Knowing Your Roots

Archive for the ‘Family Farms’ Category

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Every Central Sands farmer is acutely aware of the need to balance the water that is withdrawn from the aquifer for irrigation with the water that is returned to it in the form of precipitation that recharges the system annually.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

Potato Late Blight: How Growers are Overcoming the Challenge

Potato late blight has been detected in Wisconsin, but don’t think this disease has the upper hand when it comes to your vegetables. Wisconsin’s potato and vegetable growers are staying ahead of the curve to properly manage this fast-moving community disease to ensure a healthy and adequate food supply.

First, a bit of background on late blight. This disease can be a serious problem to everyone growing potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and similar crops with no distinction between commercial growers, garden centers or home gardeners.

The fungus causing this devastating disease (Phytophthora infestans) is the same organism that caused the Irish potato famine and brought mass starvation to Europe in the late 1800s by destroying the Irish potato crop.

Fortunately, the organism in its current form cannot survive Wisconsin’s winters. The soundest way to control the problem is to inspect seed tubers and host transplants coming into the state, and limiting the protected sites where it might be able to survive by destroying all potato waste from storage.

However, in spite of best efforts to limit the introduction of the disease, when weather conditions are perfect for development, potato late blight can still slip through and quickly become a problem.

Wisconsin’s growers and University of Wisconsin specialists have an extensive monitoring program to determine if the disease is present in the state and due to this diligence, potato late blight was confirmed in Wisconsin this year on June 26th.   (more…)

Vegetable Growers Pushing Advanced Irrigation and Conservation Practices in Wisconsin

We need to conserve our natural resources to guarantee that they will be there for future generations!  We all work to conserve — in our own homes, work places, towns and communities — and we expect our industries to do the same.  Irrigated vegetable growers in Central Wisconsin agree and their highest priority is to conserve the water that they rely on to irrigate the crops that supply food to our tables!  Below are some comments taken directly from growers in Central Wisconsin that reflect that commitment.  Since water conservation is essential for the long term sustainability of the vegetable industry, growers are working to use advanced technologies and best management approaches directly on their farms to maintain these resources.

“Water conservation is important to our farm because we believe in promoting a sustainable environment; both for our farm as a whole and for the community around us.”

“The more water we conserve now the higher availability in the future.”

“Water conservation is important so we don’t …waste ground water which everyone depends upon.”

“We need to be stewards of the resources so we can continue for generations to come.”

“Sustainability is always an important goal on a family farm!”   (more…)

Using Less Water to Grow More Food

Blog 20

Wisconsin’s Central Sands is a unique and bountiful place. Its rain-fed groundwater aquifer feeds one of the nation’s most productive potato and vegetable growing areas. The sandy glacial soils and easily accessible aquifer for irrigation allow Wisconsin to rank in the top three in green beans, peas, sweetcorn and potatoes, which contribute to our diverse and healthy agricultural economy. With an average annual rainfall of 32”, our aquifer is replenished yearly and the groundwater level remains constant, with minor fluctuations.

Ever mindful of the importance of a sustainable groundwater supply and how this resource has been depleted in other parts of the country, potato growers recently measured the depth to groundwater in over 50 irrigation wells in Portage county and found that all but 3 have groundwater at the same or higher levels compared to those recorded when they were first drilled over the last half century. This careful scrutiny is being expanded across the 6-county sands area to ensure that our groundwater is not at risk.

This same aquifer is also connected to and essential for the well-being of the many streams, lakes and wetlands that make the sands an ideal place to live. Wisconsin potato growers are at the forefront in managing these fragile ecosystems, and making sure they remain healthy during dry climate years, when the need for agricultural water use increases. The potato industry is sensitive to these concerns and is actively seeking new ways to irrigate their crops using less water. One logical approach is to increase productivity so that more food can be grown on fewer acres. Potatoes are a good example where this has been achieved. Over the past decade, innovations in production gained through improvements in varieties, fertility, soil health and pest management have allowed growers to produce 95% of the potatoes they did a decade ago but on 20% fewer acres, saving a whopping 25% of the water needed to grow potatoes!

Growers are now actively working with UW researchers to reduce water use still further. In the Department of Horticulture, a research group led by Mike Drilias, is looking at ways to induce crops to root deeper and use the water in the soil more efficiently. One method currently being studied is to simply apply less water to the crop (deficit irrigation) throughout the growing season and force the roots go deeper to find it. Mike has found that crops respond differently to such treatment. Potatoes differ by variety with some less affected while other varieties lose yield and, surprisingly, sweetcorn attained the same yields with 25% less water. Withholding water at specific growth stages (deferred irrigation) is another approach that is rapidly gaining acceptance by growers. Naturally deep-rooted crops such as soybeans, field corn and sweet corn, tend to ‘cheat’ when water is plentiful near the surface and develop shallow root systems but when water is withheld early in the season roots will go deeper and use water that would otherwise be lost. Such tactics can save growers over 2 inches of water on an acre of cropland—that’s 7 million gallons on a single field—without sacrificing yield.

An exciting new concept is also now being investigated that could prove critical in conserving water in irrigated agricultural systems. This takes advantage of the differential use of water by crops, which has been studied by UW departments of Horticulture, Soils, Agronomy and Biological Systems Engineering faculty and students. This differing need for water among crops opens the potential for designing future agricultural landscapes that can be profitable and yet use less water. Such landscapes have been evolving naturally, driven by economic and production considerations over the past 20 years. As potato acreage, (which requires 18 to 22 inches of total water throughout the growing season, including rainfall), has declined in response to greater productivity, the acreages of green beans (which need only 6.5 inches) and sweet corn (needing 12 inches) have increased to fill the gap, resulting in landscapes that actually use 25% less water. The potato and vegetable industry is actively supporting research in this area with the goal of designing landscape strategies to develop crop rotations in space and time to promote water conserving farmscapes.

For more information contact: wyman@

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