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Wisconsin Potato Growers: Innovators in Sustainability

Reposted from “The New Family Farm”.

Central Wisconsin is the prime growing region for Wisconsin potatoes and vegetables; it has it all–pristine landscapes, great outdoor activities, and valuable farmland.  Thankfully, due to the innovative work of the industry, these lands are striving to be sustainable for the long-term.

In 2013, the Wisconsin potato industry developed a proactive approach to document the sustainability of how the growers manage their farms.  Working through the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), in partnership with the National Initiative for Sustainable Agriculture (NISA), the industry assessed the sustainability of the practices currently used on potato farms throughout the state.  The assessment used an entry-level NISA approach to generate maximum grower engagement in the sustainability arena.  Seventy-one growers returned assessments representing 56,785 acres of potatoes (90% of the total Wisconsin acreage).  Growers from the fresh (20,400 acres), chip (17,900 acres), frozen (10,400 acres), and seed markets (7,400 acres) participated in the assessment to provide an accurate representation of the industry as a whole.  Since the NISA survey process includes a detailed documentation of sustainable practices used by growers across the whole farm enterprise in addition to the potato crop, this assessment represented over 200,000 total farmland acres.

Of the assessed Wisconsin’s potato farms, 100% are family owned with an average of over 53 years farming.  On average, 2 to 3 generations of family members are actively working and involved in the farming operations, which is an encouraging sign for the continuing sustainability of Wisconsin’s vegetable production industry.

Our Wisconsin potato growers have achieved national recognition not only through their ability to produce more potatoes on fewer acres but also for the sustainability of the practices they use. The following assessment highlights show the advancements that they have made and clearly demonstrates how Wisconsin potato growers are continuing to push the sustainability envelope and will keep striving to improve!

Highlights of the sustainable practices in the 3 key areas of sustainability:

Economic Sustainability:

  • 100% of farms are multi-generational family farms ensuring economic stability.
  • 88% grow multiple crops to maintain economic diversity.
  • 70% have risk management plans.
  • 64% have succession plans in place.

Environmental Sustainability:

  • Biodiversity:  Over 30% work with an ecologist to identify native habitat types and implement practices to enhance biodiversity. 52% use pest-specific insecticides to preserve natural enemies and pollinators.
  • Energy: Over 70% use at least 4 different on-farm approaches to conserve energy and 80% recycle.
  • Improving production efficiency:   100% calibrate planters and 86% use auto-steer to improve land use efficiency. 94% attend annual educational meetings and 61% conduct on-farm research with scientists.
  • Using nutrients efficiently:   97% sample soil to determine crop need, 82% split nitrogen applications or use slow release formulations to reduce leaching and 67% use leaf petiole sampling to determine need for supplemental nitrogen.
  • Pest management:  96% scout fields to determine pest levels and treat only when pests reach damaging levels to reduce environmental impact. To maintain the effectiveness of safe pesticide alternatives, 90% employ specific practices to manage pesticide resistance. When pesticides are needed, risks to the environment are minimized by employing a balanced approach that incorporates non-chemical tactics:
    • 73% use at least 4 non-chemical approaches to manage weeds.
    • 60% use at least 4 non-chemical approaches to manage insects.
    • 74% use at least 8 non-chemical approaches to manage diseases.

Social sustainability: Potato growers are active community leaders with 39% serving on local governmental, school and civic boards and 45% participating in service organizations. 70% purchase inputs, machinery and services from local sources that provide economic and employment opportunities for the local community, and 45% provide outreach to their communities through farm tours that promote the benefits of agriculture.

This is a remarkable record of achievement in all areas of sustainability, and Wisconsin’s potato growers and its consumers can be justly proud that the industry can continue to be a top-producer while maintaining an enviably high standard of sustainability. In typical form, however, this is just the beginning for this innovative group that pioneered sustainable production with the nation’s first eco-potato, Healthy Grown™, a decade before it became popular across the country.  As Duane Maatz, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association proudly states “We have a baseline established now, we know what we do well, and we know where we can be better.  Now we can work toward improving and ensuring the sustainability of our industry for future generations.”