Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘soil’

Dig Deeper: There’s More than Meets the Eye of Every Wisconsin Potato

Everyone has that one neighbor with a perfect lawn.  In order to get the envy of the neighborhood, that homeowner must manage several aspects of his or her lawn, and it starts with the soil.  Soil type, water holding capacity, pH, nutrients and minerals, as well as pest and weed control properties, all play a role in the final appearance the lawn will have.  It takes a lot of work to have the perfect lawn, but those that do, start with the best soil.

It’s no different for farmers.  We always hear about corn and soybeans, but instead we’ll use an example that every Wisconsinite eats – potatoes.  Both Wisconsin’s soil and climate create an ideal growing environment for Wisconsinite’s (and American’s) favorite vegetable.  Potatoes are grown in three main regions of the state. But, the most famous of these are the central sands counties of Adams, Waushara, Portage, Wood and Waupaca.   This is where the bulk of potatoes are grown. It is the combination of the cool northern climate – with a rapid warm up in the spring, and the soil that makes this the perfect place for potato production.

The soil in the central sands lacks organic material and has a lower density (larger air pockets).  It also has the perfect pH (level of acidity) and minerals necessary for potato growth.  These aspects allow potatoes to grow quickly and consistently.  In addition, potatoes grown in this soil are subject to less plant disease. 

Whether a farmer is growing corn, soybeans or potatoes, pests, weeds and diseases present significant challenges that affect both the quality and quantity of the growing crop.  However, by selecting the ideal environment in terms of both climate and soil, the farmer can use nature as a management technique.  Utilizing the environment to aid in pest and disease control, the central sands region helps potato farmers naturally fight these potentially harmful conditions.

Wisconsin Potatoes

Growing food, like potatoes, in the most suitable soil allows farmers to utilize sustainable farming practices.  In the case of potatoes, this would include integrated pest management techniques, water conservation and the preservation of Wisconsin’s native ecosystems. So, the next time you look at a lawn, which is the envy of the neighborhood, or dig into that bag of potato chips, remember the important role of Wisconsin’s climate and soils.

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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.

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