Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘Hancock Agricultural Research Station’

Drip Irrigation: Doing More with Less

Blog 19

Most people are already familiar with drip irrigation—they’ve used soaker hoses in the garden or seen those thin tubes in greenhouses or even in orchards. However, on large-scale agricultural lands within Wisconsin, drip irrigation is rarely seen.  Since water is usually plentiful in the state, irrigation is delivered to crops with overhead sprinklers, traveling water guns or with rotating center pivot systems. This doesn’t happen in areas where water supplies are scarce.  In other grower regions – either in the U.S. or worldwide – growers use watering systems that can be controlled to only deliver the exact amount of water the plants need, via the system known as drip irrigation.

Drip irrigation was first used commercially in Israel in the mid-1900s when the advent of plastics made it possible. It continues to be a dominant form of irrigation in many arid (dry) regions where water is the most limiting factor in crop production. In the U.S., drip irrigation is found predominantly in dry agricultural regions, such as California and Florida, where hundreds of thousands of acres of high-value crops are produced using drip irrigation.  Historically, drip irrigation had been primarily used with permanent tree and vine plantings, but new research and applications have made it increasingly desirable for specialty crops, vegetables and even row crops like cotton and corn.

In Wisconsin, less than 1% of the 500,000 irrigated acres use drip irrigation (under surface drip, subsurface, trickle or other forms of micro irrigation) and much of this acreage is in small-scale vegetable production. Wisconsin growers may not face the level of water scarcity seen in the western part of the country, but as concerns over groundwater quality and quantity increase, it may be necessary to explore alternative production strategies.

Drip irrigation has been shown to allow for significant reductions in water and nutrients by better localizing applications in the crop root zone where they can be delivered only when needed by the plant. Also by creating a drier micro-climate in the plant canopy, the risks posed by plant diseases, which thrive in moist conditions, are also greatly reduced. Drip irrigation can provide additional advantages such as a precise delivery system for plant protectants without harming beneficial insects or the environment.  With these benefits, why don’t we see more drip irrigation used in Wisconsin?   Simple, the high costs of implementing this technology have limited its use, and it remains unclear if these benefits could justify its use in more humid climates with a drought-sensitive crop like potatoes.

Looking to the future where sustainable use of water resources in potato production has emerged as one of the industry’s highest priorities, Sarah Page, a UW-Madison Masters student in Agroecology and Horticulture under the direction of AJ Bussan, has conducted research trials at the Hancock Agricultural Research Station to address just those questions. She compared tuber yield, size and processing quality under standard center pivot irrigation practices and three rates of drip irrigation for commonly grown potato varieties. She found little effect of irrigation treatment and in most years and with most varieties, there were no differences in total yield or tuber size distribution. Surprisingly, the lowest water application rate for drip irrigation yielded slightly higher than the other two rates. This was likely due to increased nutrient leaching under the more heavily irrigated plots, which was supported by nitrate levels detected in plant tissues. A potential negative consequence of lowering irrigation amounts could be drought and heat stress on the tubers, which could have negative consequences for processing quality. However, when Sarah looked into this, she found little effect of irrigation treatment on reducing- sugar content – a contributing factor to undesirable dark colors when potatoes are fried.

Sarah’s research shows that it was possible to reduce water application rates by 25% without negatively affecting potato yield and quality attributes. That’s a lot! There are many steps that need to happen before drip irrigation could be economically feasible and sustainable on a large scale in the sands of Wisconsin, but it’s one more potential tool to add to the box.

For more information, contact Sarah Page at

Fresh and Local – Potatoes fit the bill for chilly days!

Blog 41

Winter is upon us! There is an icy blast down from Canada, and  snow is in the wind.  All those fresh local vegetables that we love are a fading memory. But are they? Well tomatoes, yes.  Broccoli, yes.  Lettuce, definitely. Potatoes, no!  Thanks to the Wisconsin potato growers, we have access to fresh, local potatoes all winter long!

Frozen fries and chips are wonderful but you can’t top the taste of a fresh potatoes prepared from scratch in your own kitchen; the Wisconsin potato growers have invested millions learning how to perfect the product that delivers that taste.

The humble spud is a living being that must be treated with great care.  In the fall the growers use incredibly expensive machines to harvest the tubers at just the right maturity and temperature and carefully move them to the storage sheds without a blemish or bruise.  Once there, the temperature is slowly brought down to a level that preserves the goodness we want and the humidity is carefully controlled to keep the tubers fresh and bursting with flavor.  Conditions are monitored and adjusted continuously and tuber health is followed closely with complex sensors that can detect the gasses emitted by those that may need extra care. To stay on top of this advanced technology, the Wisconsin potato growers invested $10 million and in 2006 built a state-of-the-art potato storage research facility located at the Hancock Research Station in central WI.  The growers generously donated this facility to the University of Wisconsin so they can conduct advanced research to find even better ways to store potatoes and enhance their quality.    (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Partnerships and Prosperity

Blog 34

Nestled in the middle of the Central Sands, surrounded by fields of potatoes, sweet corn, green beans and carrots, lays a vital link that holds the key to the amazing productivity of this unique region. The Hancock Agricultural Research Station (HARS) is a mere 412 irrigated acres, and yet many of the innovations and breakthroughs that have enabled Wisconsin’s vegetable production industry to become national leaders can trace their origins to this important research center.

What makes the Hancock Station so successful?  The answer lies in its ability to provide the interactive hub that connects the research arm of the University of Wisconsin System with the farmers of the Sands.  Founded in 1919, the Hancock Station is an excellent example of the Wisconsin Idea—the research conducted by the University of Wisconsin should be applied to solve the problems and improve the health, quality of life, the environment and agriculture for all citizens of the state.   (more…)

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