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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Michael Weimer

August 2004

A spud in the spotlight

With the help of a global conservation organization, Wisconsin potato growers are improving farming practices to benefit the environment and consumers.

Sara Briles

"Healthy Grown" potato production aims to cut pesticide use, improve soil, and protect wildlife habitat.

© Michael Weimer
The whole-farm approach | A pesticide prompts change
Check the label | A fair market price?
Eyes on the future
Learn more

Consider the humble spud. Could there be any way to improve upon this most valued of tubers, America's favorite vegetable and a mainstay of Wisconsin agriculture?

There is, and the method doesn't involve genetic modification. Instead, change for the better is occurring outside the potato plant – in the way it is planted, tended and harvested by farmers. The result is the "eco-potato."

The eco-potato project sprouted in 1996, when the World Wildlife Fund and the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association sought to reduce pesticide use and encourage farming practices in harmony with the natural environment. Today the eco-potato partnership also includes the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the International Crane Foundation. Eco-potatoes have been sold since 2001 under a new brand called Healthy Grown. For farmers, consumers, wildlife and watersheds, the Healthy Grown brand is one hot potato indeed.

The whole-farm approach

Eco-potato farmers view their farms the way ecologists evaluate ecosystems. Rather than focus only on the productivity of a single field or crop, the eco-farmer aims to improve soil health, biological diversity, water use and quality, and energy flows throughout the entire farm. This "whole-farm" approach also recognizes that an individual farm is part of a larger ecosystem encompassing the surrounding rural community.

"Farmers want to do the right thing on their farms but we lack the capacity to respond fully to this desire," says Jeb Barzen, director of field ecology at the International Crane Foundation. "The eco-potato partnership is a serious effort to provide farmers with the vision and practical tools they need to farm in a way that restores the environment."

For instance, eco-potato partners have learned that nutrient leaching can be reduced if grass buffers, waterways and contour strips are planted with deep-rooted prairie plant species. Growers employing native insects to battle potato pests know they must provide ample and healthy habitat for these beneficial fighters, which further enriches the farm's diversity of plants and animals. By farming with the land rather than against it, and by using nature's tools to help manage their fields, eco-potato growers are acting locally to solve human and environmental problems of long-term and large-scale proportions.

A pesticide prompts change

Steve Diercks and his son are fourth- and fifth-generation farmers in Coloma whose ancestors came to the Antigo area from Germany and Ireland to raise potatoes. Their ancestors grew potatoes without using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers; the Diercks strive to use a minimum of chemical inputs to raise 700 to 800 acres of potatoes each year.

The central sands region, where Diercks' farm is located, is a six-county area in the middle of Wisconsin comprising about 13,000 square miles. The region's sandy, shallow soils – once the bottom of a large glacial lake – drain rapidly, providing an ideal dry environment for potato-growing.

The region is home to most of Wisconsin's other 140 potato growers, and it is where the eco-potato partnership took root. "The impetus for forming the partnership was a groundwater scare in the 1980s," says Deana Sexson, eco-potato partnership coordinator based in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Aldicarb, a chemical pesticide sold under the trade name Temik, was found in the groundwater of areas where potatoes are produced."

Aldicarb had leached into streams, wetlands and drinking water through the region's sandy soils and shallow water table. Research indicated the pesticide disturbed the hormones of wildlife. Diercks realized that sandhill cranes and other wildlife that frequently visited his fields could be affected by aldicarb and other pesticides found in the wetlands.

Although aldicarb provided the growers with a relatively easy way to control major potato pests, state officials banned its use in 1986 where it had contributed to groundwater contamination. "I did not want to handle these chemicals, nor did I want family members and the crew to be exposed to them if it could be avoided," Diercks recalls.

The Wisconsin potato growers went to the University of Wisconsin for help in developing farming practices to reduce the need for chemical pesticides and, at the same time, be economically feasible for the grower.

About that time the World Wildlife Fund was looking for an agriculture group to work with on reducing pesticide use. Migratory birds like endangered whooping cranes use agricultural lands for nesting and feeding, and the organization hoped to decrease the birds' exposure to toxic chemicals.

The eco-potato partnership developed statewide standards for the Wisconsin potato industry. Wisconsin potato growers reduced pesticide use by 37 percent between 1997 and 1999, by some 500,000 pounds, but the partnership and the growers are aiming for further reductions.

The eco-potato partnership understands the need for flexibility in standards. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, growers are encouraged to follow guidelines developed by the partnership to design management plans that address the particular circumstances of each farm. Baseline levels for the reduction of pesticide use are required of all participating growers. Within that framework, growers can select the practices appropriate for the natural environment of the individual farm and the grower's production goals.

Check the label

The idea of marketing environmentally grown produce identified with the Healthy Grown eco-label came about in 2000. Although the World Wildlife Fund is "not your usual party for an agriculture program," Diercks says the organization gave the whole project credibility by agreeing to put their panda logo on the potato bags. "Credibility and food safety are important to the consumer and to the success of the eco-potato project," he says.

The partnership wrote additional, stricter standards for the production of potatoes to be sold under the Healthy Grown brand. Growers must make further reductions in pesticide use and increase the use of biological pest management practices, including beneficial insect predators, crop rotation, maintaining adequate distances between fields, sanitizing equipment, removing infected debris from fields, extensive monitoring of fields for pests, planting of pest-resistant cultivars, restoring habitat for beneficial insects, and improving the biological diversity of the soil. Synthetic chemicals are used only as a last resort, and even then, only chemicals low in environmental toxicity are permitted.

In return for their voluntary participation, the growers can sell their potatoes in bags carrying the Healthy Grown brand and the World Wildlife Fund panda logo.

Protected Harvest, an independent nonprofit organization, was established by the partnership to verify that each participating grower meets the strict standards for producing Healthy Grown potatoes. Mike Carter, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, says that although the eco-potato partnership created Protected Harvest, the organization's board is now independent and beyond reproach. "No one with Protected Harvest has a vested interest in Healthy Grown, the partnership or with any of its members," Carter says. "The certification of the potatoes by an independent third party is critical to the integrity of the brand and consumer confidence."

The Protected Harvest board of directors is a mix of environmental organizations, researchers and consumer advocates, including representatives from the World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Cooperative Defense Council. Protected Harvest is applying the Wisconsin eco-potato model to crops in other states by developing standards for specific crops grown under different regional climates and conditions.

Wisconsin is the third largest potato producing state in the country, with 80,000 acres planted, including potatoes for processing and potatoes sold unprocessed for the fresh market. To date, about seven percent of all Wisconsin potato growers participate in the Healthy Grown brand program. According to Carter, it makes sense for Wisconsin's farmers to join the program and capture some of the market for "greener" products.

Today, the Healthy Grown brand applies only to potatoes grown for the fresh market. In 2003 potatoes sold under the brand were grown on 4,000 to 5,000 acres of the 35,000 acres of fresh market potatoes in Wisconsin by 11 growers who met the certification standards. While more growers actually participated in the Healthy Grown program, only potatoes from growers who had met all of the requirements by the end of the season were eligible for certification.

A fair market price?

During 2001 and 2002, growers certified under the Healthy Grown brand used 54 percent less toxic chemicals than the industry norm, according to Sexson. However, production costs increased about 50 cents per 100 pounds of potatoes due to the extra time required to monitor field conditions, and the higher costs for newer, less toxic pesticides. Will the growers be able to get a higher price for their potatoes to cover the increased costs of production?

Angela Hemauer, director of promotions and consumer education for the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, says shelf space in grocery stores is limited, and many retailers feel they do not want to risk replacing a fresh potato brand familiar to consumers with a new product. "At the same time, our consumer research showed us that consumers are looking for and willing to pay more for environmentally grown produce such as Healthy Grown potatoes," says Hemauer. A marketing plan for the 2004 potato harvest will entice consumers with the slogan, "Wisconsin Healthy Grown potatoes: Good for you, better for the environment."

Healthy Grown brand potatoes can be found in supermarket chains Copps Food, Cub Foods and Jubilee Food Stores throughout Wisconsin, as well as at smaller independent grocers. The growers' association is looking for new markets both within and outside the state. Some Cub stores in Illinois and select stores in Minnesota are now selling Healthy Grown potatoes. "The goal is to have Wisconsin Healthy Grown potatoes readily available in the greater Chicago and Minneapolis markets by 2007," Hemauer says.

The growers willing to meet the requirements to receive the Healthy Grown label hope consumers will support their effort.

Diercks grows 300 acres of potatoes for the Healthy Grown brand. "It is a much more management intensive system," he says. "You need more people with more knowledge and it is a more balanced system of field management. It is more expensive from an out-of-pocket perspective to farm this way." But Diercks feels the extra work is worth the effort and cost: "The greatest benefit is that researchers expect less resistance will be developed by insects through the use of biological intensive pest management and the newer 'softer' chemicals than was the case with the harder chemicals like aldicarb."

In the end, what matters to Diercks and his son is that making this change "is the right thing to do," for the environment and for agriculture.

Larry Alsum, who grows approximately 1,300 acres of Healthy Grown potatoes in the area between Spring Green and Arena, says farmers are the "ultimate stewards of the land and it is our responsibility to be good stewards." Yet as much as farmers want to be good stewards, they also must make a living off the land.

For Alsum, the Healthy Grown program has been an enjoyable and beneficial learning experience. By adopting the program's standards, Alsum says he has learned how to improve his farming practices to control insects and weeds through the use of less toxic pesticides and an array of biological pest and field management techniques.

Alsum sells his Healthy Grown potatoes directly to Certco, Inc., a wholesale cooperative that supplies 120 independent grocery stores in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. So far, Alsum has been able to absorb the additional costs without harming his bottom line. However, the Healthy Grown program anticipates adopting additional standards to further improve the environment and Alsum feels these could add significantly to his production costs.

But he recognizes that a goal of the Healthy Grown program is to return an economic benefit to the participating growers. "If the extra costs of producing Healthy Grown potatoes are not met with increased revenues, then growers will not stay with the program," Alsum observes. The long-term goal is for growers to receive enough of a premium for their Healthy Grown brand potatoes to encourage them to stay with the program.

Eyes on the future

Reducing pesticide use is not the only goal of the Healthy Grown program. In 2005 the program plans to embrace strategies for improving soil and water quality, as well as efforts to restore non-agricultural landscapes. "Whole-farm" ecosystem management plans, control of invasive species, and restoration of native plant communities on unproductive land owned by the growers will be part of future Healthy Grown initiatives.

Ted Anchor, A UW restoration ecologist for the eco-potato partnership, manages five demonstration farms to evaluate management practices that are considered for the Healthy Grown standards. All the demonstration farms are owned by growers participating in the Healthy Grown Program.

One goal on each farm is restoring parcels of plant communities that existed prior to settlement. Among the five farms, over 80 species of prairie plants are being grown on 33 acres. Prescribed burns are planned for spring and fall on 200 acres within the demonstration sties. A second goal is limiting the spread of invasive plant species like spotted knapweed and reed canary grass as the land is restored. A third aim is developing diverse wildlife habitat on the farms and surrounding lands Most of the demonstration farms adjoin conservation lands managed by DNR and other conservation organizations. The Healthy Grown program would like to include standards so farmland are managed to keep land practices compatible with those on surrounding conservation lands. If farmers can restore enough natural habitat for beneficial insects, their fields benefit from smaller pest populations, air and water quality will improve and wildlife habit will increase.

The potato growers and the members of the partnership believe the Healthy Grown program represents a shift that will eventually occur throughout conventional agriculture. Their effort has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which bestowed its 2003 Secretary's Honor Award for maintaining and enhancing the nation's natural resources and environment on the eco-potato project and the Healthy Grown program. Together, these two initiatives provide a viable model for how farmers can take direct responsibility for the health of the land and its resources.

Sara Briles is a freelance writer from Madison.

Learn more
Wisconsin Healthy Grown Potatoes
Review certification standards for Wisconsin's Healthy Grown brand, and for crops in other states.

UW Integrated Pest and Crop Management
More specifics on the policies established by the eco-potato project and the Healthy Grown program