Knowing Your Roots

Archive for December, 2015

The Landscape is Changing, but Our Farmer’s Commitment to “Doing it Right” Remains Constant

Blog 15

The Central Sands is one of the nation’s premier potato and vegetable production areas, ranking 3rd in potatoes, 1st in snap beans (also called green beans) and 3rd in sweet corn, and the farmers who grow these crops are a vital component of the state’s economy — generating over $6 billion in revenue and providing close to 40,000 jobs.

This agricultural bounty is possible because of the area’s broad expanse of fertile, sandy soils laid down by retreating glaciers over 10,000 years ago, which are underlain by a deep groundwater aquifer providing the water for irrigation that enables the area to flourish.

Every Central Sands farmer is acutely aware of the need to balance the water that is withdrawn from the aquifer for irrigation with the water that is returned to it in the form of precipitation that recharges the system annually.

Farmers in the Central Sands are doing everything they can to maintain the delicate balance between the water they use and what nature returns by being more efficient in how they manage and irrigate their crops.

Every drop of irrigation applied is based on sophisticated scheduling programs that take into account exactly how much water each crop needs at each stage of its growth, how much water the soil can hold and how the weather will impact supply.  Water is then only applied to match the precise crop need.

The investments made by farmers to enhance the long term sustainability of this area and its precious resources are being enhanced by a gradual evolution of the crop landscape in the Central Sands.

This process, which is influenced by changing economic times as well as the need to conserve water, has seen crop landscapes move slowly from high water use systems based largely on potatoes to a mixture of potatoes and processed vegetables, such as sweet corn and snap beans that require significantly less water. In the decade between 1996 and 2006, potato acreage in the Sands decreased by 28%, while sweet corn increased 36%, and snap beans increased 26%.

But what does this mean in terms of water and a more sustainable landscape?  Well, potatoes need 15-18 inches of water, while sweet corn needs only 10 inches, and snap beans (the shortest season crop) needs only 5-7 inches.

To put this in perspective, sweet corn uses 54% less water than potatoes and snap beans use 68% less!  This means that today’s typical crop landscape uses significantly less water than those of a decade ago.

Water conservation is just one of the ways our Central Sands farmers are striving to become more sustainable. The potato growers have long been recognized as the national leaders in ‘green’ production with the 2000 release of the Healthy Grown® brand. They have since followed up with expanded ecosystem enhancement requirements and industry-wide sustainability assessments to track improvement over time.

Sweet corn and green bean growers have now taken up the banner and are expanding the concept of sustainable production across the modern crop landscape.  Working with University of Wisconsin Agriculture Economist Paul Mitchell, farmers have recently completed an assessment of growing practices used in sweet corn and snap bean production systems across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois where the bulk of U.S. production is located.

Dr. Mitchell has developed a unique analysis called the “Frontiers of Sustainability.” The analysis takes information from individual farmers and identifies key practices that drive sustainability for that grower. The resulting score cards enable farmers to identify practices that will improve performance and measure that improvement over time.

This capability raises the intriguing possibility of designing crop landscapes in the future that can be profitable and protect natural resources across whole ecosystems that include cropping systems, forests prairies and wetlands.

This region is fortunate that the farmers growing potatoes, sweet corn, snap beans and the myriad of other specialty crops in the Central Sands landscape, recognize the importance of developing and fostering practices that will sustain the area’s resources for future generations. This philosophy may not always be the most profitable in the short-term, but fortunately the satisfaction of doing things ‘the right way’ for future generations is often enough.

Know your farmer

As time moves from generation to generation—from baby boomers, to Gen Xers to Millennials—it seems that less and less is known about where our food comes from and who grows it.

This isn’t surprising as farmers are getting to be a pretty rare breed.  In 1910, it was pretty easy to get to know a farmer; about 1 in 3 people in the U.S. were employed by agriculture on over 6 million farms.

Today is a very different story.  Farmers make up less than two percent of the nation’s population.  It is hard to make a living turning the sod and growing food when you have no control over your input costs which keep going up and virtually no say in what the marketplace will pay for it.

Consequently, farming is an aging profession with 53% of its ranks over 55 years old. Only 6% are under 34 years old and recruitment is declining rapidly with a 20% drop in beginning farmers from 2007-2012. The reality is that it’s hard to make it just by farming. Shockingly, 52% of farmers have a primary occupation outside agriculture.

Yet, in the U.S., we continue to enjoy a stable food supply that is among the least expensive and safest on the planet.

Hard to believe?  Well, according to USDA-ERS data in 2014, food consumed at home represented only 7% of consumer expenditures in the United States.  To put that in perspective, food consumed at home represented 23% of expenditures in Mexico, 26% in China and 29% in Russia.  Of the more than 80 countries in the survey, eight spent more on alcohol and tobacco than U.S. citizens do to put food on their kitchen table.

How can this be possible?  There are fewer farmers and yet we still have plenty of food that is safe and affordable.

The answer is that today’s farmers are simply a lot more efficient than their parents and grandparents had to be. A farmer fed 72 people just 35 years ago but now feeds 150, and that number is expected to double over the next half century as the world’s population continues to grow.

This is not the ominous factory farming we hear about, these are still the same family farms that have been the staple of US agriculture for generations. In fact 97% of U.S. farms are still family owned and most often multi-generational, but they have used modern technology to produce more food on fewer acres for less money.

They must continue to do this to turn a profit and remain in business. Profitable agriculture is beneficial to the consumer.  Profitable farmers can invest in efficiency that keeps food affordable, upgrades that protect the environment and technologies that ensure a safe food supply.  And yes, they want to make a living just like the rest of us!

A turnaround may be in the making, however, as evidenced over the last decade by the remarkable growth in popularity and interest in locally-grown produce, farmers’ markets and CSAs.

It seems that the younger generation wants to know where their food comes from.  Even when we eat out, many of the finest restaurants now feature food items that are proudly identified with the individual farmers who produced them.

Maybe the time is right for stepping back and getting re-acquainted with our farmers and the food they grow. Let’s hope so because agriculture’s future depends on consumers who are willing to pay for a safe, healthy food supply and we, as consumers, need farmers who can continue to supply it.

Potatoes—not just for dinner anymore!

Blog 13

People love potatoes!  They are fresh, healthy and full of nutrients; they are synonymous with comfort food.  Who can refuse mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, fresh potato bars during winter or grilled potatoes in the summer?  Then there’s potato salad at picnics, potato pancakes with sour cream, and who can resist, fries with burgers. People love them all!

Interestingly enough, however, potatoes are now used for much more than just human consumption.  Log onto Pinterest and you can find many interesting alternatives for potatoes, like cleaning silverware, removing rust or creating homemade stamps!   (more…)

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