Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘groundwater aquifer’

Thoughts for Food: Balancing the water, how we can all contribute

Blog 31

When the glaciers retreated from central Wisconsin over 10,000 years ago, they left behind a broad expanse of sand and gravel outwash plains to create the area that we now know as the Central Sands. In the intervening years, this mostly featureless area of lakebed and sand has evolved both naturally and with our help into a cornucopia of lakes, streams, wetlands, forests and irrigated agricultural fields.

In relatively recent times (the kind that can be measured in half centuries), the changes have been little short of spectacular. Specialty crop agriculture has expanded with improvements in irrigation and production technologies and become one of the premier vegetable production centers in the US.  As our ability to grow high quality vegetables expanded, the food processing industry grew with it; the potato, green bean, sweet corn and pea canning and freezing plants in and surrounding the Sands have become the envy of the nation.   Both the  proximity of the Wisconsin River and the availability of groundwater— often only feet from the land surface—have allowed the paper industry to grow pines and prosper.  The dairy industry, for which the state is famous, represents the next step as the Sands provides an ideal opportunity to integrate new cropping systems to bolster the potato and vegetable crops we already grow so successfully.  The agricultural and industrial growth has brought prosperity, jobs (an estimated 35,000 from agriculture alone) and new opportunities for continued economic development that has enabled vibrant rural communities to emerge and grow—all this in an area that was economically depressed a scant 60 years ago.

Let’s not forget, however, that everything we now cherish in the Sands, from its lakes and streams that we fish and enjoy, to the prosperity and employment that its agriculture brings, is ultimately connected to and dependent on the groundwater aquifer that nature provided all those thousands of years ago and maintains to this day with generous rainfall. We must maintain a balance between the water that we all need and use and the water that nature returns to ensure that the Sands continue to evolve.

Evolution is a continuous process, and we are often unaware that change is actually happening. The climate also fluctuates through time and impacts that change.  We currently benefit from a warming trend that has extended our growing season by two weeks and boosted crop yield.  The downside is that it has also brought dry spells like the drought of 2011-12; we need to use more water than nature provides during these periods, which can limit the aquifer from recharging.  Climate fluctuation also brought wet periods, as in the spring 2013, that flood basements and delay crops but also begins the process of restoring the aquifer’s balance. These natural processes have been fluctuating through the history of the Sands.

The pictures with this article show us that these fluctuations are not new. Pleasant Lake in the southeastern corner of Waushara County has been identified in recent citizen forums as an area of the highest priority because irrigated agriculture has grown, and new dairy expansion has been proposed. The lake water is down and solutions such as limiting irrigation are being actively discussed.  But the photos of Pleasant Lake in 1958 compared to the same spot in 2013 show that lake levels have also been  lower in the past. This does not mean that we should be any less concerned about the lake levels today, but perhaps we should broaden our thinking.  The seemingly obvious link between irrigation and lake levels may be more complicated than it seems—there was essentially no irrigation in 1958 to account for the low lake levels at that time.

We are dealing with a complex ecosystem in the Central Sands; it is naturally fluctuating and evolving through time. We all have an impact on the balance between the water we use and the rate at which it can be recharged. There will be no silver bullet solution, but perhaps we all have roles to play:

  • We all need a better understanding of the system and how it functions before we can design long-term solutions that will work.  We are doing this by jointly supporting university research.
  • The farmers need to do all they can to use water more effectively.  They are doing this by irrigating more efficiently and changing the crop landscape to one that needs less water.
  • The food processors need to return the water they use to the aquifer.  They are doing this by irrigating wash water onto pastures for filtered recharge.
  • Rural communities need to design systems that do not remove water from the system. They are doing this by creating new recharge areas, retention ponds and drainage designs to divert water back to the aquifer to feed the lakes and streams.

Finally all the citizens of the Sands, whether they live on lakes or in towns, need to be aware that the water they use to live and to recreate comes from the same source.  Everything they do that is connected to water can collectively have an impact.  Only by working together can we be sure that the balance of water use and water recharge is maintained as the Sands evolves into the future.

Thoughts for Food: Working Together to Protect Our Water—The Little Plover

Blog 29

Harvesting the bounty of the Central Sands is already underway –peas and snap beans are on the way to consumer’s plates and sweet corn, potatoes and carrots are just around the corner.  As we watch and enjoy this remarkable productivity unfold, it is a good time to reflect on what makes it all possible. The Central Sands themselves and the underlying aquifer of groundwater laid down by glaciers 25,000 years ago and replenished each year by rainfall are the corner stones in the foundation. Maintaining the delicate balance between the water resource and the needs of everyone who uses and depends on it, however, is an ongoing challenge that we all must be a part of if future generations are to enjoy the benefits of this unique area.   (more…)

Thoughts for Food: How did Wisconsin’s Central Sands emerge as one of the premier vegetable production centers in the nation?

Blog 28aThe Central Sands region of Wisconsin is recognized as one of the premier vegetable growing regions in the nation; potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, peas, carrots and cucumbers all rank near the top of US production. This remarkable level of success was forged by the ingenuity and hard work of the farmers who settled here generations ago, and it is enhanced by our temperate climate with warm daytime temperatures, cool nights and ample rainfall.  The foundation of the region’s productivity, however, lies in its geological history, which began during the glacial ice age that encompassed Wisconsin over 15,000 years ago.  Geologically, the Central Sands is a large and relatively flat glacial outwash plain with abundant sandy soil—ideal for vegetable production—that is underlain by a deep groundwater aquifer that provides the water needed for crop growth and productivity.  The sandy soils deposited by the  glacial lake and its residual groundwater make this region ideal for vegetable production, which provides an economic boost to the region and enables Wisconsin to be a leader in providing a safe and abundant food supply to the whole nation.   (more…)

Grand Marsh Farming Family Leaders in Sustainability

Blog 4

Andy and John Wallendal and their family have farmed 3,000 acres of vegetables, potatoes, forage and grain crops on their land in Grand Marsh for over a half century. Typical of the farms in the Central Sands region, the Wallendal family farm encompasses a rich diversity of crops, prairie remnants, woodlands, and wetlands nestled close to the Wisconsin River and sustained by a groundwater aquifer replenished annually by rainfall.

The Wallendals have always recognized the delicate balance between their farming operations and the natural resources they depend on; they have been pioneers in preserving and enhancing that balance by following the vision of their father Pete, who established the farm in 1967.  That vision is based on understanding the underpinnings of successful practices; “Science is a cornerstone in enhancing both pest management and sustainability” says Andy, emphasizing the long established and ongoing collaboration with the University of Wisconsin to jointly seek solutions to emerging challenges in successful farming.

n the 1980s, when potato production was increasingly becoming dependent on external inputs, the Wallendals donated 20 acres of prime irrigated land and worked with UW specialists from four departments to establish an unprecedented, multi-year, farm-scale experiment that put all the latest research in biologically-based pest management to the test. The result became the foundation for the nationally acclaimed Healthy Grown potato program in the 1990s.

When water conservation became increasingly important in the 1990s , the Wallendals were once again,  among  the first to experiment with state-of-the–art TDR (Time Domain Reflectometry) soil probes to determine exactly how much water was needed for the crop and at what growth stage. The probes were expensive but well worth it; Andy confirmed that “we improved both water use efficiency and fertilizer performance”.

In recent follow-up experiments, Andy and John were again one of the first to use site specific, precision irrigation where water is applied at differing rates across fields according to the varying ability of soils to hold moisture; “we are encouraged that we were able to use water more precisely and still improve sweet corn quality.”

All of the sustainable practices that the Wallendals have pioneered on their cropland are equally complemented by their long-term commitment to improving the ecosystem that their land is part of.  Projects to restore prairies and oak savannas, return unproductive land to wetlands, and connect with neighboring public lands to create wildlife corridors have earned them national awards as conservationists, but most importantly, as Andy states; “our roots are in this land and our goal is to preserve it for generations to come.”

Andy aptly describes the family philosophy as “the rhythm of the land is what we look for; we listen and make adjustments to what the ground and the crops tell us.”

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