Wisconsin Potato Growers Bring Attention to Groundwater Awareness Week
WPVGA Highlights Growers’ Sustainable Farming and UW Central Wisconsin Water Initiative
Most of us don’t realize that March 11 – 17 is National Groundwater Awareness Week. And, frankly, we pay it little notice. The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) would like to change that.
“People tend to take groundwater for granted. We turn on the tap — water comes out,” notes Duane Maatz, Executive Director, WPVGA. “As growers, we’re very aware of groundwater conservation because it’s critical to the environment, our livelihoods, our ability to provide fresh vegetables to the nation and to helping us build a strong agribusiness sector in Wisconsin. We have to be proactive on water conservation issues and we’ll continue to work with communities on this issue.”
Water Conservation in the Central Sands Region
Unlike other states, Wisconsin is blessed with bountiful water resources. In the last two decades, the Central Sands region has experienced increases in business and agribusiness development, population growth and recreational markets — creating ever-increasing demands for water in the heart of Wisconsin’s $6 billion potato and vegetable industry.
To better understand the challenges this region faces, and to help develop scientific responses to those challenges, the University of Wisconsin (UW) launched the Central Wisconsin Water Initiative (CWWI), led by Sam Kung, UW-Madison soil scientist. CWWI is supported by the UW’s Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, and has partnered with the WPVGA Groundwater Task Force — comprised of citizens, farmers, industry leaders and scientists, and co-chaired by central Wisconsin farmers Nick Somers of Plover River Farms, Stevens Point, and Jeremie Pavelski of Heartland Farms, Inc., Hancock.
“Science — not opinion — should drive all discussions on water issues, beginning with a wide range of data collection,” notes Somers. “The more data we have, the more effective our water conservation practices will be.”
The Groundwater Task Force has initiated a region-wide water use survey, established an ongoing database of irrigation well water depths and funded new research for nutrient management. With funding from WPVGA, the Task Force has developed a new irrigation-scheduling tool, along with a well monitoring and data collection project. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture grant will allow researchers to explore water-efficient irrigation methods.
No Easy Answers
UW scientists are exploring a variety of factors that can affect groundwater levels in the Central Sands — irrigation, climate change, aquifer recharging and evapotranspiration.
Some research points to climate change. Research indicates that evapotranspiration, the rate at which plants give off water in the form of evaporation and transpiration, has increased in the western part of the Great Lakes region. That means plants are “giving up” more water to the atmosphere. Between 1950 and 2006, the average annual temperature in the Central Sands region has also increased by one degree and the growing season has increased by 7 to 14 days according to a report from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impact.
A Variety of Possible Solutions
“Our growers have always been proactive about water conservation,” says Maatz. “We’ve taken numerous steps to efficiently manage and conserve water resources — using low-pressure irrigation systems, drop nozzles, moisture probes and well monitoring. And we’re very active in funding UW water conservation research.”
“If research shows us that there’s a way to improve our farming practices, including water management,” adds Pavelski, “we will absolutely implement it.” Pavelski is the recipient of the 2011 National Potato Council Environmental Stewardship Award. Pavelski says Heartland Farms is one of many WPVGA farms that utilize the Wisconsin Irrigation Scheduling Program, low pressure water systems, and drop nozzles that use less energy and place the water closer to the ground, reducing evaporation.
Lead by Example
“Agribusiness has a huge impact on Wisconsin’s economy,” notes Maatz. “We don’t just provide food for the masses, we provide thousands of jobs and generate tax revenues that are important to our communities.”
According to the University of Wisconsin Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, potatoes in Wisconsin contribute a farm value of nearly $350 million and over 2,700 jobs to the Wisconsin economy. Wisconsin grew over 2.2 billion pounds of potatoes last year, ranking third in the nation for potato production.
“Lakes and waterways are experiencing lower levels in areas where no irrigation occurs and we need to know why,” Maatz says. “It occurs in places where there is no farming and little or no human impact. So what else is there? Climate change; native species populations (trees and grasslands) with increased evapotranspiration—there are many factors to be considered. We are committing significant funding toward research in these areas.
“This isn’t just a challenge we face in Wisconsin — it’s a challenge facing the planet,” Maatz continues. “So we want to be leaders in finding a solution — to conserve water and preserve the economy. We want to keep working with Wisconsin communities to come up with a solution.”
The WPVGA has received numerous awards for its environmental stewardship, including the USDA Secretary’s Honor Award; the World Wildlife Fund Gift to the Earth Award; the International IPM Award of Achievement; and the International Crane Foundation’s Good Egg Award. Several family farms have won National Potato Council Environmental Stewardship Awards, including Heartland Farms, Inc., Plover River Farms, Wysocki Produce Farms, Alsum Farms and Produce, Coloma Farms and Wallendal Supply. And the WPVGA has a certified eco-friendly brand, Healthy Grown. A critical component of sustainable Healthy Grown farming is preservation and conservation of native ecosystems.