Wisconsin Eco-Potato Partnership: Wisconsin whole-farm potato growers make strides in conservation and sustainability

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Michelle Rothmeyer

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Research-Based Program and Database Provide Eco-label Transparency

Antigo, WI — January 27, 2010 —  “Large-scale agriculture plays a critical role in the health of our ecosystem. A wide range of variables — tilling, pest- and weed-control, irrigation, crop rotation, remnant lands — impact the environment,” notes Deana Knuteson, BioIPM Field Coordinator for the Wisconsin Eco-Potato partnership. “Minimizing that impact was the motivation behind developing the Wisconsin Eco-Potato partnership and the Healthy Grown® eco-label.”

Established in 1996, the Wisconsin Eco-Potato partnership is a collaboration between the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) and the University of Wisconsin. The International Crane Foundation, the Defenders of Wildlife and the World Wildlife Fund are also part of the partnership. The science-based team helps potato growers reduce the use of crop protection inputs such as nutrients, pesticides and other additives, by adopting integrated pest management (IPM) alternatives — biologically based pest management systems that do not harm the environment. The partnership also works to reduce contamination of water, conserve and restore biodiversity to natural ecosystems, and increase productivity without genetic modification of the produce. The partnership has resulted in the Healthy Grown® potato eco-label. 

With over 350 eco-label products on the market, consumers and businesses are growing more wary of “greenwashing” — exaggerated or misleading claims about eco-friendliness — according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). WRI notes that in response both the Federal Trade Commission and the Security Exchange Commission have begun paying attention to green claims, and Senator Dianne Feinstein has begun developing legislation around eco-labeling. 

As part of its transparent eco-labeling process, all Healthy Grown growers are certified and audited by Protected Harvest each year — an independent oversight organization that ensures strict adherence to sustainable agriculture standards. Growers must pass annual field-by-field certification with a farm audit and pesticide, fertility, and bio IPM record requirements. All certification standards are documented as proof that Healthy Grown tactics are taking place in the field.  All packers and shippers are also certified by Protected Harvest. Unique to eco-label products, Healthy Grown has compiled an eight-year database tracing IPM and pesticide use. In addition, farmers maintain on-farm statistics that record both the progress of and challenges to their sustainable whole-farm methods.

“Healthy Grown is a science-based, measurable, transparent label that provides a process that can ultimately examine the whole farm. Though the Healthy Grown standard does not yet measure all resources that come from a farm — we’ve accomplished much in the past decade to bring us closer to that point,” notes Jeb Barzen, International Crane Foundation Director of Field Ecology.

Continues Barzen, “Healthy Grown is also modular, which makes it easy to add components, or resources, as science allows. This is a huge accomplishment, especially given the current nationwide efforts that are underway.” One of the modules critical to the Healthy Grown whole-farm sustainable approach is the ecosystem restoration part of the standard. Growers work with various researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the International Crane Foundation to restore biodiversity to degraded natural areas within the farms. “Agriculture comprises the largest land-use in North America, and we have to realize that farms do more than simply provide produce. Large-scale agriculture impacts natural ecosystems. That’s why Healthy Grown uses a whole- farm approach, so we can address biodiversity, climate change, water pollution, and soil erosion simultaneously on the same farm that produces our food,” explains Barzen.

Adds AJ Bussan, Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “One of Healthy Grown’s greatest strengths is the collaboration between researchers, conservationists and growers. Healthy Grown emerged from a targeted set of specific sustainability standards, but all of us continue to challenge those standards. The standards will continue to evolve as we find better ways to manage pests and invasive plants, restore natural ecosystems, support native animals, improve production and minimize toxicity. It’s a work that’s always in progress because we use science as the basis for our certification of the Healthy Grown eco-label.”

Healthy Grown is anything but stagnant. Since its inception, the interest in — and regard from —  international conservation groups has grown, as has the interdisciplinary participation of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, including production, soils, ecosystem and social science faculty. Other Healthy Grown highlights include:

            Sustainable whole-farm agriculture
* Reduced pesticide risk to both human and environmental health by 32 percent among certified fields.
* Banned 11 pesticides from Healthy Grown farms that are of particular concern, as well as established a list of  ‘use with restriction’ materials. This list goes above and beyond current legal requirements.
* Increased use of IPM and other preventative pest tactics by 50 percent.
* Managed fields with equal yields and quality of product to non-Healthy Grown farms with less impact on human and environmental health.
* Consistent annual expansion of research, education and software programs for growers.
* Successful use of cover cropping, mulching, organic soil amendments and experimental solarization to control soil borne diseases and improve soil and water quality.

Eco-label transparency
* Development of data management system to provide historical farm-level data of all whole-farm sustainability and conservation efforts, including data concerning pesticide use, fertility and water use, and biodiversity tracking.
* Database of documented research-based eco-label standards which illustrate whole-farm sustainability improvement trends and challenges over time.

Current biodiversity and conservation research
* Successful implementation of biodiversity conservation to restore endangered and rare ecosystems in Wisconsin. Healthy Grown farm land parcels, with over 400 acres now being restored to native prairie, savanna and wetland ecosystems.
* According to Emily Aker’s Master of Science thesis, Monitoring Vegetation Response to Ecosystem Management in Agricultural Landscapes Under an Ecolabel Scheme”:
* Positive trends were recorded in native plant diversity on nearly all of the endangered prairie and savanna ecosystems on Healthy Grown farms.
* Overall, the longer a unit was enrolled in the Natural Community Standard, the higher the site scored in terms of floristic quality — the presence of conservative plant species.
* Management activities have been implemented in the Natural Community areas to control exotic or invasive species, and to promote the growth of native species. Activities such as prescribed burning, invasive species removal, and planting of native species have advanced restoration efforts. 
* Large-scale ongoing research projects, funded by the USDA-NRI program, to gauge the importance of natural ecosystem restoration in relation to crop quality and production. The projects include research concerning:
*  Scientific assessment of the biodiversity of plant, bird and insect species in both agricultural and non-agricultural adjacent lands.
* How agricultural and non-agricultural landscapes interact and what the optimal balance is between farmed and non-farmed lands.
* Examination of the distribution of bird species in non-agricultural portions of the Healthy Grown farms and potential benefits of preservation of these avian habitats.
* University of Wisconsin, Department of Entomology seed predation research project to assess effect of insect diversity on agricultural and non-agricultural lands.

Awards and honors
* USDA Secretary’s Honor Awards for Maintaining and Enhancing the Nation’s Natural Resources and Environment
* World Wildlife Fund Gift to the Earth Award
* International IPM Award of Achievement
* International Crane Foundation Good Egg Award for Excellence

Going forward, Healthy Grown is examining the possibility of expanding its eco-label and farm certification to other vegetable crops. Notes Knuteson, “Our data continues to illustrate that it’s economically feasible to grow in a sustainable manner. The more we learn about ecologically-sound alternatives and the benefits of increasing biodiversity on non-agricultural plots of land located on the farms, the more everyone benefits. It’s a process of trial and error, but we have a comprehensive database to guide our course. We’ve certainly had our fair share of challenges over the past decade, but every one of us is committed to the research-based standard.”

Adds Ann MacGuidwin, Professor of Nematology and Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, “The on-farm research the Healthy Grown growers contribute is a constant motivator. The growers are so savvy when it comes to testing new biorational practices and products. They’re committed to research and will design and implement trials themselves, as well as partner with University researchers.”  

Paula Wallendal, Healthy Grown grower agrees. “After all these years, there is still a commitment to move forward.  As growers, we’re always asking ourselves what more we can do to improve sustainability.  We have a science-based, transparent, certifiable product and we know that it’s good. We need to keep moving forward and tackle other sustainability issues to become better.”

Concludes Knuteson, “Everything in the Healthy Grown® standard is research-based — we document changes over time not only to see what we’ve accomplished, but as a means of improving standards in the future. We’re always looking beyond what we’re doing today — working to maintain, and then surpass, the high research bar we have set for ourselves.”

About Healthy Grown® 

The Healthy Grown® eco-label, established in 2001, is a product of the Wisconsin Eco-Potato partnership between the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The International Crane Foundation, World Wildlife Fund and the Defenders of Wildlife are also part of the partnership. The Healthy Grown standard is designed to help growers reduce contamination of water, conserve natural ecosystems, increase biodiversity and improve productivity through researched-based sustainable and IPM processes. Healthy Grown sustainable farming practices are overseen by Protected Harvest, an independent oversight organization. http://www.wisconsinpotatoes.com/HealthyGrown/index.html.