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.
The success of the Wisconsin Idea depends ultimately on being able to develop synergistic partnerships that meld the experience and problem-solving innovation of farmers with the research base of the University. The Hancock Station does this through a 3-step process that has stood the test of time and is now leading the industry into a new era:
1) The Station provides the venue where farmers and researchers meet on a regular basis for educational programs and field days to exchange ideas, discuss problems and explore potential solutions.
2) The Station is the thriving research hub where scientists of all disciplines conduct the small scale experiments that test the validity of these ideas and develop the research base that underpins successful solutions.
3) Researchers and the farmers take the most promising solutions and innovations and develop full scale on-farm trials where their value can be proven.
This model requires a huge commitment from everyone, but when done correctly, the benefits are felt across the state. Faculty and student teams from more than ten academic departments, Centers and Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) at the UW, and from other Universities within the UW-System (including the nearby University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point) are involved annually in over 100 research projects aimed at addressing a myriad of questions on potato and vegetable production in the state.
Much of this research is funded directly by the farmers who tax themselves to provide over $300,000 annually in project funding. In addition, they also support vital support facilities, such as the state of the art, $3.4 million Storage Research Facility built by the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and donated to the University in 2006. Given today’s research costs, these contributions from the grower community may seem modest. But when viewed as seed money, they are second to none in allowing UW researchers to leverage extramural state and federal funding. Scientists from the four main production disciplines (Entomology, Horticulture, Plant Pathology, Soil Science) within CALS who conduct the bulk of potato and vegetable research are funded by the WPVGA for approximately $200,000 annually. Yet collaboratively, these scientists currently hold over $15 million in competitive federal, state, or private grants and comprise a vegetable research team that is highly successful and known both in the US or overseas.
This pool of talent and expertise that has its roots in the partnerships and research fostered by the Hancock Research Station can be focused quickly on the broad challenges facing agriculture across the state and the world. Of these, our ability to increase food productivity to feed a rapidly growing population without sacrificing our environment is paramount. The Hancock Station already has scientists representing a broad range of disciplines who are investigating key topics related to this challenge including: plant varieties that can produce more with less water and resist pest attack; plant nutrition that does not negatively impact water quality; water management that uses advanced technologies to maintain and protect natural resources; environmental programs that foster biodiversity preserve ecosystems; and better ways to store crops after harvest to reduce food waste.
These advances in knowledge result from these research endeavors that stem from the partnerships made possible by the Hancock Agricultural Research Station and the farmers of the Central Sands. But in reality, these advances benefit all of us by providing healthy, safe and productive food while maintaining ecological balanced and environmental benefits and activities for the region. Felix Navarro, the Superintendant of the Hancock Station, recognizes the importance of “the collaboration of the College, growers and industry to develop the infrastructure to make great advances in research possible. The integration of these elements are key to agricultural development in Wisconsin and beyond, in agreement with the Wisconsin Idea.”