Made for the Shade

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the world’s farmers are going to need to produce a lot more food—but without using much more farmland, as the vast majority of the world’s arable land is already being used for agriculture.

One possible solution is to try to grow crops more densely in the field, thereby increasing yield per acre. But it’s not as easy as just spacing seeds more closely together at planting time.

Packed too tight, for instance, corn plants will grow tall and spindly as they try to outcompete neighboring plants for access to sunlight—a phenomenon known as shade avoidance.

“The problem with shade avoidance when it comes to food crops is that the plants are spending all this time and energy making stems so they can grow tall instead of making food that we eat,” explains CALS plant geneticist Richard Vierstra, who is developing a way around it. His team is reengineering a light-sensing molecule found in plants, known as phytochrome, to allow plants to grow normally even when they’re packed in tight.

“Instead of 30-inch rows, this technology could enable us to plant corn in 20-inch rows, boosting yields by as much as 50 percent—if we can get the plants to ignore their neighbors,” says Vierstra.

Phytochrome is the main photoreceptor that allows plants to tell when the lights are on and when they’re off. It’s what tells seeds to germinate and young seedlings to become green, and enables plants to establish circadian rhythms—an internal clock system, says Vierstra. “And it also allows a plant to sense whether it’s in full sun or whether it’s being shaded by other plants.”

In the lab, Vierstra and his team developed the first three-dimensional structures of phytochromes. Using these models, they are now trying to rationally redesign the photoreceptor to have altered light-sensing properties. This reengineering involves creating hundreds of possibly interesting phytochrome mutants, and then testing them for light sensitivity both in the test tube and inside plants.

Already Vierstra’s team has found a number of mutants that are extremely sensitive to light. These mutant phytochrome molecules, if genetically engineered into food crops, could trick the plants into thinking they are getting plenty of light, even when they’re growing in a crowded field.

Vierstra is in the process of patenting the technology and already knows of a large agribusiness company that’s eager to help commercialize it.

“We’re starting to engineer the phytochrome system in corn, in lines that will eventually be used for breeding,” he says. “It’s exciting to think about the potential this technology has to boost agricultural productivity.”

25th for CIAS: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

When the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) was founded in 1989, its mission and goals were far from mainstream.

“Twenty-five years ago, you ran the risk of being seen as marginal if you advocated a sustainable and integrated approach to agriculture,” says CIAS director Michael Bell, a professor of community and environmental sociology. “Now it’s central to our college’s mission and priority themes. This is a wonderful and quite fundamental change. And it’s due in part to the work of CIAS in integrating not just agriculture but the people involved in it.”

CIAS was created and funded through an act of the Wisconsin Legislature. Since then, it has provided leadership on managed grazing, community-supported agriculture, Farm to School, organic farming, integrated pest management and other agricultural innovations that have achieved mainstream acceptance over the past 25 years. CIAS has given farmers a voice in its work and connected them to CALS research through its Citizens Advisory Council.

As CIAS looks to the future, an emerging research direction is the “perennialization” of agriculture and the landscape. Integrating perennial crops—including hazelnuts, apples, forages and cover crops—with livestock and annual crops contributes to resilient ecosystems, farms and communities.

“One way to look at the perennialization of agriculture is to ask, can we make agriculture perennial?” says Bill Tracy, professor and chair of agronomy and a CIAS faculty associate. “Our current system is not. To make agriculture perennial, we need more perennials on the landscape, including perennial grasses.”

CIAS aims to help growers successfully “perennialize” their farms by helping them better understand the production and economics of a variety of perennial crops. Continued research and outreach on forage crops for graziers is central to CIAS’s future work in this area. Likewise, CIAS plans to research perennial specialty crops that offer multiple ecological, economic and quality of life benefits for Wisconsin farmers.

Farmer training plays an important role in increasing the diversity of perennial crops on farms. CIAS’s schools for beginning dairy and livestock farmers as well as apple growers have helped hundreds of students plan successful farm businesses that incorporate perennial crops. A new CIAS program—the Midwest School for Beginning Grape Growers—launched in March.

Other emerging program areas include labor and fair trade in local and regional food systems. CIAS is also looking at ways to help farmers adapt to a changing climate through sustainable agriculture.

CIAS seeks to secure its financial future with a 25th anniversary fundraising challenge. The goal is to raise at least $50,000 this year. The challenge is off to a strong start with several significant gifts from Wisconsin businesses and individuals.

CIAS is planning several public events in honor of its 25th, including a barn dance at Schuster’s Farm near Deerfield on June 27 and fall seminars on campus. Details for events and donations are posted at www.cias.wisc.edu.

Ag Science for Kids

A PEER-REVIEWED SCIENCE BOOK might not sound like much fun—but perhaps you haven’t met Coolbean the Soybean, the hero of a new book for kids by CALS/UW-Extension agronomy professor Shawn Conley. It follows the adventures of a friendly, mohawked soybean named Coolbean as he learns about agriculture. Colorful, playful illustrations make the science come alive, and explanations are accurate but simple. To explain photosynthesis, for example—the process by which plants convert light into energy—Conley has two plants chatting about how good the sun feels and how it makes them strong. “The sun gives us our energy,” says Coolbean. “Without it we couldn’t make food ourselves.’”

There’s a serious intent behind the fun: to better educate children about agriculture and the science behind it as well as encourage interest in agriculture-related professions. Coolbean the Soybean was published by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America, with support from the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board. It is aimed at grades 3–5 and is being marketed to schools as well as to the general public. More information at http://go.wisc.edu/2cx0d7.

Looking for “Hotspots”

In their quest to make cellulosic biofuel a viable energy option, many researchers are looking to marginal lands—those unsuitable for growing food—as potential real estate for bioenergy crops.

But what do farmers think of that? Brad Barham, a CALS/UW-Extension professor of agricultural and applied economics and a researcher with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), took the logical next step and asked them.

Fewer than 30 percent were willing to grow nonedible cellulosic biofuel feedstocks—such as perennial grasses and short-rotation trees—on their marginal lands for a range of prices, Barham and his team found after analyzing responses from 300 farmers in southwestern Wisconsin.

“Previous work in the area of marginal lands for bioenergy has been based primarily on the landscape’s suitability, without much research on its economic viability,” says Barham, who sent out the survey in 2011. “What’s in play is how much farmers are willing to change their land-use behavior.”

Barham’s results are a testament to the complex reality of implementing commercial cellulosic biofuel systems. Despite the minority of positive responses, researchers found that there were some clusters—or “hotspots”—of farmers who showed favorable attitudes toward use of marginal land for bioenergy.

These hotspots could be a window of opportunity for bioenergy researchers since they indicate areas where feedstocks could be grown more continuously.

“People envision bioenergy crops being blanketed across the landscape,” says Barham, “but if it’s five percent of the crops being harvested from this farm here, and 10 percent from that farm there, it’s going to be too costly to collect and aggregate the biomass relative to the value of the energy you get from it.

“If we want concentrated bioenergy production, that means looking for hotspots where people have favorable attitudes toward crops that can improve the environmental effects associated with energy decisions,” Barham notes.

CALS agronomy professor Randy Jackson is also interested in the idea of bioenergy hotspots. Jackson, who co-leads the GLBRC’s area of research focusing on sustainability, says that just because lands are too wet, too rocky or too eroded to farm traditionally doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

“The first thing we can say about marginal lands is that ‘marginal’ is a relative term,” says Jackson. Such lands have a social as well as a biophysical definition. “This land is where the owners like to hunt, for example.”

The goal of GLBRC researchers like Barham and Jackson is to integrate the environmental impacts of different cropping systems with economic forces and social drivers.

The environmental benefits of cellulosic biofuel feedstocks such as perennial grasses are significant. In addition to providing a versatile starting material for ethanol and other advanced biofuels, grasses do not compete with food crops and require little or no fertilizer or pesticides. Unlike annual crops like corn, which must be replanted each year, perennials can remain in the soil for more than a decade, conferring important ecosystem services like erosion protection and wildlife habitat.

The ecosystem services, bioenergy potential and social values that influence how we utilize and define marginal land make it difficult to predict the outcomes of planting one type of crop versus another. To tackle that problem, Jackson is working with other UW–Madison experts who are developing computer-based simulation tools in projects funded by the GLBRC and a Sun Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Jackson hopes that these modeling tools will help researchers pinpoint where farmer willingness hotspots overlap with regions that could benefit disproportionately from the ecosystem services that perennial bioenergy feedstocks have to offer.

“These models will include data layers for geography, crop yield, land use, carbon sequestration and farmer willingness to participate,” says Jackson. “There could be as many as 40 data layers feeding into these models so that you can see what would happen to each variable if, say, you were to plant the entire landscape with switchgrass.”

The Value of GMOs

For all the discussion surrounding genetically modified foods, there have been strikingly few comprehensive studies that put a numeric value on the costs and benefits.

Now there’s more to talk about.

By analyzing two decades’ worth of corn yield data from Wisconsin, a team of CALS researchers has quantified the impact that various popular transgenes have on grain yield and production risk compared to conventional corn. Their analysis, published in Nature Biotechnology, confirms the general understanding that the major benefit of genetically modified (GM) corn doesn’t come from increasing yields in average or good years—but from reducing losses during bad ones.

“For the first time we have an estimate of what genetically modified hybrids mean as far as value for the farmer,” says CALS and UW-Extension corn agronomist Joe Lauer, who led the study.

Lauer has been gathering corn yield and other data for the past 20 years as part of the Wisconsin Corn Hybrid Performance Trials, a project he directs. Each year his team tests about 500 different hybrid corn varieties at more than a dozen sites around the state, with the goal of providing unbiased performance comparisons of hybrid seed corn for the state’s farmers. When GM hybrids became available in 1996, Lauer started including them in the trials.

“It’s a long-term data set that documents one of the most dramatic revolutions in agriculture—the introduction of transgenic crops,” says Lauer, who collaborated with CALS agricultural economists Guanming Shi and Jean-Paul Chavas to conduct the statistical analysis, which considered grain yield and production risk separately.

Grain yield varied quite a bit among GM hybrids. While most transgenes boosted yields, a few significantly reduced production. At the positive end of the spectrum was the Bt for European corn borer (ECB) trait. Yield data from all of the ECB hybrids grown in the trials over the years showed that ECB plants out-yielded conventional hybrids by an average of more than six bushels per acre per year. On the other hand, grain yields from hybrids with the Bt for corn rootworm (CRW) transgene trailed those of regular hybrids by a whopping 12 bushels per acre. But even among poor-performing groups of GM corn, there are individual varieties that perform quite well, Lauer notes.

Where transgenic corn clearly excels is in reducing production risk. The researchers found that every GM trait package—whether single gene or stacked genes—helped lower variability. For farmers, lower variability means lower risk, as it gives them more certainty about the yield levels they can expect.

Lauer equates choosing GM crops with purchasing solid-performing, low-risk stocks. Just as safe stocks have relatively low volatility, yields from GM crops don’t swing as wildly from year to year, and most important, their downswings aren’t as deep.

GM crops help reduce downside risk by reducing losses in the event of disease, pests or drought. Economists Shi and Chavas estimated the risk reduction provided by modified corn to be equivalent to a yield increase ranging from 0.8 to 4.2 bushels per acre, depending on the variety.

Risk reduction associated with GM corn can add up to significant savings for farmers—as much as $50,000 for 1,000 acres, calculates Lauer. “It depends on the price that farmers can receive for corn,” he says.

But the two factors quantified in this study—yield and production risk—are just part of the overall picture about GM crops, says Lauer. He notes there are other quantifiable values, such as reduced pesticide use, as well as ongoing concerns about the safety and health of growing and eating genetically modified foods.

“There’s a lot of concern about this biotechnology and how it’s going to work down the road,” says Lauer, “yet farmers have embraced it and adopted it here in the U.S. because it reduces risk and the yield increases have been as good as—or some would argue a little better than—what we’ve seen with regular hybrid corn.”

Seeding an Organic Future

As a wicker basket containing old, faded seed packets made its way around the room, Tom Stearns asked each person to grab a packet and pour a few seeds into their hands. Some of the seeds were green and shriveled, others were tiny, shiny and black.

“Check them out,” encouraged Stearns, founder and president of Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds, the only seed company in the nation to sell 100 percent organically produced seeds.

Addressing participants and speakers attending the Student Organic Seed Symposium at the Lakeview Inn in tiny Greensboro, Vermont, Stearns asked the group to consider what they could—and couldn’t—tell about the seeds just by looking at them. For many, all it took was a quick glance to know what plants they’d grow into.

But seeds hide an important part of their story beneath their coats. Just looking at a handful, it’s impossible to know who developed them and to what end. These details, however, have a lot to do with a farmer’s success.

Plant breeders have enormous influence over the varieties they develop, making key decisions about how, when and where they’ll grow best. Plants bred with high-input, conventional systems in mind (which generally employ chemical fertilizers and pesticides) tend to thrive in those systems. Likewise, those bred for organic systems tend to flourish in organic systems. Yet relatively little of this latter type of breeding work has been done over the past 50 years, mostly due to meager financial support. Today’s organic growers have difficulty finding organic-adapted seeds, and they are often forced to choose among conventional varieties.

To Stearns, this situation is ludicrous, on par with giving a beef cow to a dairy farmer. “You will get milk out of a beef cow, but not a lot—they haven’t been selected to produce milk. Beef cattle don’t have the right genetics for what dairy farmers are trying to do,” he explained to the group. “That’s what I think organic growers are dealing with. We don’t even know what we’re missing. The seeds we’re using aren’t genetically adapted to the kind of systems that we have.”

The most obvious solution is to have more plant breeders doing organic work. And, as Stearns looked around the room that day at the Lakeview Inn, he had reason to hope.

At a professional gathering about a year earlier, Stearns had met Claire Luby and Adrienne Shelton, graduate students in the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program at CALS, along with Alex Lyon MS’08, a CALS agroecology graduate now working on a doctorate at the Nelson Institute. During a dinner reception at the 2011 meeting of the Vegetable Breeding Institute—a Cornell University-based public-private partnership that fosters interaction between vegetable breeders and seed and food companies—the trio had shared with Stearns some of their experiences doing organic-focused work. While the students were excited about the work, they also felt unsure about their career paths and somewhat isolated and discouraged. Graduate students working in organic plant breeding, like their faculty advisors, are few and far between, and they lack the support network enjoyed by their conventional-focused peers.

“There are a lot of activities and events geared toward graduate students who are going to work at the bigger plant breeding companies,” explains Shelton. “But it’s really hard to connect with other students doing organic plant breeding because the organic seed industry is so small in comparison, and there are just a few of us—at best—at each land-grant university.”
Before dinner was over, a plan had sprouted to put on a symposium, dubbed the Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS), to give this scattered group of students a much-needed opportunity to come together and feel like part of something bigger—part of the new and growing agricultural movement that they comprise. Luby, Lyon and Shelton would organize it, with support from their advisors. Stearns would help host it in Vermont. There would be talks by experts, farm tours and a visit to High Mowing Organic Seeds. There would also be time to just hang out and get to know each other.

“The whole idea was to try to build these connections, to create a scientific community that could support us throughout our careers,” says Shelton.

It all came together in early August 2012, with 20 graduate students cupping seeds in their hands, eager to develop new plant varieties to meet the needs of organic growers.

Humans have been breeding plants since antiquity. Simply by selecting which seeds to save and plant the following spring, people make decisions that alter the overall genetic makeup of their crops. It’s a powerful technique, known as selection, that plant breeders still use to this day.

Modern plant breeders have many more tools at their disposal and bring a scientific approach to the whole process. A significant portion of the work involves making crosses. To do so, breeders pick two varieties with desirable traits, transferring the pollen from one to the pistil of the other, purposefully mixing together the good genes of both. The new plants created this way then go through years and years of re-crossing and selection until the breeder is satisfied with the final product. Only then is it released as a new variety. It’s a time-consuming process, taking up to a decade and sometimes more.

Crossing and selecting are classical plant-breeding techniques that look pretty much the same whether they’re used to breed plants for organic or conventional systems, so context is key.

“One of the underlying paradigms of plant breeding is you should breed for the conditions under which the crops are going to be grown,” says Bill Tracy, chair of the agronomy department at CALS.

And organic farms have a special set of conditions. Without chemical options to control weeds, insects and microbial diseases, organic farmers need varieties with a unique set of traits. For instance, they need varieties that are fast-growing and preferably dense-growing to out-compete and shade out weeds. They also need varieties with natural pest and disease resistance. At the same time, these plants need to produce a large, beautiful bounty.

“But to date there’s been very little breeding for organic conditions, so there are opportunities and needs out there that aren’t being met,” says Tracy, whose breeding program encompasses both conventional and organic sweet corn.

South of the Colorful Clouds

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.

Coping with the Climate

It’s late May, weeks before southern Wisconsin would be locked into a scorching drought, and Kirk Leach BS’78 is worrying about the weather. The grass around his house is already brittle and yellow. A hose snakes across the driveway, trickling moisture over some sad and thirsty new aspens.

But it’s the corn planted just on the other side of his kitchen garden that troubles him. There are patches—hand-high daggers of green—but there is not enough height, not enough uniformity and just plain not enough of it coming up. “This is the last corn I planted, two weeks ago tomorrow,“ he says. “You’d expect a little more growth than that.” He squats above an empty row, probing through three inches of crumbling earth until he unearths a seed, hard and polished as if just spilled from the bag.

Every farmer has an opinion about the weather. Leach remembers when he was young and everything germinated, even seed just thrown on the ground. But in Leach’s mind it’s these little mini droughts—two or three weeks in a row without rain—that have his attention. “Whether that’s significant enough or evidence of climate change I don’t know,” he muses. “Is it because I was a young, carefree 20-year-old like my sons that I didn’t think about it? Whereas now all the responsibility is mine, and so I’m worrying about every time the next rain is going to come?”

That’s the kind of conundrum that climate change presents to Wisconsin farmers as they’re forced to adapt to wild swings in the weather. Some trust the science, but many have questions, too. They’re all practical scientists with their own, very personal sets of data and research concerns.

The reality is that they’re already adapting to climate change, just as they’ve adjusted to so many other challenges. They’re planting earlier. Schedules for vegetable canneries and cranberry harvest have shifted later to reflect consistently warmer autumns. Even the USDA plant hardiness zone map was updated this year, showing Wisconsin a half-zone warmer than in 1990.

But the forecast calls for a whole lot more, in the way of both opportunity and challenges. The simplest take is that slowly warming temperatures may help boost agricultural production by extending the growing season. But higher temperatures could also reduce corn and soy yields and lead to more pest problems. Higher annual rainfall and more intense storms could mean more soil erosion.

Those broad-brush projections are statistical abstractions for any given farmer. Wherever the weather compass spins, the challenge is to craft a livelihood from sunshine, dirt and water.

The silver lining: a generation of stress in the farm economy has left a population of survivors, farmers who are hungry for information and who are lean and agile enough to act on it. If you have the skill and luck to bring a harvest to market, prices have been good. But with input costs soaring ever higher, extreme climate events can make farming seem more like placing a bet than following a business plan.

The growing season in Wisconsin has lengthened by two to three weeks over the last half-century—a big change over a short time. But because spring can be cold and late one year and early the next, some people tend to chalk it up to variability.

Agronomy professor Chris Kucharik BS’92, PhD’97 has no doubt that it’s climate change. Simply put, the earth is like a giant car, and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide is like rolling up the car windows on a sunny day. But under the hood is a series of massive mathematical models that attempt to mimic and forecast such fundamental earth forces as wind, temperature, evaporation and photosynthesis.

Early in his career Kucharik spent a few years in the far northern boreal forests of Canada helping to fine-tune these climate models. When he grew dissatisfied with the abstraction, he decided to try something closer to home: fit agriculture into the models. Honing in on local, Midwestern problems, he became one of the state’s foremost experts on climate and agriculture, with a joint appointment in the CALS agronomy department and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

Kucharik knows better than most how dense the science can get, but he is adamant that evidence for climate change is clear and overwhelming. In fact, he can even show how it’s helped agricultural productivity in some locations in Wisconsin over the last few decades. It’s not easy to tease out, because crop genetics and management practices have significantly improved over the same period. But trends in precipitation and temperature during the growing season from 1976 to 2006 explain more than a third of the variability in corn and soybean yield trends, he says.

The bad news is that this productivity trend might be hurt by continued warming without adaptive measures. Indeed, for each additional Celsius degree of future warming, corn and soybean yields could potentially decrease. With luck, modest increases in summer precipitation could offset this. Unless, of course, it fails to rain at all.

Heart Healthier

If you read labels in the cereal aisle, you know that oats are among the heart-healthiest of foods. And they may soon be even more so. CALS oat breeder John Mochon has developed a variety with significantly higher levels of beta glucan, the soluble fiber that nutritionists liken to a sponge that traps cholesterol-rich acids in the bloodstream. UW breeders hope to have it available for sale for the 2014 growing season.

Terry Kurth

“Turfgrass is the Rodney Dangerfield of the environment. It gets no respect,” Terry Kurth humorously observes. That said, Kurth has had a highly respectable career managing turfgrass, which he regards as a “simple environmental hero” for its properties as a soil pollutant sponge and filter of air impurities. He is currently the director of development for U.S. operations of Weed Man lawn care. Prior to that he spent decades building and expanding franchises of Barefoot Grass Lawn Service, which he operated in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Texas before selling the business to TruGreen/Chemlawn. Kurth shows his dedication to quality research by partnering with the Wisconsin Landscape Federation to fund the Terry and Kathleen Kurth Wisconsin Distinguished Graduate Fellowship in Turfgrass Management.

 

Stalking the Sustainable Market

WHEN THE IOWA-BASED grocery chain Hy-Vee opened a new store in Madison last October, everything was rolled out with a fresh coat of green. There was sustainable seafood at the fish counter and organic produce in the aisles. The chain gave thoughtful attention to details such as reducing food waste and increasing recycling. Even the building itself was partly recycled, an old K-Mart folded into the design of the new building, making it one of the first certified green buildings in the area.

As in many grocery stores, the produce section is the gateway. And on opening day there was Nick Somers, a dean of potato production in Wisconsin, standing next to bins of his spuds. If he looked a little stiff—well, a cardboard facsimile often has that effect. Somers was busy battening down his farm for winter, but he happily lent his face to Hy-Vee’s efforts to push local produce.

But six months later, Somers’ photo is gone. And if his potatoes are here, you can’t tell. There are more than a dozen options on display, of various types and quantities and price points. One bag makes claims of being local and sustainable but offers no real information as to how and why, beyond some green lettering and a windmill in the logo. Across the aisle are two organic potato options, at more than double the price.

There is a frustrating irony here for growers like Somers. Wisconsin has pioneered environmentally friendly potato production with a unique collaboration among University of Wisconsin researchers, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, and environmental groups such as World Wildlife Fund and the International Crane Foundation. A compelling argument can be made that these potatoes—branded Healthy Grown—are environmentally superior to organic. But while sales of organic produce grow steadily, Healthy Grown toils in retail anonymity.

“We all thought we were going to put this WWF logo on our bags, and they would fly off the shelf, right? It didn’t work quite like that,” says Somers, somewhat ruefully. “Getting it to the supermarket and telling the story? It’s a long story. It’s something you can’t tell in one word like organic. Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, organic is fresh, it tastes better.’ We don’t have a word like that. Healthy Grown means what?”

Potatoes may not have the profile of cheese or corn in Wisconsin, but they are still important players in the state’s agricultural economy. Wisconsin is the nation’s third-largest grower of potatoes, with nearly 40,000 acres grown for produce markets—that’s fresh market in industry jargon—and another 30,000 acres feeding the processing industry. Good years see farmers harvest more than 25 billion pounds of potatoes.

The state’s prominence in the potato industry stretches back to the 1920s, when it led the nation in potato production. The epic drought of the 1930s collapsed production, and it’s been a slow process of recovery since. The post-World War II expansion of irrigation helped revitalize the crop, especially in the fine soils of the central sands region, where the state’s potato farms are concentrated. So did the introduction of varieties such as Russet Burbank, which was adapted for Wisconsin by scientists at the Hancock Agricultural Research Station in the 1950s.

For Forage Crops, Timing is Everything

On one of his many trips to Kosovo during the past five years, CALS agronomist Dan Undersander found himself chatting with a dairy farmer amid a field of ripening corn. As they talked, Undersander asked when the farmer planned to harvest the crop. He shrugged, saying he’d cut the corn in a couple of weeks.

“Oh, I wouldn’t wait that long,” Undersander replied. “In fact, I think you should start tomorrow.”

As an expert on forage quality, Undersander knows that when it comes to feed crops, timing is everything. Farmers are tempted to wait as long as possible to maximize the yield of their silage, but in doing so, they risk the nutritional value of the feed. In the case of corn, waiting too long causes kernels to harden, making them more difficult for cows to digest. The same is true for grasses, which lose protein and energy content once they head out.

Simple as they sound, these lessons are vital in places such as Kosovo, where dairy cows typically yield 25 to 30 percent as much milk as herds in the United States. “We can do many things at no cost to the farmer that can often times double milk production,” says Undersander, who has traveled to 45 countries for CALS and UW-Extension. “For a lot of these farmers, there’s a real willingness to learn, but there’s not a good source of information, so being there to say now is the time and show them how to do it is very important.”

In Kosovo, Undersander worked with a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to do just that. On six trips to the country—once part of the powerful Soviet agricultural belt, but more recently scarred by war and ethnic conflict—he introduced concepts that many American farmers take for granted, such as growing corn for silage and integrating legumes into forage grasses. He also helped researchers at the University of Pristina calibrate equipment for testing forage quality.

But the real signs of progress may be in the smallest details. When a group of farmers received a grant to buy a bale wrapper, for instance, they had little mastery with the equipment, and their bales were soon full of holes. The plastic tape they used to patch the bales melted in the sun. When Undersander saw the degrading bales, he offered a simple fix: duct tape.

“It’s one thing to give these countries donations of equipment, but they have to have the training to go with it,” says Undersander. “Without the proper training to use the equipment effectively, it won’t do them much good.”