Our population is getting old, and the baby boomers are getting ready to retire. The same is happening with our farmers; what happens when the folks who grow our food decide to retire and not farm anymore? Will the kids take over? Will the land be sold off? We need that land for agriculture, so who gets it and for what purpose is a real concern if maintaining a safe and plentiful food supply, providing green space and rural landscapes and fostering rural communities and economies is important!
The USDA Agricultural Census service has been tracking the “graying” population of farmers, and the fastest growing group is over 65. This trend has been occurring for some time, as fewer and fewer young people have been returning to the farm, and between 2002 and 2007 alone, the number of farmers over 65 grew by nearly 22 percent. The USDA analysis states that, “for every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older!”
The key to maintaining these lands in agricultural production is farm succession planning and programs that help farmers develop these plans that enable a smooth transition to a younger generation of farm managers. Here in Wisconsin, our farmers are bucking the national trend as usual, and we can proudly say that we are in the top 5 US states with the youngest age of head farm operators. Why is this? Is it quality of life, or a state philosophy that engenders good planning? Either way, it is a positive sign for our rural communities, the long-term beauty of agricultural landscapes and the plentiful food supply that we rely on.
In Central Wisconsin, the heart of potato country, when snow covers the ground and below zero temperatures are the norm, many of us assume that the growers are enjoying vacations in the sun— nothing could be further from the truth! Wisconsin’s potato farms are multigenerational, and if they expect to stay in business, prosper in today’s competitive marketplace and build profitable operations for their children and grandchildren, then they must stay abreast of emerging issues and technologies. To do this 94% of Wisconsin’s growers attend a mix of local, statewide, national and in some cases, international educational conferences. From November through March, potato and vegetable growers have their pick of a smorgasbord of educational opportunities to hone their skills. As soon as potatoes are in storage, the Midwest Processing Crop Conference kicks off in December and is followed by the National Potato Expo and the Wisconsin Crop Management Conference in January and ends with Wisconsin’s own, statewide potato conference in February. When you throw in the various other local, regional and national crop or farm management meetings and a trip to the World Potato Congress every few years (Argentina and Chile in 2015!), there is little free time to relax during the winter months.
Interestingly enough, one of the largest potato educational meetings and industry shows in the nation resides right here in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. In early February each year, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association in collaboration with UW Extension bring together an unrivaled slate of expertize in potato production and management from Wisconsin and across the country; they educate and interact with growers over three days and cover all aspects of potato and vegetable production systems—from what seed to select, to how to grow a crop sustainably and protect the environment, to how to store and market it successfully. Hot topics in 2014 range from strategies to use water more efficiently to how the Affordable Health Care Act may affect our local farms. (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…)