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.
While planting with horses was a vast improvement over hand planting, it cannot compare to the efficiency needed to feed today’s hungry and growing population. To remain in business and meet society’s food demands, it’s not unusual for these same family farms to grow 750 or more acres of potatoes. Springtime in Wisconsin tends to be a short season. This pushes farmers to plant their crop generally in a 4-5 week stretch when nature provides them this opportunity as well as the best conditions for growth moving quickly toward summer.
Modern planters have been developed to meet our needs for efficiency; some farmers plant with 12 row machines which require the power of 250 horses. We use precision technology to place the seed pieces at the exact spacing and depth needed to produce the myriad of end products demanded by the market place. GPS technology and auto-steer is used to ensure efficient land use. These advances make it possible for a single farmer to get the entire crop planted in the narrow window that nature provides.
Although modern farm machinery is expensive, it is a necessary investment because today’s consumers carry higher expectations than ever before. Dozens of different varieties and specialty potatoes are planted each spring to meet the diverse needs of the marketplace. These varieties range from russets for the fresh market (great baked potatoes) and processing (fries and tater tots products), round whites for mashing and chips, red, yellow and even blue fleshed ones for salads, to odd-shaped, multicolored and shaped fingerlings. All of these require precise planting depths, spacing and fertility regimes that can only be provided by today’s modern machinery. So when you take that spring drive through the Central Sands and marvel at the sheer size of the farm machinery you see, remember that these are what are needed to supply the supermarkets of the 21st century with the diverse varieties of potatoes and vegetables we love.
This spring has been particularly challenging. We started about two weeks behind with a winter that wouldn’t leave. Then we experienced several delays due to frequent rains. Today, planting has gotten itself on track and we are hopeful that plant growth will soon follow. June in Wisconsin is a time period of very rapid crop growth and development. Take a drive, then follow your path two weeks later. You will be amazed. Don’t wait too long, peas mature in a very short season. The good news is – they will be available at Grandma Millers – take the Hancock exit from I-39 and go ½ mile west.