Knowing Your Roots

Archive for the ‘Feeding your Family’ Category

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.

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Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin Grant and In-Store Promotions for Healthy Grown® Potatoes

The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) is working on expanding in-state sales and recognition of Healthy Grown potatoes – certified as  ecologically grown, socially responsible,  and ecosystem friendly – and they taste great – what a bargain!

This promotion was made possible thanks to a grant awarded from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection agency’s “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” program.

This grant is helping the WPVGA publicize the Wisconsin Healthy Grown program and feature its ecologically grown fresh potatoes, which have put Wisconsin on the leading edge of sustainable potato production.

The Wisconsin Healthy Grown program started in 2000 with a strictly enforced, research-based production standard that differentiated these potatoes from others in the marketplace by its reliance on biologically-based approaches to managing pests. It has since expanded to encompass all aspects of sustainability, including environmentally sound production practices, a fair economic return to growers, social responsibility in the rural communities where the potatoes are grown and, most recently, a requirement to restore natural ecosystems on farms.    (more…)

The Future of Farming: Game Changers for the Next Generation

Blog 6

Harvest is upon us already in the Central Sands and huge harvesters are filling endless lines of trucks with potatoes, green beans and sweet corn—destined to feed the world. These bountiful harvests are already reflecting the results of technological advances in agriculture that are occurring at alarming speed.

Our present day growers are now out-producing their fathers and grandfathers on the family farm by two- and even four- fold by taking advantage of new technology and exceeding the wildest expectations of growers just a decade ago.

In our day to day lives, computers, smart phones and their apps, new methods of communicating, satellites and even drones are in use in every part of society and are advancing so fast that they now define generations. These technologies are also advancing at the same speed in agriculture and changing the way that we produce food.

It is a widely accepted fact that farmers will need to double their production in the foreseeable future in order to keep pace with feeding the world’s population. How is that even possible?   (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@ wisc.edu

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