Land stewardship—that heart felt love of our open, green areas, interspersed with crops that are so essential in maintaining our rural landscapes. We all want to be land stewards but what does that term mean to farmers in Central Wisconsin who own many of these lands?
Wisconsin’s land ethic writings go back to Aldo Leopold, the esteemed author of the Sand County Almanac in which he described Wisconsin’s biodiversity, beauty and ability to integrate landscapes and agriculture.
Although the book was written in 1949, the themes of the book resonate today, especially with farmers who manage both large and small swaths of land and carefully weave together the natural and agricultural areas into biodiverse landscapes.
There is certainly a personal value to land ethic, but the benefits expand beyond private ownership to society at large. (more…)
For any progressive business, it is common knowledge that investment in research and development will increase its efficiency or broaden its portfolio. This principal applies to agriculture as well and nowhere is this better exemplified than by Wisconsin’s potato growers. These hardworking growers are known across the United States for their innovations in production, resource conservation and sustainability. These achievements did not occur by happenstance; they required a vision and an investment from the industry to achieve that vision. Recognizing this, every Wisconsin potato grower voluntarily pays 6 cents to their association for every 100 pounds of potatoes produced annually. This is no paltry sum, as Wisconsin is the 3rd largest potato-producing state in the US with close to 28 million 100 pound sacks grown during 2013!
A large portion of this money is invested back into the University of Wisconsin to provide scientists from multiple disciplines the dollars needed to fund research in all areas impacting potatoes. Over 25 projects are funded annually – ranging from short-term, innovative problem solving to long-term, basic science- for a total of over $350,000 each year. The initial association investment of $10-20,000 in funds to individual projects pays big dividends to the growers, the industry and the state, as UW researchers are able to use this funding to leverage additional federal funding sources back to Wisconsin by over 100 fold! In 2014 this translated into over $30 million return on a $350,000 investment!
The dedication and excellence of faculty, academic staff and graduate students across multiple academic disciplines generates remarkable results. To give readers a glimpse into some of the fascinating individual stories being generated in labs and field stations across Wisconsin, the New Family Farm postings over the next several months will feature ongoing research being conducted by graduate students. These will address important topic areas that include Potato Breeding, Seed Production, Growing Potatoes, Protecting Natural Resources and Managing Pests. Each topic will be introduced by faculty experts in the field and followed by specific graduate student research projects. We hope you enjoy these glimpses into the stories that are evolving in one of the nation’s premier potato research programs.
Spring, beautiful springtime has arrived and we are moving quickly into summer. Flowers are blooming and color has returned to our landscapes. In farming regions, crop color has returned and also the diverse habitats of native landscapes. In an effort to restore natural ecosystems, Wisconsin potato farmers along with the International Crane Foundation of Baraboo, WI have formed a collaboration to manage participating farms as whole ecosystems.
Each spring growers identify areas on their farms that have restoration potential. Farmers document areas where the restoration of natural ecosystems, including grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands, can be achieved. This typically occurs on field edges, unproductive areas, or in areas of existing remnants of native plant communities. In Central Wisconsin, this work is often focused on re-establishing native grassland with perennial flowers and native grasses. The dry sand prairies with short grasses were the original grass cover of the Central Sands region.
If done correctly, native restorations can conserve rare plants, improve habitat for declining grassland birds (such as meadowlark, bobolink, and grasshopper sparrows), and provide habitat for Wisconsin’s prairie-associated reptiles and amphibians. Perennial plant communities also benefit the soil, water, and the aesthetics of the local region. (more…)
The crop fields and natural areas in Wisconsin’s Central Sands area make up a diverse and complex landscape that intermingles one of the nation’s most productive potato and specialty crop production areas with remnants of prairies, oak savannas, pine breaks, wetlands, streams and lakes that existed after the glaciers receded thousands of years ago. This diversity provides ecological services—such as soil health, drainage, pollination and natural regulation of unwanted or invasive species—that go largely unrecognized and yet are essential to a healthy and vibrant ecosystem and the communities that depend on it. Much of the land in the Central Sands is privately owned by the farmers, whose families settled it generations ago. We are indeed fortunate that these far-sighted growers recognize the importance of the diversity contained on their farmsteads and are taking steps to preserve it by restoring remnants of natural habitats to their original condition. More than ten years ago, several potato growers in the Sands set out to develop more sustainable approaches to farming that preserved natural resources and ecological diversity. The program, called Healthy Grown™, involves the restoration on habitat remnants, and the use of fire is an important tool in that process.
Historically, the natural burning of prairies, wooded areas, and wetlands was important to maintain the diversity of species requiring more open landscapes. Without fire, plant species diversity is diminished and regional landscapes change, but with proper timing, prescribed burning controls many undesirable woody plants and herbaceous weeds while invigorating native, fire-dependent species. Prescribed burning can prepare a site for planting and/or seeding, inhibit exotic/invasive species, improve habitat for grassland species and reduce the potential for property-damaging wildfires. Fire removes invading woody plants that store most of their active growing tissue above ground while deep-rooted prairie plants can regenerate and thrive using growing tissue located below the ground. Fire also returns nutrients to the soil, and the bare soils warm up earlier in the spring to promote rapid growth of native plants. (more…)
When we look back at the last thirty years of the potato industry in Central Wisconsin, we marvel at the advances growers have made and wonder how much further they can go! Major changes in practices, technologies, and tools—driven by engaged and innovative growers, working side by side with other growers and UW researchers—have occurred to solve challenging production and environmental issues. This has enabled the industry to increase productivity by over 25% in the last decade alone. Due to these advances, the acreage of the potato crop has been reduced from 84,000 to 61,000 acres; inputs like water, energy and pesticides have also been reduced, and yet we produce as many potatoes now (we rank 3rd in the US) as we did a decade ago. (more…)