It’s May, and in the Central Sands farmers are well on their way to wrapping up potato planting! Farmers in northern counties like Langlade, the Antigo area, and north are just getting underway. The wind is from the south, and regular spring rains are causing planting delays, testing patience while recharging the groundwater. The landscape is awake and thriving with native grasslands, trees budding and soon, with growing vegetables–the Central Sands region is one of the nation’s premier potato and vegetable production areas in the United States. Just the warm and earthy smell of the soil after rain is an elixir to the farmers; and the season is underway.
Farmers preparing for potato planting require several weeks of planning and organizing in advance of the big startup day. Potato seed took 3-4 years to produce in the right varieties and volumes in the northern reaches of the state. Then growers carefully warm the seed to the current soil temperature and cut them into 2-3 ounce pieces. These seed pieces are given a few days to heal (suberize), growing a protective skin to help prevent against disease and rot. These 2 ½ ounce seeds contain the energy needed to give the sprouting plant the push to grow and emerge until it can begin to produce its own energy through photosynthesis.
Farmers once used horses to till and plant the land. They had their own pace, their own speed. The simple machines of the past planted one row at a time at the unpredictable yet predetermined speed of horse. One farmer held the reins to keep the rows straight while another rode on the planter. By hand, potato seed pieces were fed into a device that dropped them into furrows opened by the planter and then closed and covered them with a hill where the new plant would grow and develop. This was a two-horsepower, two-farmer operation that was tediously slow but still a huge improvement on its predecessor that required a spade and bucket. In those early days, it might take a family two months of backbreaking work to plant just 20 acres. (more…)
Few now question that our planet’s resources are being challenged by our relentless population growth, and yet most of us are unable to do anything meaningful to address these far reaching issues. Water is among the most precious of these resources, and farmers in all parts of the world are struggling to find ways to use water more wisely while preserving its availability for future generations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wisconsin’s Central Sands—one of the most productive potato and vegetable growing areas in the US, which depends on irrigation to produce the food that is needed to provide food security for the nation. The water needed for irrigation is drawn from an extensive aquifer (underlying several counties) that was formed in glacial times and has been replenished annually by rainfall and snow melt for over a half century. Evidence in recent years, however, suggests that water levels in parts of the aquifer may be declining and that this is adversely impacting some of the surface water lakes and streams connected to the groundwater. The reasons for this are complex and may be related to a combination of factors including shifting rainfall patterns, extending growing seasons, the need to irrigate more to meet increasing crop demand, and expanding rural communities and industries.
The potato and vegetable growers in the Central Sands are not content to debate causes, and they have united to proactively seek solutions. In 2011, the growers joined forces with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and researchers from several University of Wisconsin departments to launch a major new Conservation Innovation Grant to examine ways to use water more efficiently. This 3-year landmark study “Preserving water resources in Central Wisconsin” was awarded $700,000 in competitive federal funding AND the award required matching funds from farmers to become a reality. This is where the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and the Midwest Food Processors Association stepped to the plate and hit a bases loaded home run by pledging a whopping $634,000 to secure the funds. This is money raised annually from grower-members and demonstrates the commitment these growers have to the future. The grant is now entering its 3rd year and is already justifying every penny of investment. (more…)
We are finally experiencing a sure sign of spring – south east winds. It might be welcome to many, but it can be a big problem for Central Sands vegetable growers. Wind can move small grains of sand from bare soil. In some places this may not cause problems but it cannot be tolerated in the Central Sands of Wisconsin where farmers spend lifetimes building the soil to the structure and health needed to grow quality vegetables. How can farmers prevent soil erosion?
Protecting soils from wind erosion takes a systems approach. After harvest farmers protect their fields by planting a cover crop. Usually we plant a type of grass or deep-rooted crop so that the field is not left bare and vulnerable to wind. Many times rye is planted because it will germinate in the fall and continue to grow the following spring, extending time to our coverage. In general, the Central Sands landscape is very vulnerable to soil erosion, because the land is flat. Even a small fraction of topsoil lost due to the wind can equate to tons of soil loss if fields are left unprotected. Cover crops serve to hold precious topsoil in place and limit soil loss, but they also do so much more! Cover crops also provide and enhance beneficial organisms in the topsoil by providing stable micro-habitats. They also limit nutrient and water losses on fields by capturing unused nutrients like nitrogen from previous crops, thereby reducing leaching potential. In addition, they build soil health by adding beneficial organic residue and sequestering carbon. Cover crops are not grown to generate a profit but to protect the precious soil resources on the farm. (more…)