Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘natural resources’

Investing in the Future: Potato Research in Wisconsin Pays Big Dividends

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For any progressive business, it is common knowledge that investment in research and development will increase its efficiency or broaden its portfolio. This principal applies to agriculture as well and nowhere is this better exemplified than by Wisconsin’s potato growers. These hardworking growers are known across the United States for their innovations in production, resource conservation and sustainability. These achievements did not occur by happenstance; they required a vision and an investment from the industry to achieve that vision. Recognizing this, every Wisconsin potato grower voluntarily pays 6 cents to their association for every 100 pounds of potatoes produced annually. This is no paltry sum, as Wisconsin is the 3rd largest potato-producing state in the US with close to 28 million 100 pound sacks grown during 2013!

A large portion of this money is invested back into the University of Wisconsin to provide scientists from multiple disciplines the dollars needed to fund research in all areas impacting potatoes. Over 25 projects are funded annually – ranging from short-term, innovative problem solving to long-term, basic science- for a total of over $350,000 each year. The initial association investment of $10-20,000 in funds to individual projects pays big dividends to the growers, the industry and the state, as UW researchers are able to use this funding to leverage additional federal funding sources back to Wisconsin by over 100 fold! In 2014 this translated into over $30 million return on a $350,000 investment!

The dedication and excellence of faculty, academic staff and graduate students across multiple academic disciplines generates remarkable results. To give readers a glimpse into some of the fascinating individual stories being generated in labs and field stations across Wisconsin, the New Family Farm postings over the next several months will feature ongoing research being conducted by graduate students. These will address important topic areas that include Potato Breeding, Seed Production, Growing Potatoes, Protecting Natural Resources and Managing Pests. Each topic will be introduced by faculty experts in the field and followed by specific graduate student research projects. We hope you enjoy these glimpses into the stories that are evolving in one of the nation’s premier potato research programs.

Why is Agriculture Valuable to Rural Communities?

Agriculture does more than provide food and fiber for the world; it also helps maintain vibrant rural communities. In Wisconsin, it accounts for about 60 million dollars in sales each year, and rural communities need this agricultural base to thrive. Without it, the tax base would be unable to support activities essential to county and local government—school initiatives, road and park maintenance, and many of the services we take for granted would no longer be possible in these areas. Employment in rural communities is also dependent on a thriving agricultural economy. In the Central Sands region (a seven county area in central Wisconsin where potatoes and vegetables are primarily grown), over 17% of the jobs are derived from agricultural production, and over 100 million dollars in agricultural revenues are provided to local and state governments. Although rural landscapes are appreciated by everyone, 80% of the rural land is privately owned.  The green spaces, forests, wetlands, open landscapes, and other countryside features that we all treasure are maintained by generations of farmers who manage the natural resources, provide clean water and air, wildlife habitat, and other ecological benefits both on-farm and for the surrounding community.

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The primary role of agriculture, however, is to provide food security for our society by maintaining a safe, high-quality, affordable, and consistent food supply. To meet the food needs of a rapidly increasing global population, it is estimated that we must double worldwide crop production between now and 2050.  Achieving this goal, continuing to foster vibrant rural communities, and protect the natural resources that we all depend on is a challenge that is being embraced by the farmers of the Central Sands region. It is very important for all citizens to take the time to stop and appreciate the beauty of the mosaic of crops and natural areas interspersed with vibrant small town communities and remember how important farmers are in both making this all possible and providing us with nutritious food for our families.

Grand Marsh Farming Family Leaders in Sustainability

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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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