Knowing Your Roots

Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Potato Growers Looking to the Future

Blog 12

Twenty potato growers from all over the Wisconsin converged on Madison last week for their annual “grill the professors” ritual. They came from Eagle River to Spring Green and Coloma to Plover and grow for fries, chips, fresh market and seed.

It’s an eclectic bunch, but they all have one thing in common — they are very good at growing potatoes and are committed to getting even better.

Like the best corporations in the U.S., Wisconsin potato growers are pretty sure that the only way to do this and keep the competitive edge they enjoy is to invest in the future — research and development is where the new ideas emerge, and new technologies are hammered into useful tools.

To make this happen, growers tax themselves annually to provide a source of funds that can be used to promote potato sales and fund research. It is only 6 cents per 100 pounds of potatoes, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you are the third largest producing state in the U.S., with around 62,000 acres averaging almost 45,000 pounds per acre, it adds up fast!

As a result, these growers come to Madison every year with over $350,000 to invest in research. They ask University of Wisconsin faculty to present proposals that will move the potato industry forward.

Proposals can be applied research to solve today’s problems or basic research that may not bring returns for a decade or more. Basic or applied, proposals are all treated the same- the faculty present ideas and hypotheses and then are questioned by the growers. If it’s good science, then it stands a chance!

The faculty members in the biological sciences, who are among the world’s best, respond enthusiastically. This year 27 proposals from 14 UW departments and program areas were submitted, which took growers two days to examine. They will meet again in a month to decide which projects will be funded.

The diversity of 2016 proposals was indeed broad and beyond the scope of this blog to include them all. A few examples will provide an idea of what it takes to stay on top in today’s competitive agricultural world.

Since potatoes are an irrigated crop, water conservation is the highest priority for the industry. This was reflected in six proposals that included: working with DNR staff to incentivize good irrigation practices; economic impacts of water; bringing water users together to discuss solutions at the local level; maintaining water quality; understanding effects of pumping on surface water in streams and lake sand analyzing groundwater fluctuations in a network of over 600 high capacity wells.

We all have our favorite kinds of potatoes — reds, yellows, whites, blues, chips, bakers, mashers — the list seems endless thanks to the Mendelian wizards in the potato breeding field.  These gurus presented four proposals to develop new, tasty and interesting new varieties in the years to come.

Protecting the potato crop from pests like insects, diseases, weeds and nematodes, an area where Wisconsin growers are already recognized as world leaders, garnered 10 proposals indicating that there will be no slowdown in this area any time soon.

Basic research abounded in this year’s proposals with at least 10 proposals using state-of-the-art molecular techniques as tools to develop new varieties faster; understand the role of genes in pest virulence, and examining how pests become resistant to our attempts to control them.

Finally, there are the ideas that are unusual but full of promise. Good examples from this year included: developing a natural community workbook to support restoration and conservation of Wisconsin’s natural ecosystems; delving into the mysterious world of soil microbes and soil health to examine how the millions of organisms down there exist together in harmony but sometimes get unbalanced and cause problems and finally, extracting antioxidants from potato peel to supply the increasing demand from the manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries for specialty potato byproducts.

This is an amazing assemblage of science and innovation, and Wisconsin’s potato grower support the bulk of it. The potato industry gets no federal handouts or subsidies and is used to forging its own future. So think of this at Thanksgiving this year as you tuck into those delicious mashed potatoes!

It’s all about the Data – How the Information Explosion Is Impacting Farming

Blog 7

How much information can you possibly need to grow a crop these days? The answer might surprise you; it’s just about everything you can imagine that might be relevant and could potentially impact making the right decision.

Where you plant (GPS- defined to the nearest inch!); what the soil is made up of and what did you do with it over the past decade; what is the hourly weather now and in previous years; when did you plant; when did the crop emerge; how is it progressing; what pests might threaten, when might they arrive; what about fertility, harvest, yield, quality, storage, daily fluctuations in value – the list is seemingly endless! It’s called ‘big data’ these days, and it is changing the way we farm.

There was a time when farmers compiled much of this information in that wonderful machine called the human brain without thinking of it as data or consciously analyzing it. They walked the fields, felt the soil, caressed the plants, eyed the sky for what the weather might bring and decided what needed to be done.  In today’s world, however, that’s not enough! Today’s farmer needs to feed 150 people (compared to 72 just 35 years ago) and that number is expected to double over the next half century as the world’s population continues to grow. We have achieved this impressive leap in farm productivity thanks to new technology and better access to more information – expect that to play a bigger and bigger role as we go forward.   (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@

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