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…)
It is approaching October in the Central Sands of Wisconsin, and the nights are cool and arriving earlier every day. The growing season is over, and harvest is almost complete. Potatoes are nestled comfortably in their environmentally controlled storages, vegetables are canned and ready to go to consumers across the US, and the fields are planted with cover crops to protect the precious sandy soil from the winds that will come next spring. You probably think that the growers are now taking a much needed break from the 18 hour days of a long summer and catching some well-deserved R&R. No such luxury! This is the 21st century, and the entrepreneurial business of farming is a year round job. Don’t let the cold weather fool you; the winter season is a busy and active time on the farm.
With potatoes, the first order of business is to manage the crop that growers spent the whole season nurturing and protect it for the next 6 months in storage to meet the year-round demand for nutritious potatoes with that “fresh from the ground” feel that we all want. This is an enormous task. Wisconsin growers produce over 30 million 100 pound sacks and many of these have to be stored in huge, climate-controlled warehouses where sophisticated control systems maintain precise temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels that keep the crop from shrinking, rotting or developing sprouts. Each week as orders for fresh and plump potatoes come in from retailers and processors across the country, whatever is needed is withdrawn from storage to be washed, sized, packaged and delivered to customers. Managing this huge investment, valued at over $200 million, through a storage season and delivering it to consumers in prime condition when it is needed guarantees that the growers get little time off to enjoy the fruits of their labor! (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…)
The harvest season is now in full swing in Wisconsin’s Central Sands. Potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, carrots, cucumbers and beets are rolling up the harvester chains and into trucks for the short journey to Wisconsin’s processing and distribution centers and then onward to consumers across the US and beyond. Another record season seems within reach in 2013 thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of the farmers—and with some help from generous early season rains! With some Central Sands potato growers surpassing 30 tons per acre (that’s more than 3,000 ten pound bags per acre), increased productivity has held overall production close to that achieved a decade ago when 28% more acres of potatoes were grown. (more…)