Knowing Your Roots

Archive for September, 2013

Thoughts for Food: Burning to Restore Life

Blog 38

The crop fields and natural areas in Wisconsin’s Central Sands area make up a diverse and complex landscape that intermingles one of the nation’s most productive potato and specialty crop production areas with remnants of prairies, oak savannas, pine breaks, wetlands, streams and lakes that existed after the glaciers receded thousands of years ago.  This diversity provides ecological services—such as soil health, drainage, pollination and natural regulation of unwanted or invasive species—that go largely unrecognized and yet are essential to a healthy and vibrant ecosystem and the communities that depend on it.  Much of the land in the Central Sands is privately owned by the farmers, whose families settled it generations ago.  We are indeed fortunate that these far-sighted growers recognize the importance of the diversity contained on their farmsteads and are taking steps to preserve it by restoring remnants of natural habitats to their original condition.  More than ten years ago, several potato growers in the Sands set out to develop more sustainable approaches to farming that preserved natural resources and ecological diversity.  The program, called Healthy Grown™, involves the restoration on habitat remnants, and the use of fire is an important tool in that process.

Historically, the natural burning of prairies, wooded areas, and wetlands was important to maintain the diversity of species requiring more open landscapes.  Without fire, plant species diversity is diminished and regional landscapes change, but with proper timing, prescribed burning controls many undesirable woody plants and herbaceous weeds while invigorating native, fire-dependent species.  Prescribed burning can prepare a site for planting and/or seeding, inhibit exotic/invasive species, improve habitat for grassland species and reduce the potential for property-damaging wildfires.  Fire removes invading woody plants that store most of their active growing tissue above ground while deep-rooted prairie plants can regenerate and thrive using growing tissue located below the ground.  Fire also returns nutrients to the soil, and the bare soils warm up earlier in the spring to promote rapid growth of native plants.   (more…)

Thoughts for Food – Farmers Taking the Lead to Advance Sustainability

Blog 37Farmers are the owners—and environmental stewards—of large swaths of agricultural and undeveloped, natural land across rural America.   Without these privately-owned, beautiful landscapes, our communities would not be blessed with the vistas of prairies, forests, meadows and wetlands that intermingle with the crops that produce our food; we have become accustomed to enjoying their beauty.  Farmers have always worked to maintain these landscapes of crops and natural areas in ways that promote their environmental and ecological health, because the whole farmstead  is an interacting system that is dependent not just on the individual crops that are grown but on the diversity of all its parts acting together. To survive in a competitive world and be sustainable over the long haul, our farms and rural landscapes require careful tending, and in modern times when “sustainability” has become a buzz-word, we can take comfort in the knowledge that our farmers have been doing this all along.

The potato and vegetable growers in Wisconsin’s Central Sands have long been innovators and national leaders in developing programs that measure the sustainability of their practices and document adoption and improvement overtime.  For the past dozen years, potato growers have been documenting advanced farming practices, which encourage ecological restoration, reduced pesticide use, and biologically based management in their systems, through a grower- led program called Healthy Grown™.  This program has demonstrated that adoption of sustainable farming practices can produce positive changes overtime, and still provide a safe, economical food supply. Growers set out initially to become more sustainable because many believed that this was the right way to go, but after a decade of investment, they are finding that they have a competitive advantage in supplying potatoes to retailers and consumers who are increasingly demanding sustainably produced food.    (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Are we wasting the bounty we produce?

Blog 36

The harvest season is now in full swing in Wisconsin’s Central Sands. Potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, carrots, cucumbers and beets are rolling up the harvester chains and into trucks for the short journey to Wisconsin’s processing and distribution centers and then onward to consumers across the US and beyond.  Another record season seems within reach in 2013 thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of the farmers—and with some help from generous early season rains!  With some Central Sands potato growers surpassing 30 tons per acre (that’s more than 3,000 ten pound bags per acre), increased productivity has held overall production close to that achieved a decade ago when 28% more acres of potatoes were grown. (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Biological Control: the good guys eating the bad ones!

Blog 35We all want the good guys to win, right?  Well, it is even more important in agriculture where there are good guys with wonderful names like assassin bugs and pirate bugs, which regularly seek out, kill and eat the bad guys that are eating our crops.  This is how nature keeps the balance between good and bad, and our potato and vegetable growers have learned nature’s tricks; they are masters at manipulating the system in their favor.  This concept is called biological control, and it uses a broad range of beneficial species that occur naturally in diverse ecosystems to attack pest species that feed on crops, keeping them at levels which do not harm the crops.

This process of one organism regulating populations of another is found throughout nature from microscopic bacteria to alpha predators, like wolves.  If we look with inquisitive eyes, we can see this in action in our very own back yards.  In production agriculture, biological control can be seen at a much larger scale.  It has become a vital component of the farmer’s toolbox that can be used in tandem with other approaches to keep pest populations below damaging levels.  The whole system is called Integrated Pest Management; the goal is to use pesticides only as a last resort when pests increase to damaging levels.   (more…)

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