The 2012 USDA census of agriculture tells us that Wisconsin lost 4.1% of its farmland from 2007 to 2012. While this may not sound alarming, it was the 4th largest loss among the US states and that should raise warning flags. In Wisconsin, we will not feel the impact in major commodities like corn, soybeans and wheat; the US is blessed with fertile production areas from coast to coast that guarantee a safe and affordable food supply, and we are often able to export more than we consume. However, if we look at other key components of our diet, like vegetables, the loss of production capability in Wisconsin could have devastating impacts. Wisconsin is one of the nation’s premier production centers for potatoes and processing vegetables. Maintaining our ability to produce these crops is important for everyone.
Take a spin around the produce section of your favorite grocery store and you see a veritable cornucopia of goodness. But when you look at where it was grown—Mexico, Central America, California, South America and even Europe—you probably are resigned to the fact that if you want to eat fresh vegetables in the winter, then you have to eat imports. But when you look around the grocery store in mid-summer, and you still see that most of our vegetables are still coming from faraway regions, well then, maybe something needs to be done! If Wisconsin farmers can continue to grow vegetable crops effectively, it will allow us to maintain a balance between a sustainable supply of produce from our own area, rather than complete reliance on imported and out of state food.
But why is this so important? The presence of Wisconsin in the balance provides price stability in the long term and a sustainable food supply for consumers by challenging the imported produce to match our cost of growing the food and transporting it to market. Wisconsin is situated within a few hundred miles of major urban population centers like Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and St. Louis and holds a major competitive advantage in transportation costs over production centers in Mexico and California. With produce such as potatoes, carrots and processed vegetables, this advantage is year-round. When you calculate the food miles and carbon footprint of California carrots, Idaho potatoes, Mexican peppers and Guatamalan melons, which have to be shipped thousands of miles to Midwestern consumers compared to just a few hundred for Wisconsin produce, you realize the incredible cost and energy required just for transport. Also, when you consider the added days for long distance transportation to your grocers shelf and the unavoidable impact that this has on product freshness and quality, the importance of maintaining our Wisconsin farms is emphasized still further.
Another less obvious advantage of maintaining our ability to grow food is to ensure that it is nutritious and safe to eat. Food safety becomes an issue of concern when food is imported from countries that do not necessarily maintain as strict an oversight of production practices as we do in the US. Here, we often take food safety for granted since organizations, like the EPA and FDA, minimize the risk of pesticide residues and pathogen contamination. Maintaining a diversity of food production locations also insulates us from geographic challenges and allows us to maintain a fresh and healthy food source when other regions have disastrous growing seasons due to weather or pests. Maintaining a diversity of locations for crop production, guarantees the stable food supply needed to feed our growing population.
Finally, one of the most important reasons to maintain our farmland is that specialty crop production is an expensive and complicated business; if we lose the ability to grow these crops, then it will be very difficult to regain it in the future! The refined skills needed to grow specialty crops takes years of experience and knowledge to develop. Let’s ensure that these skills and the specialized labor, machinery and infrastructure required to grow these crops and ensure agricultural stability stays here in Wisconsin and gets passed on to future generations.