Knowing Your Roots

Blog 4_2Blog 4Land 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.   Read the rest of this entry »

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.   Read the rest of this entry »

Blog 2

The farm fields are coming to life in Wisconsin’s Central Sands as the potato, sweet corn, green bean and pea crops — the lifeblood of Portage County’s bountiful agriculture — come into blossom.  As we watch and enjoy this remarkable productivity unfold, it’s a good time to reflect on what makes it all possible. The Sands themselves and the underlying groundwater aquifer created in the glacial ages are the foundation. Maintaining the delicate balance between these precious natural resources and the needs of everyone who uses and depends on them, is an ongoing challenge that we all must be a part of if future generations are to enjoy the benefits of this unique area.

Nowhere is this challenge more daunting than in the Little Plover River watershed in northern Portage County. The Little Plover is a trout stream that meanders its way westward from its headwaters east of the ancient Johnstown glacial moraine through wetlands, woods, farmland, and the homes, parks, businesses, and industries of the bustling village of Plover to its confluence at the Wisconsin River south of Stevens Point. In recent years, the Little Plover has experienced fluctuations in its flow patterns that include reduced flows in late summer and even areas that have dried up altogether in extremely dry years.

The future sustainability of this watershed is important and everyone who lives in the area or depends on its water needs to come together and work to implement strategies that will contribute to securing the resource for generations to come.

It is exciting to report that this is already coming to fruition through the foresight of a group of individuals and organizations who are working together to implement  far-reaching plans address water issues in the watershed through the Little Plover River Conservancy Project. The collaboration brings together the Village of Plover, Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) and its member growers, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Department of Transportation. The Little Plover Conservancy is an ambitious and multi-faceted approach, which involves:

  • The Village of Plover secured a state grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Portage County (Land Preservation Fund) to create a conservancy park.
  • This is the first step in a broader master plan, which will create hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and cross-country skiing in concert with an educational mission. This in addition to the 19 parks already established in the village! The DNR also funded a major research project being conducted by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey to model groundwater in the watershed and help identify ways to improve stream flows.

The resources and energy being invested in this relatively small watershed are indeed impressive, and they reflect the commitment of everyone in the area to work together to protect these assets on which we all depend.

 

 

 

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!”   Read the rest of this entry »

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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