The delights and challenges of growing food in Wisconsin
It’s mid-June already! Summer is officially here and with temperatures in the 80s, it’s hard to think back even a few months and remember that in mid-March we were all wondering if life in the land of living plants was ever going to start again! Imagine if you can, the last 3 weeks of March when we averaged 43 degrees F for a high and a frigid 24 for a low—with snow everywhere to boot. Now, fast forward to June 1st, the last 3 weeks have blessed us with 74 and 51 for the highs and lows! This is surely why we love living in Wisconsin, it’s an adventure!
Our farmers love this climate and thrive on battling the odds and defeating what Mother Nature throws at them. When the remnants of March blew in the Central Sands, the tractors were ready, the potato growers were primed with new knowledge and ideas from their winter meetings, and the sheds were full of healthy seed potatoes ready to be lovingly inserted into that rich soil for another crop year. But a peek outside revealed their fields as a bleak, snow-covered artic landscape with no end in sight. They waited, as farmers do so well, through most of April this year, and their patience was rewarded with a sunny and warm May that brought blossoms to the wind breaks protecting their fields and allowed them to show the world just how good they are at getting close to 50,000 acres of potatoes planted in a few short weeks!
The crop is flourishing now and those early reds are ready to fill the landscape with an eye catching display of white flowers. It’s worth a drive to see those fields in full bloom but for those who truly know their potatoes, this is also that magical time when one of nature’s culinary delights, the freshly-dug, “new potato” hits the local market. The mildly earthy taste of those young sweet tubers, drizzled with creamy Wisconsin butter is unrivaled by anything that a five star restaurant can offer. Cook them with a sprig of locally grown peppermint and pair them with fresh, early-June peas, likely also grown within a stone’s throw, and you will discover one of the taste delights that our bountiful Central Sands has to offer! Only a Wisconsin potato grower could look over those windswept, snow-covered fields of March and imagine the unrivaled tastes that would emerge in June and then the bounty of a full harvest that will fill the storages in September and provide food security for a nation!
There will be further battles to fight as the growing season unfolds but these will also be overcome by the ingenuity and perseverance of the growers. Under those winter snows, the potato beetles dug deeper and survived; their offspring, who should now be thriving in the mild June temperatures, have been thwarted by the growers, who artfully moved this year’s fields away from last year’s infestations. The migratory pests and wind-blown pathogens are making their way North to enjoy the delights of a Wisconsin summer, but their progress is being charted daily and the growers will be ready to pounce when they get here. There will also be physical challenges to be sure as we move into the heat of summer and using our water resources more wisely will be at the top of that list. The Central Sands growers are rolling out a new irrigation scheduling program this year that promises to do just that and there is great hope for the future. This is just one of the technological advances that have helped farmers to stay ahead of the productivity curve; we can be proud that in the 1960s, when irrigation began to expand in the Central Sands, a typical farmer in the US was able to feed just 26 people—today that figure has climbed to a remarkable 155 people!