UW-Madison: Improving the health of state potatoes

Improving environmental health, one field at a time

CONTACT: Deana Knuteson, 608-265-9798, [email protected]

MADISON – They’re needy, high maintenance – and delicious fried, baked or mashed.

Potatoes are big business in Wisconsin – more than a quarter billion-dollar industry last year – but it’s a business that can come with a hefty environmental price tag. Large-scale cultivation may rely on chemical pesticides to keep bugs at bay and fertilizers to nourish the soil.

An unusual partnership among the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers’ Association (WPVGA), and the World Wildlife Fund has come together to deliver a powerful combination of research-based growing and environmental practices to improve the health and sustainability of Wisconsin’s fresh-market potato crop, the people who produce and eat them, and the land where they are grown.

The aim of this Healthy Grown Program: grow a product that is both economically profitable and ecologically sound.

“If long-term the agricultural system is more stable, it’s better for growing, better for the health of the crop and the health of the soil,” says Deana Knuteson, the UW-Madison coordinator of the Healthy Grown Potato Program.

The program can trace its roots back to the 1980s, when the common and highly toxic pesticide aldicarb was detected in drinking water in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin, an area dominated by potato and vegetable agriculture.

In search of less-damaging alternatives, a group of forward-thinking potato growers voluntarily discontinued use of the chemical and turned to UW-Madison for help; the campus is a hotbed of research on biologically based pest and crop management strategies.

Over time, more Wisconsin growers became interested in developing environmentally friendly agriculture on a larger scale. After a fortuitous meeting in 1996, the WPVGA partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to improve the ecological health of the state’s agricultural landscapes, and the Healthy Grown program was born. UW-Madison formally joined the collaboration two years later.

In its early years, the Healthy Grown consortium focused on reducing the use of high-risk pesticides like aldicarb and helping growers switch to biologically based pest control, drawing heavily on research from the university. In her role as UW-Madison coordinator, Knuteson helps guide and focus researchers’ questions and getting the resulting information into the hands of the growers.

The combination of research and in-field efforts led to the development of the Healthy Grown Potato eco-label, a designation indicating that the potatoes were grown using ecologically sound practices. The Healthy Grown potato is a natural fit in today’s green-conscious marketplace, but 10 years ago the eco-label concept was unfamiliar to retailers and consumers.

“They were ahead of their time,” says Tim Feit, the director of productions and consumer marketing at the WPVGA, about the early emphasis on reducing food’s environmental impact. “It wasn’t in the mainstream consciousness. It was a smaller group of people who, to their credit, are the ones who made it into this bigger message now.”

>From its inception, the scientists and growers were united in insisting that the Healthy Grown label be eco-friendly in more than name. They developed a set of rigorous, research-based ecological standards incorporating pest management strategies, chemical use, and land restoration. Growers and packers are audited yearly and certified by the independent nonprofit organization Protected Harvest.

“If you’re actually going to have an environmental product, it has to have some kind of high bar, it has to be certified to be valuable,” Knuteson says.

They believe their strict adherence to well-documented and scientifically vetted standards sets the Healthy Grown label apart in a marketplace that is now being flooded with “green” claims.

“Everybody wants to be sustainable now. We were partially sustainable years ago, and we’re getting better at it,” says Wisconsin farmer Nick Somers, one of the founders of Healthy Grown. “We’re fine-tuning parts of our standards that other people haven’t even thought about yet. I think we’re farther ahead than a lot of other people are in that area.”

Another piece of the program that is ahead of the curve is the focus on enhancing biodiversity and conservation within the agricultural landscape, which has been a program goal from the beginning.

“Healthy Grown is a whole farming concept; it’s not just one segment. It’s taking the whole farm into perspective and saying, ‘How can I do a better job of farming and protecting wildlife and doing a lot of other things?'” Somers says.

“Agriculture affects and is affected by parts of the system that are not agriculture; it’s an ecosystem with interacting parts,” adds Paul Zedler, a professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

Zedler is one of several UW-Madison researchers who are conducting on-the-ground studies in the growers’ fields and noncrop lands, working with them to identify and implement beneficial land management practices.

For example, Somers established a prairie four years ago on Plover River Farms near Stevens Point, where he is the third generation in his family to work the land. With the help of UW-Madison scientists, he also burned a marsh to re-establish native plant growth. “I think it’s important that we listen to nature,” he says.

And the scientists in turn are listening to the growers to integrate conservation into real-world farming operations. “As an ecologist I’ve really liked working with the farmers because it’s a totally different perspective on the land. It makes you appreciate that they’re in a business and they have to make a profit,” Zedler says.

The research takes many forms to understand the interactions between agricultural and adjacent nonagricultural lands and assess the value of ecological restoration with regard to crop quality and production. Current studies include invasive species, beneficial insects and plant diversity. To date, more than 400 acres of privately owned land have been restored through the program, Knuteson says.

“Our part was to see what we could do to help them establish this ecosystem standard on a sound scientific basis,” Zedler says. “At the time we started our research, they were committed to including it, but they didn’t know exactly what the ‘it’ would be.”

Originally planned as a three-year program, the Healthy Grown program has continued to expand and, more than 10 years in, the producers involved are as enthusiastic as ever.

“I feel good that I’m doing something different. I’m taking a whole-farm approach. I feel that I’m involved with nature,” says Somers. “If you’re doing something that’s right and you know it’s right, and you’re getting good quality food to consumers … it gives you a good feeling.”

Healthy Grown potatoes currently make up about 10 percent of Wisconsin’s fresh potato market, and interest is spreading.

“I get more calls all the time, and I’m getting more calls from growers and marketers outside of the state. With sustainability at the forefront, this program has put Wisconsin ahead of the trend,” Knuteson says. “The word is getting beyond the borders.”

The varied stakeholders and viewpoints – conservationists, researchers, farmers – that make the program so unusual may also be one of its greatest strengths.

“Without any one piece, the goal doesn’t get accomplished. Without the research and the science behind it, Healthy Grown isn’t a viable program,” Feit says. “We take that science and what the growers are really doing that’s making a difference and we’re pushing it forward into the marketplace.”

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on the Wisconsin Idea. Learn more at http://wisconsinidea.wisc.edu.