Fall is here in Wisconsin’s Central Sands! Highlights of yellow and orange are popping up in the hardwoods that mingle with the cropland of this uniquely productive area that is so important to the nation’s supply of potatoes and vegetables. The harvested fields are taking on an emerald sheen as the rye cover crops become established to protect and nourish the soil for next season. It’s time to rest the land for a spell, to recharge the groundwater that drives the system, and recharge the spirits of this remarkable group of growers who will use this time to learn and digest what worked and what still needs more work.
We hope that you have enjoyed the “Thoughts for Food” series of articles. Over the past 6 months, we have introduced you to the Central Sands region and its unique growers by taking you through the potato growing season. We have looked at the challenges faced each year in growing the crops, introduced you to innovations made by the industry, and explained the business of agriculture in a realistic, yet simple manner. This important industry, which is one of the economic engines of central Wisconsin, works hard to preserve the natural resources of the area for future generations. For a full re-cap of the season, you can journey back in time and check out any of the topic areas at your leisure (search the archives for the “Thoughts for Food” series on the new family farm blog posts). (more…)
The crop fields and natural areas in Wisconsin’s Central Sands area make up a diverse and complex landscape that intermingles one of the nation’s most productive potato and specialty crop production areas with remnants of prairies, oak savannas, pine breaks, wetlands, streams and lakes that existed after the glaciers receded thousands of years ago. This diversity provides ecological services—such as soil health, drainage, pollination and natural regulation of unwanted or invasive species—that go largely unrecognized and yet are essential to a healthy and vibrant ecosystem and the communities that depend on it. Much of the land in the Central Sands is privately owned by the farmers, whose families settled it generations ago. We are indeed fortunate that these far-sighted growers recognize the importance of the diversity contained on their farmsteads and are taking steps to preserve it by restoring remnants of natural habitats to their original condition. More than ten years ago, several potato growers in the Sands set out to develop more sustainable approaches to farming that preserved natural resources and ecological diversity. The program, called Healthy Grown™, involves the restoration on habitat remnants, and the use of fire is an important tool in that process.
Historically, the natural burning of prairies, wooded areas, and wetlands was important to maintain the diversity of species requiring more open landscapes. Without fire, plant species diversity is diminished and regional landscapes change, but with proper timing, prescribed burning controls many undesirable woody plants and herbaceous weeds while invigorating native, fire-dependent species. Prescribed burning can prepare a site for planting and/or seeding, inhibit exotic/invasive species, improve habitat for grassland species and reduce the potential for property-damaging wildfires. Fire removes invading woody plants that store most of their active growing tissue above ground while deep-rooted prairie plants can regenerate and thrive using growing tissue located below the ground. Fire also returns nutrients to the soil, and the bare soils warm up earlier in the spring to promote rapid growth of native plants. (more…)
Farmers are the owners—and environmental stewards—of large swaths of agricultural and undeveloped, natural land across rural America. Without these privately-owned, beautiful landscapes, our communities would not be blessed with the vistas of prairies, forests, meadows and wetlands that intermingle with the crops that produce our food; we have become accustomed to enjoying their beauty. Farmers have always worked to maintain these landscapes of crops and natural areas in ways that promote their environmental and ecological health, because the whole farmstead is an interacting system that is dependent not just on the individual crops that are grown but on the diversity of all its parts acting together. To survive in a competitive world and be sustainable over the long haul, our farms and rural landscapes require careful tending, and in modern times when “sustainability” has become a buzz-word, we can take comfort in the knowledge that our farmers have been doing this all along.
The potato and vegetable growers in Wisconsin’s Central Sands have long been innovators and national leaders in developing programs that measure the sustainability of their practices and document adoption and improvement overtime. For the past dozen years, potato growers have been documenting advanced farming practices, which encourage ecological restoration, reduced pesticide use, and biologically based management in their systems, through a grower- led program called Healthy Grown™. This program has demonstrated that adoption of sustainable farming practices can produce positive changes overtime, and still provide a safe, economical food supply. Growers set out initially to become more sustainable because many believed that this was the right way to go, but after a decade of investment, they are finding that they have a competitive advantage in supplying potatoes to retailers and consumers who are increasingly demanding sustainably produced food. (more…)
When you ask most people “do you know where your food comes from,” what do they say? Probably “from the grocery store” is the typical flip answer. Read the labels and all too often you find “produce of Chile” or “grown in Mexico” even “green beans from Kenya”! We are spoiled in the US and have come to expect all of our fresh food to be available year round. We do enjoy a truly global marketplace these days, but there is an increasing voice out there that is starting to ask for more details on where their food comes from, so that they can make choices based on broader criteria than what is on the shelf and how much it costs. Most of us know that food comes from farms, and some know where those farms might be located, but only when there is a problem—or a food safety concern—do we really demand to know the details of who grew it, where it was grown and what practices were followed. Now, thanks to the efforts of many people—from citizens to scientists—and new digital technologies, we are beginning to be able to “trace-back” where many of our food products grown in the United States come from. (more…)
At Alsum Farms & Produce, our summer weather is finally here and the potatoes are growing fast and are a beautiful thing to see. The reds, whites, and goldens are getting close to row closure and they have started to “hook,” which means they are forming a tuber under the hill. We are seeing marble-sized tubers already and they will be growing fast. Moisture management is critical at this time and we were blessed with a nice rain again this week. The cold wet spring was a problem for the seed pieces, but moisture at this time is a positive as long as we don’t get several inches at one time. We are placing tensiometers in our fields this week to help with monitoring soil moisture. This is one of many ways that we try to make sure we are using best practices to conserve and properly manage our water usage.
Our pest scout position is another valuable tool in our IPM and best practices for potato growing. (more…)