Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘science’

Farm Perspectives: Farmers’ Investments Move Industry Ahead; Provide Quality Products

Potato HandsEven though I work for an organization that has family roots that have been growing potatoes for over 100 years, I didn’t get into agriculture until later in life.  I’ll never forget when I first became associated with the potato industry 15 years ago after having a conversation with a potato grower who was much my senior.  He told me that raising potatoes isn’t that big of a deal.  You put some seed in the ground, put a little sunlight on them, give them a little water and fertilizer and they do the rest on their own.  What I’ve found out is that may well be the biggest understatement since astronaut Jim Lovell told Houston he had a problem.

The fact of the matter is farming has become incredibly high tech.  Virtually all aspects of production have been studied and influenced by scientific study.  (more…)

Wisconsin’s Vegetable Industry Is a Vital Part of State and National Food Production

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.

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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:

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.”

Soil – More than Just Dirt

When most people think about agriculture, they immediately think of the crops or food produced – corn, wheat, potatoes and cranberries.  However, at the heart of food production is one key ingredient.  It is the basic component that all of these crops need to grow – the soil!

Antigo Silt Loam

Wisconsin’s State Soil!

Here are the basics. Soil is composed of minerals, air, organic material and water.  The type of soil is determined by its physical structure, nutrients, trace elements, PH and organic matter.  Based on these combined factors, there are over 700 soil types in Wisconsin!  These factors also determine its growing ability.  So, when it comes to agriculture, farmers must understand the type of soil they are working with in order to decide which crops to grow.

The physical structure of the soil is determined by the proportion of sand, silt and clay in the soil.  Sand particles are the largest and clay particles are the smallest.  The importance of a soil’s physical structure was evident during this summer’s drought.  The soil’s physical structure determined how well it was able to hold onto the available water.   This is a good example of where the science of irrigation comes into play, and why farmers pay such close attention to it to make sure their crops get just the amount of water they need.

So, here’s how different soil types compare.  Sandy soil has large pore space.  In a wet year, sandy soils drain better, but in a dry year, they struggle to retain water.  It also has fewer available nutrients.  At the other end of the spectrum are clay soils. Clay is made of smaller particles making it denser (smaller pore spaces). Clay will retain more water, but in a spring with lots of rainfall its poor drainage can make it difficult to farm. In the middle are loamy soils. These have almost equal portions of sand, silt and clay.  If you had a garden, this is the type of soil you would want because it has the best balance of water retention and drainage.

To reflect the value of this soil type, the official state soil is Antigo Silt Loam.  This soil is found in north-central Wisconsin.  It is ideal for farming because of its composition of a silty top layer that holds water with a sandy layer underneath for proper drainage.  But, soils vary across Wisconsin, and the type of soil in each region of the state determines the crops and other plants that grow on the landscape.

For example, potatoes and cranberries need fertile, well-drained soils like sands, sandy loams or silt loams located in central Wisconsin.  But, in comparison, corn and alfalfa should be grown in soils that are rich in nutrients and able to lock in moisture.  Wisconsin is home to a variety of crops, and it is the diversity of our soil types across the state that makes this possible.

What Makes Wisconsin Great

Even before joining the Union, agriculture was the life-blood of the territory that became the great state of Wisconsin.

We were “America’s breadbasket”, growing one-sixth of the country’s wheat in the early 1800’s, and grew larger by becoming the dairy state we know today; Wisconsin and its farmers have been putting food on our tables and supporting our communities for nearly two hundred years.

Oneida Co. Farm

Wisconsin Vegetable Grower in his farm’s greenhouse

But recently farmers in Wisconsin, and across the nation, have started to come under fire. Many have been quick to criticize farmers on everything from the use of water to irrigate their crops, to the fertilizers they use, to what a “Wisconsin Farm” is “supposed” to look like.

pototo rows

Many have been quick to criticize farmers on everything from the use of water to irrigate their crops, to the fertilizers they use, to what a “Wisconsin Farm” is “supposed” to look like.

In reality, these issues aren’t as black & white as some people tend to believe. The factors involved in groundwater and its use are complex. The need for fertilizers is proven fact to help with crop development and family farms, despite their size, remain family farms. Often those criticizing farmers don’t completely understand the complexity of the issues at hand, the innovative ways in which farmers deal with these issues every day, or the greater effect irrigation agriculture has on the state itself.

Potato Plant

We hold the future in our hands

This blog will not only look at how farming in Wisconsin affects the state’s water and environment, but also how farming impacts consumers and the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents employed in agriculture. We welcome your feedback and discussion!

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