A Big-City Ag High School Blossoms

It’s just after lunch at Milwaukee Vincent, and students are settling into their two-hour Advanced Animal Science class. Using their fingers to write on an electronic whiteboard, they quickly assign themselves animal care tasks. There is much to keep them busy.

While some kids clean the rabbit and chinchilla cages, others try to hold the hedgehog without getting pricked or feed the 1,000 crickets purchased for conducting breeding experiments. (They eat fresh vegetables.) The classroom is abuzz—not with the beehives located a few hundred yards away outside—but with talk about the newest member of the menagerie, a goat named Susan. A half dozen students head out to the pole shed that now accommodates Susan’s pen. Water sloshes out of the five-gallon buckets students pull in a wagon toward the goat, the 26 chickens and the two ducks. The refrigerator is already full of eggs, but kids find seven more under one broody bird.

Forty-two buses bring students to the 70-acre North Side campus from all parts of Milwaukee. While the school was built in the late ’70s to focus on international studies, agribusiness and natural resources, it has strayed from that specialization over the past few decades.

But new life is being breathed into the school’s original mission, in part due to the infusion of funding through a USDA grant obtained by the University of Wisconsin–Madison to develop an agricultural curriculum at the high school. This, plus four new ag teachers and a principal who is dedicated to the school’s agricultural roots, are starting to turn things around.

“Agriculture may sound like an unusual choice for a big-city high school, but our expansive campus and, more importantly, significant career opportunities in the field, make for a strong match,” says principal Daryl Burns. “All the agricultural pathways help students build the skills needed for in-demand STEM careers and the skills needed for success in almost any career, as well as in college and in life.”

Each freshman is required to take a yearlong Introduction to Agricultural Sciences class. Students can then pursue four different pathways: Animal Science, Horticulture Science, Food Science and Environmental Science. A three-room greenhouse is back in use, and an enormous vegetable garden, chicken coop, animal room, apiary and aquaponics facility in which fish and plants are grown together have been added.

And the school has been renamed Vincent Agricultural High School. Gail Kraus, an agricultural outreach specialist, is helping the Milwaukee Public Schools initiative to see Vincent grow into its new name. Now in her fourth year there, she is funded through the CALS-based Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project grant.

“This transformation will provide Vincent students the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning that builds the necessary knowledge and skills for one of Wisconsin’s largest industries,” says Kraus.

Much of the inspiration for bringing the school back to its roots comes from CALS agronomy professor Molly Jahn, who had visited and was impressed by the Chicago High School for Agricultural Science (CHSAS). There, students clamor for enrollment space because of its curriculum and reputation as a safe school that promotes academic excellence.

“We want Vincent to be as desirable to attend as CHSAS,” says Jahn. “Through the new ag curriculum, students may be prepared for jobs right out of high school or go on to college to study things they would not otherwise have been exposed to. I envision the day when the ag curriculum at Vincent will be used as a model for other urban high schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere.”

Some Vincent students have completed the college application process. Jeremy Shelly, a senior who is a member of the National Honor Society, wants to become a veterinarian. Dawson Yang is aiming for UW–Green Bay.

“I took the Intro to Environmental Sciences class here and loved it,” says Yang, who also likes to hunt, fish and camp. “I want to study environmental sciences and maybe one day work for the Department of Natural Resources.”

Class Act: Timothy Guthrie

Biochemistry senior Timothy Guthrie knows that science and success are about small steps. It’s those tiny strides that drive him to excel both in the lab and in the pole-vaulting pit.

Last summer Guthrie, a student athlete, earned a summer Biochemistry Undergraduate Summer Research Scholarship and spent lots of time in the lab of biochemistry professor Judith Kimble. There he worked, and continues to work, on making different mutations in a protein important for stem cell renewal.

“When I finally get something right in the lab that I’ve been working on for a month or two, it’s a really satisfying feeling,” says Guthrie, who plans to apply to medical school this summer.

Guthrie’s work allows the lab to better understand the molecular mechanism behind stem cell renewal in a tiny roundworm species called Caenorhabditis elegans, used as a model because their stem cells are easier to study than those in humans. Stem cell renewal is essential for the organism to keep producing cells it needs to develop and reproduce. By making different mutations to a protein important to this process, researchers can work to determine the role of the protein.

“The ultimate goal of stem cells is for therapeutic use, but we’ve got to work to understand the stem cells first—and the only way to do that is piece by piece,” says Guthrie. “That’s what Professor Kimble’s lab is doing.”

Getting involved in undergraduate research has helped Guthrie gain critical lab experience and also helped build connections between what he learns about in class and the experiments he performs in the lab.

“Along with knowledge of lab techniques and research, I’ve gained a better appreciation for the scientific discoveries we’ve already made,” he says. “All of those big successes and drugs we’ve discovered were made up of small steps like the ones I get to be a part of in the lab.”

Timothy Guthrie, Biochemistry senior, works with data on stem cells research.
Photo by: Robin Davies/UW–Madison MediaLab at Biochemistry

Inspiring Young Farmers, Then and Now

One hundred years ago, two men introduced a piece of legislation to the U.S. Congress that would forever change the future of agricultural education. Senator Hoke Smith and Representative D.M. Hughes, both from Georgia, brought forth the National Vocational Education Act, now known as the Smith-Hughes Act.

The Smith-Hughes Act encouraged establishing vocational agriculture to train individuals “who have entered upon or who are preparing to enter upon the work of the farm.” As such, the legislation created one of the first federal grant-in-aid programs, offering federal aid to states for high school vocational education courses.

Agricultural educators embraced the curriculum and a few short years later, some schools began to form student organizations for male students enrolled in their agriculture classes. In 1928, with interest growing across the country, a group of students gathered in Kansas City and created the Future Farmers of America.

That group, known today as the National FFA Organization, has grown to nearly 650,000 members in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and encompasses ag-related areas such as communication, food science and genetics. Female students have joined and hold key leadership roles at all levels. No matter the student’s gender, religion or ethnicity, all members share a love of agriculture.

And over the decades, FFA members have been inspired by the words of a Wisconsin educator: Erwin Milton Tiffany, a CALS alumnus and professor of agricultural education. He expressed a love of and vision for agriculture in the form of a creed, adopted at the Third National FFA Convention, that nearly every member learns in his or her first year. The words are powerful, meaningful and passionate. They tell a story of pride and purpose. They are so impactful that many alumni, of all ages, can still recite them today:

“I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds—achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.”

Tiffany not only wrote the creed, he lived by it and spread the word. As a CALS professor, he taught and mentored other educators who would continue introducing youth to the many opportunities offered in an organization whose mission is to make a “positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.”

Student members, alumni, agricultural educators and supporters alike all live by an oath penned by a Badger: “I believe that American agriculture can and will hold true to the best traditions of our national life and that I can exert an influence in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task.”

To read the complete FFA Creed, visit ffa.org/about/who-we-are/ffa-creed

Erwin Milton Tiffany, a CALS graduate and ag educator, has inspired millions with his FFA creed. Photo of EM Tiffany courtesy of IUPUI University Library Special Collections / Illustration by Diane Doering

A New Weapon Against Bacterial Disease

Bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics are one of the biggest problems facing public health today. About 800,000 children worldwide die before their fifth birthday from diarrheal diseases that evade treatment. The concentration of those diseases is highest in parts of Africa and Asia.

To address the problem, CALS biochemist Srivatsan (“Vatsan”) Raman hopes to harness the power of phages—viruses that infect bacteria but leave humans unscathed. With help from a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Raman’s team is designing phages to specifically target bacteria that are causing diseases in infants.

Raman describes antibiotics—how doctors usually fight infections—as hammers that take out many bacteria, both harmful and beneficial. This means they can affect the entire human microbiome, which is the community of microbes on, inside and around the human body.

“We do not yet have the tools to selectively edit the composition of a microbiome,” Raman explains. But that is one of the goals of his lab’s work with phages. Unlike antibiotics, phages are very specific. A phage only infects one type of bacterial host. It is this specificity that presents Raman and his researchers with opportunities—but also some challenges.

Phages, which resemble lunar landers, locate bacterial hosts by attaching to specific receptors on the cell’s surface. Once they have found their host, some phages, called obligate lytic phages, quickly infect the cell and replicate. Once replication is complete, the new phage progeny burst out of the cell, ready to infect and kill the next available host.

Raman’s goal is to be able to control many steps in this process. He is investigating a way to engineer a phage that can be programmed to target specific bacteria. By changing just the “legs” of the lunar lander, the designer phage can target and eliminate any bacteria the researchers wish.

However, while destruction of bacteria is the ultimate goal, the process also creates problems. Many bacteria contain toxins that are released if the bacteria die in large numbers. So Raman’s team is also trying to control the rate at which phages infect and kill cells inside the body. “We can keep the phage on a leash and determine when and where it can infect,” describes Kelly Schwartz, a postdoctoral fellow in Raman’s laboratory.

Raman believes “designer phages” have great promise for human health.

“I was drawn to this research because designer phages can provide a potential solution to the antibiotic resistance problem,” notes Raman. “These bacteria are resistant to anything you throw at them and are killers in developing countries.

“And the next question, if we are successful, is ‘How can we turn these phages into actual medications that can be delivered to these areas?’ That challenge awaits us further down the road,” Raman says.

Vatsan Raman in his lab: The biochemist is engineering viruses that can vanquish harmful bacteria. Photo by Robin Davies/UW–Madison MediaLab at Biochemistry

Antibiotics Off the Beaten Path

As more antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” emerge, it’s clear that we desperately need new antimicrobial drugs. Yet, over the past couple of decades, antibiotic discovery has largely been stagnant.

“The reality is there’s almost no new antibiotics that are developed. And that’s because pharmaceutical companies have decreased their investment—in part because of the rediscovery issue,” explains bacteriology professor Cameron Currie.

The “rediscovery issue” refers to the fact that soil has historically been the prime source of new antibiotics—but it seems to be tapped out. When scientists screen soil microbes for new antibiotics, they keep finding the same compounds over and over again.

Currie is part of a team that is looking elsewhere.

Currie and his colleagues have been focusing their efforts on microbes that are associated with insects, plants and marine life from all around the United States, funded by a $16 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that was awarded in 2014.

“One of the major hurdles is finding new compounds, and that’s where we’re really excelling,” says Currie, a co-principal investigator on the grant. His partner is David Andes in the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

At the front end, the work involves some good old-fashioned bioprospecting. Currie’s group, which is in charge of the terrestrial sphere, has gathered more than 2,000 flies, aphids, caterpillars, bees, ants and other insects, as well as mushrooms and plants, from locales near and far, including Alaska, Hawaii and Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake.

Back at the lab, things get high-tech pretty quickly. Microbes are isolated from the samples and tested for antimicrobial activity. Promising strains undergo genetic sequencing that allows Currie’s group to determine how likely they are to produce novel antibiotic compounds. From there, other scientists involved in the grant go on to test the most promising compounds in a mouse model of infection. This approach has already yielded some exciting drug candidates.

“We have 9,000 strains to screen, and we have already found some new compounds that are effective at combating infections in mice and have low toxicity,” says Currie.

With so many samples to process, Currie’s group adopted bar code technology to help them keep track. They have a bar code reader—like you’d find in a grocery store— connected to a lab computer that they use to scan petri dishes, look up samples and add new data. For each microbial strain they’ve isolated, the database has photos of the “host” insect or plant, GPS coordinates for the collection site, assay results, genetic sequence and much more.

At this point, Currie feels confident that the project will pay off, and he’s eager to see one of the group’s compounds go into human clinical trials.

“If you find one new antibiotic that gets used in treatment, it’s a major success. You’re saving people’s lives,” Currie says.

The Inner World of Athletes

So many things typically distinguish accomplished athletes from the rest of us—greater strength and endurance, better balance, faster reactions—but one of the more surprising differences is that, according to dental studies, they also tend to get more cavities.

This intriguing phenomenon was the subject of a capstone course in microbiology this past spring, offering undergrads a chance to be part of a burgeoning worldwide scientific effort while using cutting-edge technology.

There are trillions of microbes in the human body; the community of microbes that lives in each of us is our microbiome. As more and more research focuses on microbiomes, it’s becoming clear they play a significant role in human health and wellness. Microbiology 551 students worked to add to that body of research using a next-generation DNA sequencer manufactured by the California-based company Illumina.

“It’s only our department and maybe one or two in California that are doing hands-on work with undergraduates in teaching this technique,” says co-instructor Melissa Christopherson. Christopherson teaches the course with Tim Paustian, both faculty associates in the Department of Bacteriology. “Having students conduct meaningful research with these modern techniques makes them more competitive in the job market and better able to navigate the field of microbiology.”

Students were tasked with comparing the oral microbiomes of athletes and nonathletes, using saliva samples. They sampled a range of students, from UW athletes to occasional exercisers to students who hadn’t exercised for at least five weeks. Once students collected and prepared the samples—including their own oral microbiomes—they sequenced the DNA and determined which microbes were present in each sample.

With so many samples, the students were able to look beyond the question of exercise to test other hypotheses they developed themselves.

“We wound up taking the same data set and asking other questions,” explains Samantha Gieger, who graduated in May with a BS in microbiology and genetics. “In groups of four or five, we looked at the effects of dairy, caffeine or using an electric toothbrush.”

Students presented their projects at a poster session last semester, and their work is currently being analyzed for publication. Their findings will become part of the growing research into microbiomes. Student Sophie Carr BS’16 and Christopherson were invited to the White House last spring for a summit announcing the launch of the National Microbiome Initiative.

As a capstone class, the course offered a research experience requiring students to integrate diverse bodies of knowledge to solve a problem. And it quickly proved invaluable as students considered next steps in their careers.

“I’ve learned so much—how to go about research, what to do when encountering a problem. Troubleshooting is such an important technique,” says Isaiah Rozich BS’16, then a senior majoring in microbiology and Spanish. “Figuring out which solution is best takes a lot of time, and it opened my eyes to what life as a researcher will be like. While it’s overwhelming, I think the end result is gratifying.”

PHOTO: On the case: Students compared the oral microbiomes of athletes to figure out why athletes get more cavities.
Photo by Sevie Kenyon

From Space to the Field

Images captured from satellites orbiting 440 miles above the Earth tell a powerful, richly detailed story about crop yields—revealing the lushness or deficits of fields with surprising precision.

With the help of about 100 farmers so far as part of a citizen science project, researcher Phil Townsend and his team hope to coax even more valuable information from the satellite photos and change how farmers’ yields are reported and analyzed.

“The reporting of crop yields is now done at the county level with information confidentially reported by farmers to the USDA,” says Townsend, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology. “Counties can be very large. We now have the ability to analyze yields at the field level with these images, giving us much more accurate and granular data.”

By tracking the greenness of fields from the satellites and analyzing climate data, researchers hope to identify impacts of insect pests, crop diseases and weather events like frost, tornados or hail.

First, however, they needed to test their yield estimates against farmers’ actual yields. So Townsend’s team developed a website—yieldsurvey. wisc.edu—that allows researchers to confidentially crowdsource crop yield information. Townsend is encouraging even more submissions.

Farmers can enter their field’s location by dropping pins on a Google map, along with the type of crop and the actual crop yield for as many seasons as possible. The information is then analyzed and compared to estimates developed in Townsend’s lab.

“Our yield estimates are within about 15 percent of what the farmers report,” Townsend says. “Our target is to get that down to 10 percent. If you’re a farmer, the closer you can get to that could be the difference between making money and breaking even.”

Citizen science is a two-way street—it helps researchers tweak their estimates based on real data, and those more accurate numbers can help farmers be more productive and better managers.

Ultimately, Townsend says, the satellite technology and climate data, refined by knowing the actual yields from participating farmers, have the potential to predict crop yields well before harvest time.

Farmers see promise in the new approach, says Kevin Erb, a UW–Extension agronomist based in Green Bay.

“Farmers benefit from using remote sensing technology,” Erb says. “If we know early in the season that we have the potential for above-average yields, that can affect the types of pesticides and fertilizers that you use during the season.”

Being able to make decisions during the season based on this sort of predictive data could increase profits $50 or more per acre, Erb says.

Townsend’s team is cooperating with the USDA and hopes to snag funding to broaden the project. The effort is an example of the Wisconsin Idea at work, Townsend says.

“We have to connect with our constituents, and that’s where crowdsourcing and citizen science comes into play,” he says. “Farmers are participating in the science, and they see the benefits. It’s building trust.”

IMAGE: This map looking at soybean crops in the Upper Midwest shows how yields are predicted to vary even within the same county. Researchers are trying to verify their estimates by working with farmers to determine their actual yields.
Courtesy of Aditya Singh/UW–Madison CALS

Student-Created Quaffs

Red Fusion, a wine produced by Campus Craft Winery, a collaboration between the CALS-based Fermentation Sciences Program and Wollersheim Winery.   Photo by Sevie Kenyon

Red Fusion, a wine produced by Campus Craft Winery, a collaboration between the CALS-based Fermentation Sciences Program and Wollersheim Winery.
Photo by Sevie Kenyon

The wine, Red Fusion, was produced through the Campus Craft Winery, a collaboration between the Fermentation Sciences Program and Wollersheim Winery. Students enrolled in FS375, a course taught by food science professor Jim Steele and enologist Nick Smith, were responsible for not just producing the wine, but also naming the product and developing the label. The project yielded 230 cases of wine this year, and Steele hopes to up that number to over 1,000 cases next year. Proceeds will help support the food science department’s wine-related outreach, instruction and research efforts.

The beer, S’Wheat Caroline, was produced through the Campus Craft Brewery, a collaboration between the Fermentation Sciences Program and the Wisconsin Brewing Company. Developed by students Daniel Deveney (mechanical engineering), Jenna Fantle BS’16 (food science) and Eric Kretsch (microbiology), the American wheat ale was declared the winning brew among a field of student-crafted competitors by a panel of expert judges. This is the second beer released through this collaboration. Inaugural Red, released in May 2015, has been very successful in the marketplace.

Both beverages are available at Union South and Memorial Union. Additionally, the beers are available on tap and in retail stores statewide. Due to the relatively low volume of product available, beyond campus Red Fusion is available for purchase only at Wollersheim Winery.

The Road from Farm to Market

Consumer demand for regionally produced food is on the rise. But transportation and distribution logistics for mid-size shippers, distributors and farmers can be tricky. These supply chain partners are looking for ways to more efficiently move products from Wisconsin’s farms to markets, while upholding many of their customers’ sustainability values.

That’s where the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) comes in. CIAS is working with university and private-sector partners to bring regionally grown food to urban markets while growing rural economies and addressing the environmental impacts of food freight.

“When people think of local food, they think of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture,” says Michelle Miller BS’83, associate director of programs for CIAS. “While these direct markets are the gold standard for connecting us with the people who grow our food, they don’t address the need to get more high-quality regional products into grocery stores, restaurants and schools.”

Consumers tend to believe that food is more sustainable if it travels a short distance from farm to table. However, a USDA study found that compared to direct markets, the large truckloads and logistical efficiencies found in the conventional food system sometimes use less fuel per food item transported.

Helping mid-size farmers move full truckloads of their products into wholesale markets is one way to build a more resilient regional economy. However, farmers face numerous challenges when shifting from direct to wholesale marketing. Product aggregation is one major hurdle, as wholesale public markets for assembling farmers’ wares have largely disappeared from the landscape.

The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative (WFHC), founded in 2012, helps fill that gap by providing sales, marketing and logistical support for its 37 farmer-owners, with sales of $1.7 million in 2015 and anticipated sales of $2.5 million in 2016.

CIAS helped WFHC implement retail product quality specifications and food safety requirements. Access to CALS expertise in those areas has made a big difference for their business, according to WFHC development director Sarah Lloyd.

“Most retail outlets require growers to obtain voluntary food safety certifications,” says Lloyd. “The help we’ve received in working through this maze of regulations has been critical.”

According to Miller, much more work is needed to help Wisconsin growers move their products into regional metro markets. CIAS is investigating fair trade strategies to provide equitable compensation for farmers. The center is working closely with city, county and regional partners to increase food processing and related food systems economic development in southern Wisconsin. CIAS is also researching more sustainable truck fleets using alternative fuels, hybrid electric engines and day cabs.

“We can gain efficiencies across the food system, at the farm level and in the way we move food to markets,” says Miller. “Ultimately we want to make it easier for consumers to support Wisconsin farmers.”

Tara Roberts-Turner, a founding farmer and business manager of the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, loads fresh produce onto a truck bound for Chicago.

Photo credit – Tara Roberts-Turner 

More Sustainable Feedstock for Ethanol

A six-year Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) study on the viability of different bioenergy feedstocks recently demonstrated that perennial cropping systems such as switchgrass, giant miscanthus, poplar, native grasses and prairie can yield as much biomass as corn stover.

The study is significant for addressing one of the biofuel industry’s biggest questions: Can environmentally beneficial crops produce enough biomass to make their conversion to ethanol efficient and economical?

Since 2008, research scientists Gregg Sanford and Gary Oates, based in the lab of CALS agronomy professor Randy Jackson, have worked with colleagues at Michigan State University (MSU) to cultivate more than 80 acres of crops with the potential to become feedstocks for so-called “second-generation” biofuels, that is, biofuels derived from non-food crops or the nonfood portion of plants. They’ve grown these crops at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station and at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station.

“We understand annual systems really well, but little research has been done on the yield of perennial cropping systems as they get established and begin to produce, or after farmland has been converted to a perennial system,” says Oates.

To find out basic information about how well certain crops produce biomass, Sanford and Oates tested the crops across two criteria: diversity of species, and whether a crop grows perennially (continuously, year after year) or annually (needing to be replanted each year).

Highly productive corn stover has thus far been the main feedstock for second-generation biofuels. And yet perennial cropping systems, which are better equipped to build soil quality, reduce runoff, and minimize greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere, confer more environmental benefits.

Corn, when grain is included, proved to be most productive over the first six-year period of the study at the Wisconsin site, but giant miscanthus, switchgrass, poplar and native grasses were not far behind. At the MSU site, where soil is less fertile, miscanthus actually produced the same amount of biomass as corn (grain included) in the experiment, with poplar and switchgrass within range.

“All of this means that, at large scales and on various soils, these crops are competitive with corn, the current dominant feedstock for ethanol,” Sanford says.

Now in the midst of the study’s eighth year, Sanford says the study will continue for the foreseeable future.

“We know that perennial systems can prevent negative impacts such as soil erosion and nitrate leaching, and that they also provide habitat for native species that provide beneficial ecosystem services,” Sanford says. “But there are still a lot of questions we want to answer about soil processes and properties— questions that take many years to answer.”

Researcher Gregg Sanford stands before a plot of giant miscanthus at Arlington.

Photo credit – Matthew Wisniewski

Dairy Dash Embodies the Spirit of Alpha Gamma Rho

This is one race where cows are welcome—or, rather, people dressed in cow suits.

In just three years, the Dairy Dash has become a campus institution that imbues health and fun times with a serious purpose. The event is held in honor of John Klossner, a CALS sophomore who died of a head trauma following an accident at the 2013 Wisconsin State Fair. All proceeds from the 5K run are donated to the Brain Injury Association.

“John was a gregarious soul who always enjoyed a good laugh. He made friends easily. People naturally gravitated toward him,” recalls his older sister, Kristin Klossner.

Klossner was making his mark at UW–Madison, in particular through his service as a member of Alpha Gamma Rho, the largest social-professional agricultural fraternity on campus. Now marking 100 years at UW–Madison, Alpha Gamma Rho promotes academics along with providing leadership and networking opportunities and fostering fellowship among its members.

Nothing embodies Alpha Gamma Rho’s mission more than the Dairy Dash, which members conceived of and run in Klossner’s honor. Each May over the past three years, some 300 people have turned up to raise money for the Brain Injury Association and honor Klossner’s spirited and giving life. The bovine attire donned by some runners celebrates Klossner’s passion for cows.

Alpha Gamma Rho has been a fixture on campus since April 29, 1916, and to date has had some 1,650 young men as members. The fraternity has been home to some of the top agriculture students on campus—students who continually step up to volunteer and advance agriculture.

One example is the Competitive Edge, an event founded more than 40 years ago to help incoming students and their parents become acquainted with campus and learn about the opportunities available at CALS. The Competitive Edge and other Alpha Gamma Rho scholarship events award some $20,000 in scholarships each year. That number should grow as the fraternity embarks on a $1 million fundraising campaign to expand its educational endowment.

To celebrate the fraternity’s rich history and bright future, more than 375 members and their guests—traveling from 24 states and Canada— gathered at the Madison Concourse Hotel in Madison this past April to renew their collective vision for the future.

Meanwhile, current members of Alpha Gamma Rho have added a deep and meaningful chapter in their history with the establishment of the Dairy Dash.

“After losing John, I learned how close of a family the agriculture industry is,” says Kristin Klossner. “I think he is with us every time we are at the Dairy Dash. We love what the AGR brothers have done and continue to do. The Dairy Dash helps to bring people together.”

The Greenhouse as a Public Classroom

Just as some seeds yield tomatoes, carrots and lettuce, others grow community and partnership.

In a greenhouse in the northern Wisconsin town of Park Falls, all of those seeds are taking root with the help of CALS horticulture graduate student Michael Geiger, horticulture professor Sara Patterson and a team of dedicated local leaders.

“The greenhouse has opened doors to making healthier food choices, to education about gardening in local schools—and it’s given the university a presence in Park Falls,” says Geiger, who grew up in Arbor Vitae, some 50 miles away.

Geiger’s involvement with the Flambeau River Community Growing Center started four years ago when a friend in the area approached him for advice. Her group was seeking funding for a greenhouse project, and Geiger teamed with Patterson to identify possible revenue sources. They developed a proposal for the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment at UW–Madison.

By fall 2013, construction had begun on a 25-by- 50-foot vail-style greenhouse, built by community volunteers on a vacant lot donated by Flambeau River Papers just north of the mill. Plans call for the facility to eventually be heated with waste steam from the mill.

The Flambeau River Community Growing Center has gained popularity with community members and school groups interested in learning about plants and gardening. “It’s a greenhouse, but it’s also a classroom,” says Geiger.

Learners include children from the Chequamegon School District, who start seeds in the greenhouse and nurture seedlings until they can be transplanted to their own school gardens. Area 4–H groups grow plants and tend them in raised beds just outside the greenhouse. Master Gardener classes are held at the facility, and community workshops have included such topics as square-foot and container gardening as well as hydroponics. Kids have been delighted with sessions on soil testing and painting their own flowerpots.

“It’s clearly a benefit to build a connection between UW–Madison and the community, for the community itself—people from ages 3 to 90—and for the local schools,” Patterson says.

Community leaders and institutions have joined to fuel the center’s success. Its chief executive officer, Tony Thier, recently retired from Flambeau River Papers; UW–Extension has provided valuable educational and technical support; and volunteer opportunities draw professionals from various companies in the area. Park Falls attorney Janet Marvin helped the center gain nonprofit status last fall.

Thier says the center provides needed education for area residents. “It’s been very beneficial,” he says. “When I got involved, it really became a passion. I wanted to learn more about gardening and increase my skill. We try to involve the whole community.”

Geiger says the project has helped him in his academic career as he learned about project planning, gave presentations about the center at two national academic conferences and writes scholarly articles about his work there.

“I’ve been able to see this process through from an idea to reality,” says Geiger. “It’s been really rewarding.”

PHOTO – Michael Geiger (right) in the greenhouse at a hydroponic salad table workshop. The greenhouse features in-floor radiant heating and custom growing tables made of locally purchased white cedar and built by volunteers.

Photo credit – Michael Geiger