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12 in 125

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In honor of the occasion, we present an admittedly arbitrary list—no ranking intended here—of a dozen paradigm shifts, great discoveries and shining moments at CALS since we marked our centennial 25 years ago.

Creating a Healthier World

What do millennials want? The popularity of a new CALS-based program addressing global health concerns offers at least one answer.

Goodbye, Bug Guy

He’s been helping farmers, gardeners, landscapers, science students and pest-plagued citizens for decades. We present a fond look at Phil Pellitteri, Wisconsin’s rock star entomologist, on the eve of his retirement.

Communicating Science in the Digital Age

Web-based science news has placed a higher burden on scientists to more effectively share their discoveries with the public— a challenge that CALS life sciences communicators are ready to help them meet.

Microbes & Human Health

Microbes inhabit our bodies by the trillions, yet how they benefit us mostly remains a mystery. As scientists work with animals to illuminate that complex dynamic, they are excited about the potential microbes may hold for human health.

The Power of Pizza

The pie’s ever-growing popularity has made mozzarella the big cheese in Wisconsin. CALS researchers are helping state cheesemakers feed and grow that demand by developing new varieties for specialized and international markets.

Expanding the Global Classroom

CALS has long been renowned for extensive international engagement. A new program enriches global opportunities for undergrads by making international perspectives, skills and applications part and parcel of the science curriculum.

Seeding an Organic Future

CALS students and faculty are in the forefront of efforts to develop plant varieties for a burgeoning market

Protecting our Pollinators

Bees, so crucial to our food supply, are dying off at alarming rates. CALS researchers are taking a close look at everything from the microbes in their hives to the landscapes they live in to identify in what conditions bees thrive.

The Locavore School

A program with deep roots at CALS helps school districts around Wisconsin serve fruits, vegetables and other goods from local farmers—and introduces children to the joys and benefits of healthy eating.

Meats Made in Wisconsin

CALS is partnering with businesses, the state and other stakeholders to develop a Wisconsin meats brand that could emulate the success of the state’s artisan cheese.

Geiss Meat Service in Merrill, Wisconsin, has been butchering livestock for farmers in Lincoln County and surrounding areas since 1956, cutting about 6,000 pounds of beef a day—that’s an average of eight to 10 beef cattle—into fresh steaks, chops, loins and roasts. But when third-generation owner Andrew Geiss took over the company in 2005, he was ready to try something new.

“I wanted to figure out a way to build up a retail business by expanding our sausage line,” he says. “I thought there was more money to be made by diversifying our products.” He added a smokehouse and started taking basic meat science classes at CALS—and soon discovered a satisfaction in crafting his own specialty meats that meat cutting alone couldn’t provide.

“There’s a lot of pride and art that goes into it. For instance, getting that perfectly round shape and uniformity in color when making a ham,” says Geiss. “You can’t imagine how much one thing in the smokehouse—for example, the humidity levels—changes everything, and how much work is involved.”

But the business side wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. “Honestly, I was at a point where we needed to make some serious changes with the consistency of our products in order to please customers and expand sales,” he says.

He found exactly the help he needed in 2010, when he was accepted into the inaugural class of the Master Meat Crafter training program at CALS. He and his classmates—16 men and one woman from small meat operations all around the state—traveled to Madison regularly over the course of two years for rigorous, hands-on instruction in meat science and processing, covering such areas as fresh meats, fermented and cured meats, cooked and emulsified sausage and meat microbiology and food safety.

That training earned Geiss the right to use the formal designation of Master Meat Crafter. But even more than the title, the program gave him the skills he needed to improve the quality, yields and markup on his products. “Now we’re doing a ton of different kinds of sausages, and everything is turning out just perfectly,” he reports. “And I don’t have to second-guess anything. I know that everything is exactly the way that I want it to be, and it turns out the same every time.”

The industry already has taken note of his improvements. Last summer Geiss Meat Service entered products for the first time in the American Cured Meat Championships and won awards in four categories, including first place in cooked ring bologna.

But even seasoned meat crafters see the value of the master course. The debut class included Louis E. Muench, a third-generation sausage maker who was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009. Since 1970, Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland has been crafting ham, bacon, bologna, breakfast links, salami, summer sausage and dozens of other products—and winning more than 300 state, national and international awards for their quality. Its creative staff also designs an extraordinary assortment of bratwurst, including applewurst, bacon cheeseburger, blueberry, pumpkin pie and wild rice and mushroom.

Why would someone with that level of expertise be interested in going back to school? “There’s so much technology that changes every day,” Muench says. As examples he cites new antimicrobials developed to combat foodborne pathogens and new government food safety, labeling and operations-related regulations, including changes that will for the first time allow Wisconsin’s state-inspected small processors to sell across state borders. “For our business to succeed in the long run, we need to keep current on everything and try to pass on as much knowledge as we can to keep the quality and the food safety up,” says Muench.

Within a year of completing the program, Muench had encouraged his son Louis and his brother William to sign up with the next group of students.

That’s the kind of success that the Master Meat Crafter program’s key partners—CALS, UW-Extension, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP)—envisioned when they determined that state-of-the-art training was needed to take the state’s specialty meat production to an even higher level.

Program director Jeff Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and UW-Extension meat specialist, designed it to be like an academic postgraduate program that would benefit even the most skilled and experienced artisans. In both structure and intent, the new program mirrors the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program run by the Center for Dairy Research at CALS, which was a key player in turning Wisconsin’s specialty cheese business into a globally acclaimed leader that today accounts for more than 20 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production, up from a mere 4 percent in the 1990s.

The Master Meat Crafter program’s success will be measured over the long haul, says Sindelar: “It’s which of these plants will grow, add on, which plants are going to pass along the business, whether to family members or to other people who can continue the name. It’s really about longevity and viability of the industry.

South of the Colorful Clouds

China’s Yunnan province, home to some of the world’s most remote and distinctive ecological communities, is facing growing pressure to develop with the rest of the country. A UW–Chinese collaboration run through CALS sends researchers to explore how best to preserve biodiversity and foster sustainable livelihoods in the region.

Not long ago, one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions on earth—Yunnan Province on China’s southwestern border, with its great river gorges, sweeping grasslands and majestic Himalayan mountains—was virtually inaccessible to outsiders.

Golden snub-nosed monkeys, black-necked cranes, snow leopards, Tibetan bears and an astounding number of other animals and plants thrive in its temperate forests and alpine meadows. And five million people from 26 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities live in the province’s remote high-altitude forests and valleys.

This biologically sensitive region has for the past half-dozen years been a field site for collaboration between the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, a partnership that focuses on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

The idea arose from conversations between visiting scientist Ji Weizhi, former director of the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Yunnan, and Kenneth Shapiro, an emeritus professor of agricultural and applied economics who was then associate dean of international agricultural programs at CALS.

“Ji was impressed by the interdisciplinary approaches that some of the UW departments were using to address complex problems like biodiversity conservation,” says Shapiro. “Ji could see that the traditional narrow ‘stovepipe’ or isolated discipline approach to biodiversity research cannot bridge the gaps in understanding diverse problems in biodiversity conservation. He understood that scientists needed a broader understanding of the relationships between the biology, livelihoods, economics and politics of Yunnan to protect its biodiversity and promote sustainable development.”

Yunnan’s name roughly translates to “south of the colorful clouds”—and indeed, the province’s beauty is self-evident. Less obvious, perhaps, is its environmental importance. The region provides critical ecological services across much of Asia. To take water alone as an example, nearly half of China’s population, along with millions of other southeast Asians, depend on the fresh water passing through the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, which lie within the drainage basins of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers. If the natural forests in this region were destroyed, vast areas and populations downstream would suffer from severe floods and huge reductions of water supplies and quality.

After centuries of semi-isolation, Yunnan—the northwestern part of the province in particular—has been discovered by China’s new middle class of tourists, most of them Han Chinese, who make up more than 92 percent of China’s population. Where only hikers, horses and mules trod before, roads are being built by local and provincial governments to carry millions of tourists. Old-growth forests are being logged to accommodate them. Yunnan’s ethnic communities are having to transform centuries-old land use traditions. And the government is pressing Yunnan for economic development. Ji was aware that transforming Yunnan could have devastating effects on its biodiversity, on China’s fresh water supplies and on the livelihoods of ethnic minorities.

What Yunnan’s scientists needed was a model of an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Collaboration with UW, it was hoped, would mark a pioneering step toward developing that model.

Shapiro and other UW scientists, led by the late Josh Posner (see sidebar on page 27), found a home and funding for their part of the partnership under the auspices of IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), a highly competitive National Science Foundation program that supports scientists and engineers pursuing graduate degrees in fields that cross disciplines and are deemed to have broad societal impact. The UW proposal drew on the strong support of the staff of CALS international programs, and the research also benefited from significant supplementary funding from the Graduate School, the chancellor’s office and the CAS.

Nineteen UW doctoral students, called “trainees,” were selected from disciplines ranging from political science and economics to conservation biology and anthropology, and included five CALS trainees from agronomy, forest and wildlife ecology, and community and environmental sociology. All participants were expected to learn Mandarin Chinese and, beyond their own disciplines, become literate in other fields relevant to conservation and sustainable development. While in Madison, trainees also attended weekly seminars on Northwest Yunnan’s history, politics, culture, society and ecology.

While some trainees received help getting their initial permits and contacts in Yunnan, it was up to each of them to work through such daily obstacles as getting around, finding translators for the many dialects and gaining the trust of locals.

Most trainees had done some kind of international work before joining IGERT. For example, Jodi Brandt in forest and wildlife ecology had worked in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, and community and environmental sociologist John Zinda had lived and taught in China.