It is approaching October in the Central Sands of Wisconsin, and the nights are cool and arriving earlier every day. The growing season is over, and harvest is almost complete. Potatoes are nestled comfortably in their environmentally controlled storages, vegetables are canned and ready to go to consumers across the US, and the fields are planted with cover crops to protect the precious sandy soil from the winds that will come next spring. You probably think that the growers are now taking a much needed break from the 18 hour days of a long summer and catching some well-deserved R&R. No such luxury! This is the 21st century, and the entrepreneurial business of farming is a year round job. Don’t let the cold weather fool you; the winter season is a busy and active time on the farm.
With potatoes, the first order of business is to manage the crop that growers spent the whole season nurturing and protect it for the next 6 months in storage to meet the year-round demand for nutritious potatoes with that “fresh from the ground” feel that we all want. This is an enormous task. Wisconsin growers produce over 30 million 100 pound sacks and many of these have to be stored in huge, climate-controlled warehouses where sophisticated control systems maintain precise temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels that keep the crop from shrinking, rotting or developing sprouts. Each week as orders for fresh and plump potatoes come in from retailers and processors across the country, whatever is needed is withdrawn from storage to be washed, sized, packaged and delivered to customers. Managing this huge investment, valued at over $200 million, through a storage season and delivering it to consumers in prime condition when it is needed guarantees that the growers get little time off to enjoy the fruits of their labor!
Winter is also the only time when growers have the chance to educate themselves about new farming techniques by learning from and networking with researchers and other growers at professional conferences. Producing potatoes and processed vegetables is a dynamic and competitive business and to remain viable in this environment, growers must keep abreast of new developments and changing technologies. They do this in the off-season by traveling around the country to attend conferences and seminars where information and the latest research findings are exchanged. For example, in Wisconsin a large educational conference sponsored by the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and the University of Wisconsin Extension is held each February. This show is attended by over 500 people from all production regions in the US (and beyond) and is recognized as one of the leading educational meetings in the nation! Cutting edge research is discussed, new varieties are reviewed, and new techniques to advance this intricate farming system are revealed. This is where growers start working on the next year’s crops, and the process begins all over again. Growers and farm employees also need to be professionally certified in areas such as food safety and safe pesticide application, and training sessions and examinations must be scheduled during this busy off-season.
The “business of farming” requires growers to be skillful in areas that are far beyond just growing the crop, and winter is the time when growers meet with business and financial partners, customers and suppliers to work on marketing and sales opportunities and line up inputs while planning the next year’s crop. They are true business managers! No one likes regulations and paperwork, but when the leaves begin to fall you will find the growers deep in meetings with financial lenders, business consultants, human resource specialists, and tax accountants (just to name a few) to ensure business compliance, management, and economic returns in all these areas. For Central Sands growers, keeping current on regulations, tax laws and employee management and relations are an essential part of doing business.
So, when you travel Interstate 39 this winter and drive by the snow-covered fields, remember that in the buildings scattered among those fields, there is a hive of activity ongoing as the growers care for this year’s crop, prepare for next years, and deal with the business and education side of farming. There is little time for that much needed R&R!