper.  The dairy industry, for which the state is famous, represents the next step as the Sands provides an ideal opportunity to integrate new cropping systems to bolster the potato and vegetable crops we already grow so successfully.  The agricultural and industrial growth has brought prosperity, jobs (an estimated 35,000 from agriculture alone) and new opportunities for continued economic development that has enabled vibrant rural communities to emerge and grow—all this in an area that was economically depressed a scant 60 years ago.

Let’s not forget, however, that everything we now cherish in the Sands, from its lakes and streams that we fish and enjoy, to the prosperity and employment that its agriculture brings, is ultimately connected to and dependent on the groundwater aquifer that nature provided all those thousands of years ago and maintains to this day with generous rainfall. We must maintain a balance between the water that we all need and use and the water that nature returns to ensure that the Sands continue to evolve.

Evolution is a continuous process, and we are often unaware that change is actually happening. The climate also fluctuates through time and impacts that change.  We currently benefit from a warming trend that has extended our growing season by two weeks and boosted crop yield.  The downside is that it has also brought dry spells like the drought of 2011-12; we need to use more water than nature provides during these periods, which can limit the aquifer from recharging.  Climate fluctuation also brought wet periods, as in the spring 2013, that flood basements and delay crops but also begins the process of restoring the aquifer’s balance. These natural processes have been fluctuating through the history of the Sands.

The pictures with this article show us that these fluctuations are not new. Pleasant Lake in the southeastern corner of Waushara County has been identified in recent citizen forums as an area of the highest priority because irrigated agriculture has grown, and new dairy expansion has been proposed. The lake water is down and solutions such as limiting irrigation are being actively discussed.  But the photos of Pleasant Lake in 1958 compared to the same spot in 2013 show that lake levels have also been  lower in the past. This does not mean that we should be any less concerned about the lake levels today, but perhaps we should broaden our thinking.  The seemingly obvious link between irrigation and lake levels may be more complicated than it seems—there was essentially no irrigation in 1958 to account for the low lake levels at that time.

We are dealing with a complex ecosystem in the Central Sands; it is naturally fluctuating and evolving through time. We all have an impact on the balance between the water we use and the rate at which it can be recharged. There will be no silver bullet solution, but perhaps we all have roles to play:

  • We all need a better understanding of the system and how it functions before we can design long-term solutions that will work.  We are doing this by jointly supporting university research.
  • The farmers need to do all they can to use water more effectively.  They are doing this by irrigating more efficiently and changing the crop landscape to one that needs less water.
  • The food processors need to return the water they use to the aquifer.  They are doing this by irrigating wash water onto pastures for filtered recharge.
  • Rural communities need to design systems that do not remove water from the system. They are doing this by creating new recharge areas, retention ponds and drainage designs to divert water back to the aquifer to feed the lakes and streams.

Finally all the citizens of the Sands, whether they live on lakes or in towns, need to be aware that the water they use to live and to recreate comes from the same source.  Everything they do that is connected to water can collectively have an impact.  Only by working together can we be sure that the balance of water use and water recharge is maintained as the Sands evolves into the future.

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