Wisconsin’s temperate climate, proximity to major urban markets, and abundant rainfall put the Wisconsin vegetable industry in the top 5 of most productive agricultural centers in the nation. Wisconsin has emerged as the 2nd ranked state in the US for growing and processing potatoes and vegetables. Key processing crops include potatoes (3rd nationally), sweet corn (3rd), green beans (1st), peas (3rd), carrots (1st), pickling cucumbers (4th), red beets (1st), lima beans (1st), and cabbage (2nd). Production of these processed vegetables and potatoes in Wisconsin is concentrated in the Central Sands region, an ancient glacial lake bed encompassing parts of seven counties; this region is ideally suited for growing vegetables because it has abundant sandy soils and a groundwater aquifer that can be used for irrigation and is fully recharged annually via natural precipitation.
The concentration of food production and processing industries include major companies such as Del Monte Foods, Seneca Foods, Lakeside Foods, General Mills, Bonduelle (Canada), McCain Foods, Frito Lay, and others; they all contribute significantly to the statewide economy in multiple ways. In a direct sense, each sector creates economic activity and jobs within its own industry. However, both crop production and processing also benefit nearly every other Wisconsin industry. For example, growers and processors purchase equipment, fuel, electricity, fertilizer, and farm supplies from local suppliers, pay farm and plant workers, invest earnings, and pay taxes. In turn, employees use their earnings to raise children, pay for housing, groceries, and other personal expenses. In this way, one dollar received by a farmer or processor creates more than one dollar in value as it is spent over and over within the local economy. Paul Mitchell (UW, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, 2010) estimated the total value of the specialty crop (this includes potatoes and vegetables as well as cranberries and ginseng) production and processing industries to be $6.4 billion and a remarkable 34,700 jobs.
In addition to their contribution to the state’s economy and the nation’s food supply, the processing industry is now teaming up with the Wisconsin potato growers to ensure that the farming practices used in the region are sustainable, and protect both the ecosystems and natural resources they depend on. Nick George of the Midwest Food Processors Association reports that his industry is contributing $1.3 million to a new USDA grant headed by Paul Mitchell to assess and build the sustainability of sweet corn and green bean production nationwide. “The future of our industry ultimately depends on how well we protect the resources we depend on, that’s what we are committed to.”
For more information on the economic impact of specialty crops in Wisconsin: http://www.aae.wisc.edu/pubs/misc/docs/mitchell.crop.impacts.pdf