Second Life for Phosphorus

Phosphorus, a nutrient required for growing crops, finds its way from farm fields to our food and eventually to our wastewater treatment plants. At the plants, the nutrient causes major problems, building up in pipes or going on to pollute surface waters.

Brushite bounty: Phil Barak displays brushite produced during trials at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Each jar contains brushite harvested from 30 gallons of anaerobic digest. Photo courtesy of Phil Barak

Brushite bounty: Phil Barak displays brushite produced during trials at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Each jar contains brushite harvested from 30 gallons of anaerobic digest.
Photo by Rick Wayne

But soil science professor Phil Barak has an idea about how to retrieve the nutrient from wastewater in a valuable form—and it started from a basic lab experiment. “I was doing some work on crystallizing phosphorus, just out of pure academic interest,” explains Barak. “That led me to crystallize a mineral called struvite. Then I realized it was forming in wastewater treatment plants as a nuisance.”

If he could form crystals in the lab, he reasoned, why couldn’t it be done in the wastewater treatment plants in a controlled way? It could. And, even better, if he collected the phosphorus early on in the treatment process in the form of a mineral called brushite, he could harvest even more of it.

Beyond removing phosphorus from wastewater, brushite can serve as a nutrient source for growers. While Barak will do further testing to prove its utility, brushite is a phosphate mineral that’s actually been found in agricultural fields for years.

“When conventional phosphorus fertilizers are added to soil, brushite forms. I maintain that we’ve been fertilizing with brushite for decades, but nobody’s been paying attention to it,” says Barak.

Being able to remove phosphorus from wastewater and supply it back to growers is a win-win situation, Barak notes. “We’re collecting phosphorus where it’s localized, at really high concentrations, which is the most economical place to collect it,” says Barak. “This works out in just about every dimension you can consider, from the treatment plants to the cost of recycling phosphorus as opposed to mining it new.”

Graduate students in Barak’s lab suggested that he commercialize the technology and start a company. After the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) passed on the patent, Barak and his students sought help from the UW Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic. They received two federal Small Business Innovative Research grants, and, with some additional funds from the state, including the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, their efforts have turned into a spinoff company: Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling, LLC (NRU).

The company’s next step was a big one. This summer, a phosphorus recovery pilot plant is being implemented in a wastewater treatment plant in Illinois. The pilot project will test the research ideas on a larger scale.

Additionally, the NRU team will participate in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s granting system to determine if a pilot project would be a good fit in Milwaukee. They hope to start collecting and analyzing data from Illinois by September, using that pilot system to lay the groundwork for others in Milwaukee and beyond.

Of Cows and Climate

ON A SUBZERO FEBRUARY day, Mark Powell stops his vehicle on the road a few miles outside Prairie du Sac. He’s been explaining that cows actually enjoy the polar weather—and as if to prove it, a frisky group in the barnyard across the road turns toward us and rushes the fence.

As a USDA soil scientist and CALS professor of soil science, Powell is focused on the ground beneath their hooves. A few years ago he led a survey of manure handling on Wisconsin dairy farms. He and his colleagues knew how much cows left behind—about 17 gallons a day—but had only educated guesses about the ultimate environmental impact of barnyard design. In open yards like this, says Powell, they found that 40 to 60 percent of the manure ends up uncollected. “It just stays there,” he says. In the decade since his survey, the manure challenge has only grown, both in Wisconsin and nationwide. Water quality has been the major concern, but air quality and climate change are gaining.

A few minutes later we turn into the 2,006-acre U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center farm, and the talking points all turn to plumbing. There’s an experimental field fitted to track how well nutrients from manure bond to the soil. Parallel to one barn are nine small yards with different surfaces, each monitored to measure gasses emitted and what washes out with the rainwater.

The manure pit is frozen over, but circumnavigating the complex—shared by CALS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we arrive at the southern terminus of the barns. Uncharacteristic ventilation ducts adorn the walls and roofline. Inside are four unique stalls that can contain up to four cows each. The manure trough is lined with trays so that each cow’s waste can be set aside for further experiments. When the cows return from the milking parlor, airtight curtains will drop, isolating each chamber.

Class Act: Energizing the Classroom

When biochemistry senior Hong-En Chen first got involved with a student organization called Energy Hub, she knew she could bring something special to the table.

As the daughter of a preschool teacher, she’d interacted a lot with young children throughout her own childhood and adolescence. While in high school she worked as a teacher and tutor in music, math and reading in both English and Mandarin at the Einstein School in Madison, a private preschool and after-school enrichment center for elementary school students.

Based on her experience, she saw an important niche for Energy Hub: The group could go out to local elementary schools and hold after-school classes about energy.

“When kids are young, they’re like sponges. They absorb a lot of information and are enthusiastic learners,” notes Chen. “When we introduced concepts about energy use, conservation and sustainability, the kids impressed us not only by handling complex material, but also by applying ideas to their everyday lives.”

As outreach director of Energy Hub, Chen got other club members on board to pilot their project, working with second- to fifth-grade students at four Madison elementary schools. Based on that experience, they applied for and received a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship grant to further develop their curriculum during the 2012–2013 school year. They created a 10-week program that is going strong this year.

Hands-on activities are key, says Chen, whether using an educational science toy like Snap Circuits to teach the concepts behind powering lights and fans, or having students divide into the fantasy cities of Greenville and Coaltown to talk about how they, as residents, would use energy from various sources to get through a day. “It was a fun way to get them thinking about the costs and benefits of renewable versus nonrenewable energy sources,” Chen says.

Chen’s thinking a lot about that topic herself. She is researching compounds for solar energy conversion in chemistry professor Song Jin’s lab. And she is considering graduate programs in materials chemistry with an eye toward working in renewable energy research.

Learn more about Energy Hub at www.uwehub.org.

Catch up with … Carl T. Wahl

Carl Wahl’s interest in farming was sparked during a stint with the Peace Corps in Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa. His work on maternal and child health and nutrition led him into agriculture as he sought to integrate edible legumes into local farms and diets. Wahl returned to the U.S. to study agroecology at CALS and then went back to Africa, first with the Peace Corps and now with the Ireland-based charity Concern Worldwide, which he serves as the conservation agriculture coordinator in Zambia and neighboring Malawi.

What’s your understanding of “conservation agriculture”? Conservation agriculture (or CA) is a practice to retain moisture and nutrients in the soil to boost short-term crop productivity and long-term sustainability of farmland. CA is essentially a combination of three principles: minimum tillage, retaining soil residues and crop rotation with legumes.

It is similar to what is increasingly a practice in the Midwest. However, in Zambia, Concern Worldwide is working with the poorest (i.e., resource-limited) farmers, who essentially have a hoe and possibly an axe as their entire repertoire of farming tools and farm in an incredibly less forgiving environment. Therefore we include such sustainable agriculture aspects as agroforestry, supplemental mulching and microdosing of inputs (fertilizer, manure, compost, indigenous tree leaves, wood ash, etc.) in order to better translate limited funds and labor into greater yields.

How does conservation agriculture work in Zambia and Malawi? In either country, the word “food” means maize (corn), specifically maize meal for a dish called nshima. Both countries consider nshima a staple food to the extent that they rank in the world’s top three per capita direct consumers of maize. However, a heavy feeder like maize in an environment with limited nutrient (fertilizer) supply and undependable rainfall is an unreliable crop. In Malawi and Zambia, CA practices help mitigate much of the risk associated with growing maize. Additionally, CA’s capacity to include legume crops provides more protein to the household’s diet.

How have you seen conservation agriculture help people? The Western Province of Zambia, where I work, is situated on a drift of eolian sand that is roughly the size of Wisconsin. In the 2012–2013 season, our cumulative rainfall was above normal; however, instead of being distributed over four to five months as usual, we received two-thirds of it over 4.5 weeks and the other third in three days. All the conventional maize failed. Though the CA farmers were also affected, nearly everyone reported that without CA, they would have had no maize whatsoever. That is a pretty powerful incentive to adopt the technology.

What projects are you most excited about?  The first is our effort to engage and develop certified seed grower groups on a larger scale to provide a variety of quality seed to farmers at lower cost. We are over 300 miles from most of the seed producers in Zambia, so bringing that resource closer can really relieve the chronic pressure of getting an adequate and high-quality seed supply.

The second is use of the burgeoning mobile phone network to send text messages that can pass on Extension messages as well as market information to farmers, enabling them to both produce more and sell more at a better price. The potential ability to transmit information quickly and cheaply could be a real game-changer in our agriculture picture in both Zambia and Malawi.

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.”

Will Dead Species Live Again?

Stanley A. Temple is the Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation in forest and wildlife ecology at CALS and a former chair of the conservation biology and sustainable development program at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. For 32 years Temple occupied the faculty position once held by Aldo Leopold, and while in that position he received every University of Wisconsin teaching award for which he was eligible. Since his retirement from academia in 2008 he has been a Senior Fellow of the nonprofit Aldo Leopold Foundation. He and his 75 graduate students have worked on conservation problems in 21 different countries and have helped save some of the world’s rarest and most endangered species. Last spring Temple gave a TED talk at a special event devoted to de-extinction, a concept that has captured the imagination of scientists and the general public alike.

What is “de-extinction”?
De-extinction is a recent term that involves bringing back an extinct species using DNA that’s been recovered from preserved material. There are two ways that it can be accomplished: one would be cloning to produce a copy of an extinct individual’s genome. The second way is through genetic engineering to re-create a close approximation of what the extinct species’ genome might have once been. The reality is that it’s no longer science fiction. We’re getting close to being able to revive extinct species from recovered DNA.

This must make for some unusual scientific partnerships.
It’s an interesting synthetic endeavor that matches the biotechnologists in the laboratory with conservationists in the field. The biotech crowd will be responsible for recovering DNA from an extinct species and through either cloning or engineering turning that DNA into individuals. But once they’ve done that, the next step involves people like myself who know how to recover endangered species by taking a small number of individuals and turning them into a viable population and getting them back into the wild.

What opportunities might this technology present to conservation efforts?
On the plus side, obviously, it would be exciting to bring back a species that human beings drove to extinction. But even if we weren’t able to do that, the technology presents an appealing opportunity to recover DNA from preserved specimens of an endangered species and use it to enhance the genetic diversity of the surviving population.

Can you please elaborate on that?
Conservationists have recovered many endangered species from very low population levels and saved them from extinction. The problem is, they’re often genetically depauperate, or lacking in genetic diversity. If we can recover some of the lost genes from preserved specimens collected before the population crashed, we might greatly improve the species’ prospects for long-term survival.

How would a conservation biologist go about actually applying this?
De-extinction is still an unproven concept, but it’s likely that sometime in the coming decades it will happen. Once they have revived individuals of an extinct species in the lab, then conservation biologists could try to recover the species by captive breeding and reintroducing the species to the wild. But conservation biologists get concerned about some of the details: Which species are going to be revived? Are they the right species? Are they the species that have the best chances for long-term survival in the world today? Are they species that might actually enhance the ecological health of the ecosystem that they were once part of, like the wolves reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem? These are all questions of setting priorities for which species to actually revive.

How would you recommend setting priorities?
As a conservation biologist I would certainly look first at recently extinct species that were affected by a threat we’ve now overcome. Not only are those the ones for which we’re likely to have good quality DNA, but their ecological niche in the wild hasn’t been vacant for very long. And as a result, the ecological community that they were once part of has not readjusted itself to their absence, and might once again easily accommodate the species in its midst. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a species that’s been extinct for a very long period of time—centuries or even millennia—the ecosystem that they were part of has moved on, and a species like that, once back in the system, could essentially be the equivalent of an invasive species. It might disrupt the system and threaten extant species.

How would you like to see this development proceed?
Considering the timeline that we probably have years or even decades to do this right—I and other individuals and groups that are thoughtful and somewhat skeptical about this would like to see a very broad discussion of the implications. We would like to see a lot of input in deciding the priorities about which species to bring back. We would not like to see this done in secret, which, unfortunately, is where this seems to be heading. This very expensive work is not receiving government funding and doesn’t have any sort of public oversight. Hence, privately funded biotech labs seem to be focusing on reviving spectacular extinct species, like mammoths and other Ice Age animals, rather than species that have a real chance of surviving in today’s world.

What would be an important takeaway point for the general public?
De-extinction doesn’t mean we can ignore the significance of extinction—to think, “Oh well, we can let species go extinct because we can always save some DNA and bring them back later.” This would just be an open door for activities that have been constrained by concerns for biodiversity and basically give the green light to go ahead and precipitate extinctions of species that are already with us.

“Highway Robbery” Has Far-Reaching Costs

In the busy port town of Tema, Ghana, the driver of a tanker truck of gasoline northbound for Bamako, Mali, loads a few dozen pineapples onto his rig and sets out for the distant capital city. His six-day drive will take him through 60 checkpoints, where he will pay about $200 in small bribes to police, customs and other officials, offering gifts of pineapples to speed his way through these delays.

In Madaoua, Niger, a southbound trucker bringing onions to the market in Accra, Ghana, will pay $580 in bribes along his 2,000-kilometer route and be delayed nearly six hours, adding $1,165 to his total transport costs.

Such stories are commonplace among thousands of drivers in West Africa for whom bribes are simply the cost of doing business. But taken as a whole, this form of petty corruption does a lot of damage to the region’s economy.

Professor and UW-Extension specialist Jeremy Foltz and professor Dan Bromley, both from the CALS Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, used a unique data set compiled by USAID teams to put some numbers on it.

Analyzing detailed surveys of more than 1,500 long-haul truckers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, including data on amounts and collectors of bribes, Bromley and Foltz estimate that corruption costs—focusing on losses from time delays and bribes paid—add 15 to 30 percent to the cost of transporting food
and other products to and from markets in the region.

Foltz became interested in the topic when his own car was stopped by bribe-seeking police during his Fulbright fellowship in Mali a few years ago. “Bribe-taking at highway checkpoints is widespread,” Foltz says. “Because it appears that the profits are shared all the way up the chain of command, it’s immune to quick policy fixes.”

Such corruption hurts the economy in far-reaching ways. At stake, Foltz and Bromley say, are prices paid to farmers growing products for export to distant markets. With increased transport costs eating into profits, farmers gradually abandon certain crops such as cashew trees that grow well on marginal lands and prevent soil erosion.

“The issue here is that net returns suffer, agricultural investments are necessarily delayed, yields fall, and soon attentive management is not worth the trouble,” they wrote in an article for Natural Resources Forum. “Fields and specific crops are left unattended. Tree crops are ignored or ripped out. Economic malaise sets in. Sustainability suffers.”

But the damage doesn’t end there. “Petty corruption of the type we are studying has a more deleterious effect on private investment than larger-scale government corruption,” says Foltz. “African countries have some of the lowest levels of foreign investment in the world and can ill afford to perpetuate a system that hampers growth even more than taxation.”

Foltz and Bromley are now focusing on understanding the structures, incentives and constraints to corruption, with the goal of providing information to policy makers and others seeking to eliminate this important barrier to development.

The outbreak of violent warfare in the region has not made their work any easier—or less needed.

“We’re studying the impact of new anti-corruption policies in Ghana and also how civil conflicts affect corruption,” says Foltz. “For example, in the recent conflict in Ivory Coast, rebel militias funded their operations in part by extorting bribes that were three or four times higher than normal. In Mali, rebels have used kidnapping and drug smuggling to raise money.”

Protecting our Pollinators

People and bees have a long shared history. Honeybees, natives of Europe, were carried to the United States by early settlers to provide honey and wax for candles. As agriculture spread, bees became increasingly important to farmers as pollinators, inadvertently fertilizing plants by moving pollen from male to female plant parts as they collected nectar and pollen for food. Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s crop plants—including many nuts, fruits and vegetables—depend on animal pollination, with bees carrying the bulk of that load.

It’s no surprise that beekeeping has become a big business in the farm-rich Midwest. Wisconsin is one of the top honey-producing states in the country, with more than 60,000 commercial hives. The 2012 state honey crop was valued at $8.87 million, a 31 percent increase over the previous year, likely due in part to the mild winter of 2011–2012.

But other numbers are more troubling. Nationwide, honeybee populations have dropped precipitously in the past decade even as demand for pollination-dependent crops has risen. The unexplained deaths have been attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious condition in which bees abandon their hives and simply disappear, leaving behind queens, broods and untouched stores of honey and pollen. Annual overwintering losses now average around 30 percent of managed colonies, hitting 31.1 percent this past winter; a decade ago losses were around 15 percent. Native bee species are more challenging to document, but there is some evidence that they are declining as well.

Despite extensive research, CCD has not been linked to any specific trigger. Parasitic mites, fungal infections and other diseases, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure and even climate change all have been implicated, but attempts to elucidate the roles of individual factors have failed to yield conclusive or satisfying answers. Even less is known about native bees and the factors that influence their health.

Poised at the interface of ecology and economy, bees highlight the complexity of human interactions with natural systems. As reports of disappearing pollinators fill the news, researchers at CALS are investigating the many factors at play—biological, environmental, social—to figure out what is happening to our bees, the impacts of our choices as farmers and consumers, and where we can go from here.

Hunting for Beginners

LAST FALL I spent an afternoon near Baraboo sitting in a tree stand across from a woman with a rifle. Perched in another crook was our hunting mentor, Karl Malcolm MS’08 PHD’11, then a CALS doctoral student in forest and wildlife ecology. Malcolm was the organizer of that weekend’s Learn to Hunt program, which was the reason I ignored my fear of heights and climbed 15 feet in the air. The woman with the rifle was Kristen Cyffka, a UW–Madison grad student in statistics with an interest in sustainable food. That day would be our chance to shoot a deer—if we saw one. The temperature was unseasonably hot, the deer scarce.

As the sun began to set, the air cooled and the golden light dimmed over the thickets and fields. In the silence, the occasional rustle took on thrilling clarity. This, whispered Malcolm, is the magic hour.

But Cyffka had woken up before 3 a.m. for an earlier hunt, and as the woods grew tranquil, the breeze gentle, I saw her head begin to droop. The rifle remained propped on the armrest of her tree stand. My first instinct was to nudge her with my foot, but then I decided to rouse her in the least startling way I could and instead whispered her name in a soothing murmur. I was learning that you rethink a lot of things when you’re out in the woods in the presence of a loaded gun.

Karl Malcolm has been an avid hunter and angler since his teens, and when he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, he assumed he’d be among fellow hunters.

“I thought I’d meet lots of people with the same feeling I had,” says Malcolm, who is now based in New Mexico as a Presidential Management Fellow with the USDA Forest Service. But when he started talking about his love of hunting and fishing, the other students thought hunting was “barbaric and disrespectful to animals, and that it was all about bloodlust,” he says. “It didn’t at all jibe with my personal experience.” As he began to evaluate and articulate his hunting experiences for others, Malcolm found the initial seed for his interest in teaching others to hunt.

Wisconsin’s Learn to Hunt (LTH) programs have been around since 1997, inspired by the Wisconsin Student Hunter Program, which CALS forest and wildlife ecology professors Don Rusch and Scott Craven had launched in 1993 to ensure that the department’s students gained hands-on experience in hunting and understood its history and role in conservation. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adapted that into LTH programs designed to recruit new hunters, initially focusing on turkey and pheasant before expanding into deer. The LTH program introduces novices to hunting in a controlled manner by pairing them with mentors on a one-to-one basis. After at least four hours of classroom and field instruction in topics like gun safety, ethical shooting and finding and setting up a hunting site, participants and mentors go out into the fields to experience the hunt firsthand.

Most organizers charge nothing for the course. Mentors must have at least five years’ experience hunting the chosen animal; they also may apply to serve as organizers of an LTH program. Learners must be at least 10 years old and never have received a hunting license for the species being hunted. On paper, Malcolm has organized his programs as an individual, but in practice help comes not only from the DNR but also from the CALS Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, thanks to such hunting mentors as professors Mike Samuel and Tim Van Deelen and engaged students and alumni like Steve Grodsky MS’10, Dan Storm PhD’11 and Mike Watt BS’07 MS’12.

“Other folks who are interested in putting together similar programs should know they can do it and the DNR will be there to back them up,” explains Malcolm.

Now prospective hunters have additional and quite significant support thanks to the Hunters Network of Wisconsin, a joint project between CALS, the DNR and UW–Extension that is dedicated to recruiting more hunters. The effort began with a survey of hunting and conservation organizations conducted by CALS/UW Extension life sciences communication professor Bret Shaw and research associate Beth Ryan, funded with a DNR grant. The survey, which would then inform strategic outreach to mentors and interested non-hunters, identified resources the organizations already used or would like to use more, from assistance in finding interested participants to funds to sponsor LTH events and volunteer education and training.

But perhaps even more significant was the survey’s focus on hunters’ motivations for taking part in the sport. The top reasons people named for hunting were spending time outdoors, being close to nature, using and sharing skills and knowledge, and camaraderie with friends and family. The Hunters Network hopes to use this insight to make mentoring new hunters more appealing.

There’s a compelling reason for all of this outreach. Hunting is an important part of Wisconsin’s history and culture. It also has a $1.4 billion impact on the state’s economy and supports some 26,000 jobs, according to the DNR.

Yet Wisconsin has experienced an ongoing decline in hunting in recent years. A study from February 2011 by the DNR and the UW-based Applied Population Laboratory found that the number of gun deer hunting licenses sold to the state’s residents dropped 6.5 percent, from 644,991 in 2000 to 602,791 in 2010. The report predicts that by 2030, the number of male gun deer hunters (who make up the bulk of hunters, though the number of female hunters is expected to rise) could drop to 400,000.

“Red Barns” Go Green

Lofty red barns may be Wisconsin icons, but the real workhorse structure in agriculture today is the post-frame building. You can’t drive very far down a rural road without spotting one being used to house livestock, store and repair equipment, shelter hay or myriad other uses. Virtually every new structure on a modern farm gets built this way, and with good reason. Post-frame buildings are versatile, easy to assemble and affordable.

And now they’re becoming more sustainable, thanks to a “Green Frame” building system being developed by Dave Bohnhoff, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering.

Unlike traditional post-frame construction, Bohnhoff’s system isn’t based on preservative-treated wooden posts embedded into the ground. He uses non-treated wooden “I-posts” affixed to precast concrete piers. The I-posts are sandwiches of dimension lumber and laminated-strand lumber that are structurally and thermally more efficient than timber posts. Another sustainability feature relates to how the frame parts go together. The frame members that tie and brace the vertical posts and roof trusses have reinforced, deep notches at the ends that mate with adjoining pieces. This makes assembly easier, safer and more accurate. It also makes it easy to disassemble and reuse the components when a building outlives its usefulness as the farm enterprise grows and evolves.

Will all of those non-standard parts drive up the cost? Not at all, says Bohnhoff. The beams, connecting pieces and concrete piers can be fabricated on site using materials available in most lumberyards, tools found in any farm shop and basic construction skills.

 

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.

Rooms with a Hue

AS ONE OF THE ANCHORS of the CALS Department of Community and Environmental Sociology––formally Rural Sociology––Jack Kloppenburg was talking about sustainability was cool. He teaches the popular Food, Culture and Society course, as well as a large introductory lecture course in environmental studies, and his co-director of both the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. This fall, he will help launch the GreenHouse, a new residential learning community, in Cole Hall.

So we hear you’re starting a greenhouse …
What are you going to grow?

(Laughs) Well, it’s not that kind of greenhouse. What we’re doing is creating a new residential learning community here on campus, where students share a portfolio of courses and activities with other residents and faculty. GreenHouse is going to have a theme of sustainability—that will be the unifying element to our community and the programming we offer. So, in fact, I do hope that we will be growing sustainable citizens.

Was this your idea?

It emerged from work I’ve been doing with a student organization called REthink Wisconsin, which is promoting recycling and waste reduction on campus. Cal Bergman, from University Housing, asked me if I would be interested in helping get these themes into a learning community, and I surely was.

Sustainability is a pretty broad concept. What does it mean in this context?

Well, that’s an interesting question, and I think that’s something that students will be encouraged and guided to decide for themselves. For me, it means living in material comfort, peacefully with each other, within the means of nature. Now how do you achieve something like that? I think it involves both the biophysical world and the social context. It’s about creating an environment where no one is in need, where we’re mindful of our impact on our natural resources and on other people. The learning community is a small way that we can begin to model what that looks like in practice.

How do you imagine that experience might look different from life in a typical dorm?

There will be programming that brings the students together and introduces some common ideas. I’m going to lead a freshman interest group that will probably draw from the GreenHouse residents, and the hope is that because these students are living together, they’ll take some of the ideas raised in class back home, to their dorm, and discuss and debate them and maybe implement them. But we’re also creating opportunities that are unique to this community. We plan to offer a variety of one-credit course options, which will involve thinking and doing, and could be anything from planting flower bulbs on Madison’s South side, to maintaining Indian mounds in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, to canoeing the Wisconsin River, to reading A Sand County Almanac and visiting Leopold’s shack.

But we also want to allow students to find their own way into what sustainability means to them. That’s really the idea of a learning community—that students not only assess and consider the things they are learning in class, but also find ways to enact them in the world around them. Students aren’t just consumers of information. They are citizens, and we’d like GreenHouse to give them opportunities to create some kind of change in the real world.

This will be housed in Cole Hall, which is 50 years old and probably not the greenest building on campus. Does that present a challenge for someone trying to live sustainably?

It surely is. Cole has that Soviet-style look to it, and when I first looked at it, I wondered if it was the right place to do this. But being older, it has some aspects to it that students can transform to make it greener. We’re going to be installing solar collectors on the roof, for instance. And we’re remodeling the kitchen, which was this one-stove, one-refrigerator facility in the basement that got really haphazard use. We’re working with Housing to transform that space into a place where residents can come together to create community by efficiently and pleasurably learning to cook meals for each other.

Students aren’t just consumers of information. They are citizens, and we’d like GreenHouse to give them opportunities to create some kind of change in the real world.

Do you see food playing a big role in this community?

Absolutely. One of the most intimate ways that we’re engaged with the world around us is through the food we eat. That’s going to be one of the central, unifying themes in GreenHouse programming. With University Housing’s food service staff, we’re planning to offer training sessions for all GreenHouse students on cooking techniques. So you could imagine students coming back with a bag of vegetables from the farmers’ market and using the knife skills they learned to make a dinner as quickly as they could get it at a fast food restaurant.

Are you getting interest from faculty and staff in offering those kinds of opportunities?

Definitely. It’s certainly not your typical pedagogy, where you stand up in front of a room of a hundred students and talk for an hour straight. This is an opportunity for faculty to get out of the classroom and engage in some innovative and concrete activities that let them learn too. It’s very kinesthetic, and I think people like that aspect.

I also want to emphasize the role of staff in this project. The staff at University Housing and facilities have been deeply involved in the planning, and they’re going to be a key to our success. An important part of this project is to show that staff can and should be a vital part of the pedagogical mission of the university and that it’s not just faculty who have things to offer our students.

One of the things that I try to get out of students’ heads is that the only place they’re going to learn is in a lecture hall. We’re all learning all of the time, and the most important teacher that you ever have will be yourself. If students aren’t aware of and open to the learning opportunities that constantly surround them, then we’re not doing what I hope a University of Wisconsin education should do.

Including each other?

That’s critical. With this first class, we’re admitting freshmen, but we’d like to see the community expand. We hope that we’ll be able to add more floors (in Cole) as sophomores and juniors stick around and new freshmen come in. Ultimately, we want a full spectrum of students living in the GreenHouse, so that seniors and juniors can act as mentors and teachers for each new class coming in.

So the community becomes sustainable.

Exactly—you took the words right out of my mouth.