Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘Central Sands’

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

Plants, Water, and Landscapes

Blog 17When it is warm and dry, you have probably noticed that plants require a lot of water to stay healthy, but did you know that only 10% of the water a plant receives actually remains inside of it to support life processes? Plants lose the other 90% of their required water (liquid) as water vapor (gas) to the atmosphere through a process known as evapotranspiration (ET), which is a combination of water the plants emit from pores in their leaves (transpiration) and water that evaporates from soil and plant surfaces.  ET uses a tremendous amount of solar energy, and this energy use coupled to the plant water use is referred to as the water-energy cycle of a landscape. When humans alter the composition of plants across a landscape (i.e. urbanization, agriculture), they also alter the water-energy cycle.  (more…)

Water – The Critically Important Resource for our Nation’s Food Security

Blog 16

In this current blog series we have been featuring graduate student research on potatoes in Wisconsin, and so far we have covered research in plant breeding, seed production and pest management. We are concluding this student series with 4 blogs on a topic that has emerged as one of the most critical issues facing agriculture today—water.  Will there be a sufficient supply in the coming decades to maintain the productivity and security of our nation’s food supply while guaranteeing the long-term sustainability of the resource in future generations for all to enjoy?

In Wisconsin, the issue of water and its availability is particularly acute in the Central Sands region, which is one of the top five vegetable growing regions in the nation where potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, peas, carrots and cucumbers all rank near the top of U.S. production.  The foundation of the region’s productivity lies in its geological history, which began during the glacial ice age that encompassed Wisconsin over 15,000 years ago.  The Central Sands is a large and relatively flat glacial outwash plain that deposited abundant sandy soils—ideal for vegetable production—and is underlain by a deep groundwater aquifer that provides the water, vital for crop growth and productivity.

The region covers nearly 1,400 square miles and now supports 200,000 irrigated acres, but prior to the 1950s it was not farmed because there was no efficient way to utilize the abundant water supply and as such, much of the area remained undeveloped.  In the mid-1950s, however, this largely unused, resource-poor area was transformed rapidly when modern irrigation technology became available and affordable due to aluminum supplies increasing after World War II.  This raw material provided farmers the ability to build and deploy the center pivot irrigation systems that could, for the first time, deliver water to 160 acre crop fields in less than 24 hours.  This quickly transformed the regional economic landscape into a thriving specialty crop production area which now supports a $6.4 billion food production industry and generates close to 40,000 jobs within the state of Wisconsin.   (more…)

Dedicated to Quality with PTI

potatoesThere is no doubt that our industry is as constantly changing as any other. With the continual rise of technology in our modern age, it is of utmost importance that the agriculture industry keeps up with the new requirements, electronics, and software that help us stay connected to our customers.

With the implementation of PTI (the Produce Traceability Initiative), staying connected to our product – no matter where it may be – is more possible now than ever before. Since the installation of the PTI scanners, printers, and software in many of the packing sheds across the state of Wisconsin, consumers can rest assured that they would be able to trace their potatoes back to the exact field they were grown in, know the day they were planted, harvested, and everything in between. (more…)

Water is the Most Precious Resource for Wisconsin’s Potato and Vegetable Growers

Blog 30

Water use is a critical issue in central Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), as well as its grower members are committed to the judicious use of this most precious resource.

WPVGA formed The Water Task Force in 2009 to bring together resources and expertise to foster the sustainable use of water resources in the Central Sands. The committee was also formed to develop and promote responsible water use practices that will protect the groundwater aquifer of the Central Sands and its associated streams, lakes and wetlands.

The goal of the Wisconsin potato and vegetable growers is to do this in a way that ensures a sustainable agricultural industry for future generations, fosters vibrant rural communities and respects the needs of all its citizens.

The WPVGA Water Task Force has already made remarkable progress in advancing all of its objectives. For example, to increase understanding of the hydrology of the Central Sands, the Task Force has initiated a program to measure groundwater depths in privately-owned irrigation wells across space and time. They have purchased and installed equipment to continuously monitor groundwater in four areas designated as high risk for surface water impacts. They have also commissioned and funded a study by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey to expand understanding of tunnel channel lakes in high risk areas and their interaction with groundwater–this study has since expanded into a significant modeling project funded by NRCS.   (more…)

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