The MBA of Dairy

The average age of a Wisconsin farmer is over 56 and rising, and the state has been losing around 500 dairy farms per year. It’s no surprise, then, that experts say it’s critical to prepare young people to step into farm roles in order to keep the state’s $88 billion agricultural economy strong into the future.

But making the transition into dairy farming is complicated, and aspiring farmers often don’t have the capital or the experience to take over an established operation.

Enter the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) program, which is working to address the issue by providing support for young people interested in becoming dairy farmers. Started in 2010, the first-of-its-kind program is administered by the Wisconsin-based nonprofit GrassWorks, Inc., with CALS as a key partner.

Earlier this year, DGA received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The funding will enable organizers to improve and expand the program in Wisconsin, as well as explore the possibility of rolling it out to other dairy states.

“It’s a meat-and-potatoes program that really takes people up to the level where they can own and operate their own dairy,” says DGA director Joe Tomandl. “It’s the MBA of dairy.”

Program participants complete 4,000 hours of paid training over two years, most of it alongside experienced dairy farmers, and work their way up from apprentices to Journey Dairy Graziers and Master Dairy Graziers. Although most of that time is spent in on-the-job training, there’s also a significant requirement for related instruction. That’s where CALS comes in.

As part of the program, apprentices attend a seminar about pasture-based dairy and livestock through the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF), which is co-sponsored by the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Farm and Industry Short Course. The seminar involves a 32-hour commitment, which is generally fulfilled through distance education and includes instruction from CALS professors from dairy, animal and soil sciences.

“We believe in the Wisconsin Idea and want to make sure our classes are accessible to people who want more education, but preferably close to where they live and work,” says Nadia Alber, a WSBDF outreach coordinator who helps organize the seminar and also serves on the DGA board.

In 2009, GrassWorks, Inc. turned to WSBDF director Dick Cates PhD’83 for guidance and access to a well-respected educational curriculum to help get the DGA up and running—and the WSBDF team has been involved ever since.

“We were just this little nonprofit with a very small budget trying to compete for a big federal grant,” says Tomandl. “For us, it was important to have UW–Madison as a strategic partner.”

As part of the most recent round of funding, DGA’s partners at CALS will lead an effort to quantify the program’s broader impacts.
“They have already proven that participants are moving along to their own farms after the apprenticeship, so they have an established track record,” says Alber. “This new study will look at some of the program’s other impacts, including economic, environmental and social.”

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.

Field Notes: South Africa

In the fertile, rolling hills of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, it’s hard to imagine a food shortage. But hunger is a serious threat there, espe- cially for children. The area also has high levels of poverty and HIV infection.

Researchers at the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) are teaming with local groups to try to improve those condi- tions. Together they have formed the Livelihood, Agroecology, Nutrition and Development project— LAND for short—to address the region’s complex, interrelated problems.

“Using a participatory approach, we have built strong ties with local villagers and their co-op, the Ncedisizwe Co-op, which means ‘helping the nation,’” says CIAS director Michael Bell, a professor of community and environmental sociology.  The Ncedisizwe Co-op encompasses 800 small- holder farmers in 26 villages.

Other local partners include the Indwe Trust, an NGO focusing on sustainable development, and Kidlinks World, a Madison-based charity dedicated to AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children.

The group’s goals are to provide sustainable livelihoods for smallholder farmers and their com- munities; to integrate health and nutrition with sus- tainable agricultural practices; to enhance ecosystem services such as crane habitat, erosion control and carbon sequestration; and to strengthen communi- ties through participatory decision-making.

Better use of grasslands will be key in those efforts, researchers say. “The people of this region are blessed with a wealth of grassland resources, but these resources are literally being eroded before their very eyes,” says agronomy professor Randy Jackson, who accompanied the LAND team on a recent visit. “Much of this is attributable to a governance system that treats most rangelands as unregulated commons, resulting in continuous grazing that promotes unde- sirable plants and exposure of bare ground.”

Rotational grazing, the group notes—which actually originated in Africa—will potentially double the level of animal production while also building soil quality, reducing erosion and promoting wildlife habitat. LAND has conducted workshops with farmers on rota- tional grazing and helped develop a supply chain connecting local grass-based meat to national and international markets.

Other activities have included helping form a women’s cooperative for vegetable production, working with community members on improving water supplies, and helping establish perennial home gardens to increase the quality and variety of local diets.

The LAND project has matured to the point where it can serve as the basis of a new global health certificate field course, “The Agroecology of Health,” that debuted this past winter. Bell and doctoral student Valerie Stull brought 10 undergraduate and two graduate students to the Eastern Cape for a 15-day visit that encompassed learning about agroecology and hydrology systems and working with community members to establish a one-acre vegetable garden at a school in the village of Kumanzimdaka.

The students planted herbs, tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage and radishes and plotted locations for future fruit trees.

“The experience left me feeling a tremendous amount of respect for the people in the community who continue to live off and use the land,” says Alexa Statz, a junior in life sciences communication. “I have high hopes that the garden we built together will be something that can stay with them for generations to come.”

Bell plans to continue having undergraduates participate. Learning about themselves and their place in the world, questioning and thinking critically were all objec- tives of the trip. “But the biggest objective was to provide students with the chance to discover what it means to lead a life of consequence,” Bell says. “Now that’s a pretty grand goal—and I think it happened in South Africa. It clicked.”

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.

“Open Source” Seeds for All

Scientists, farmers and sustainable food systems advocates recently celebrated the release of 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale and other vegetables and grains that have something unusual in common: a new form of ownership agreement known as the Open Source Seed Pledge.

The pledge, developed through a nationwide effort called the Open Source Seed Initiative, is designed to keep the new seeds free for all people to grow, breed and share for perpetuity, with the goal of protecting the plants from patents and other restrictions.

CALS professors Irwin Goldman (horticulture) and Jack Kloppenburg (community and environmental sociology) have been leaders in the initiative, which arose in response to the decreasing availability of plant germplasm—seeds—for public plant breeders and farmer-breeders to work with.

Many of the seeds for our nation’s big crop plants—field corn and soybeans—are already restricted through patents and licenses. Increasingly this is happening to vegetable, fruit and small grain seeds.

Goldman, who breeds beets, carrots and onions, still plans to license many of his new varieties as usual through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which has been supportive of his interest in open source seeds. But he’s pleased he now has an alternative for when he wants to share new varieties with fellow public plant breeders or small seed companies.

“These vegetables are part of our common cultural heritage, and our goal is to make sure these seeds remain in the public domain for people to use in the future,” he says.

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.”

Everyone around the table

MONICA WHITE arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2012 as a professor of environmental justice, with a joint appointment between CALS (community and environmental sociology) and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Previously she was a professor of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Her research engages communities of color and grassroots organizations that are involved in developing sustainable community food systems. She is working on her first book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. Other projects include a multiyear, multimillion-dollar USDA research grant to study food security in Michigan.

You’re a fairly recent arrival at CALS and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. What goals do you have for your work here?
I am really excited because it is a position that allows me to talk about how communities are responding to food insecurity, how communities are engaged in local food and urban agriculture, and I can bring that into the classroom. I also bring activists to Madison and take students to Detroit. Madison has been a very welcoming place to integrate all of those pieces of who I am as an academic, as an educator and as a researcher. So there’s a nice way that these pieces operate, and my departments are extremely excited about the work that we’re doing.

Do you have a specific project you’re focusing on?
One example is for the capstone course in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. I took students to Pleasant Ridge, Wisconsin, where students were able to look at a rural community that had a pre–Civil War black settlement. Students were involved in the archives and then we met with folks who live there. Unearthing the history of black farmers in the state of Wisconsin is something that I’m moving toward as we investigate the relationship between communities and agriculture and all the benefits that come from that.

Is urban agriculture something new?
I would argue not. I would say that as long as we’ve had people in cities we’ve had folks engaged in growing. My dad moved from Alabama to Detroit and he always had a garden. Often the assumption is that the northern migration meant folks were leaving behind their agricultural past. But they brought seeds with them and they brought the knowledge with them to the north— to cities like Gary, Detroit and Chicago.

And if you look back to 1894, Hazen Pingree, then mayor of Detroit, passed an urban gardening ordinance where he encouraged those who owned land to allow that land to be used by those who were unemployed. If we go back to the 1890s, we can’t argue that urban agriculture is new.

It’s just new in terms of its current incarnation. More people are looking at it as a strategy to respond to food insecurity, and knowledge and news about it are more widely available through the Internet and many other forms of media.

What’s encouraging about the movement is that people see themselves as agents intervening in the food system for their own and their community’s best interests. So, for example, I see that I have a corner store selling mostly cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets. And I see vacant land. And instead of saying, “Hey, give us a grocery store,” people are using the land to grow food in response to food insecurity. I think that part of it—the intentional political engagement in growing food as a way to respond to neglect on the market side—is probably a way people haven’t thought about urban agriculture before.

Class Act: The Big Picture on Food

She’s picked vegetables on West Coast farms, worked to improve health, education and housing in immigrant communities on the Texas-Mexico border and, most recently, spent a semester in Peru, where she attended Pontificia University and worked with a non-governmental organization on food security.

As a double major in agricultural economics and Latin American studies—with an academic record that led to a recent Outstanding Sophomore Award from the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association—Patricia Paskov is trying to get the big picture on food.

It all started with a little story. “My grandfather, an immigrant from a tiny island in Croatia, claims to have survived the earliest years of his childhood on the milk of one goat,” says Paskov. “I, on the other hand, grew up in suburbia and probably spent most of my childhood believing that food grew on grocery store shelves.”

As a young adult, Paskov resolved to learn more about where food comes from. A “three-week, no-frills farm experience” in California, as she describes it, gave a new focus to her life. “I began to understand that food is an undeniable social, economic and political force,” Paskov says.

Her interest in food policy grew during an internship with the Oakland-based nonprofit Food First, which conducts global work on food systems and is located near a part of the city that at the time had 30,000 residents but no grocery stores. “It’s almost as if this reality has prompted the community to take some of the most progressive steps forward in food justice,” Paskov says. “Community development programs, NGOs, and farm-to-plate programs abound in Oakland, igniting a role of agency amongst everyone.”

Paskov sees her life’s calling as helping to make the world a better place food-wise. “I see myself working in the public or third sector, contributing to international decisions regarding food, agriculture, national resources and rural development,” she says. “In the upcoming years, population growth and climate change will largely affect how the agricultural market functions—and food policy will be a more important field than ever.”

Field Notes: Potato Exchange Benefits Peruvians

In the growing region around Puno, Peru, farmers hedge their bets.

Located 12,000 feet above sea level, on the side of an Andean mountain, Puno has a growing season that’s short, cool and prone to frost. The staple food of the area is potato, and local farmers plant dozens of different varieties on their plots—some that they relish for their flavor, as well as some less palatable, frost-tolerant types.

In good years everything grows well and families have plenty to eat. In bad years—when there is an unseasonable or particularly hard frost—their preferred plants fail, and they must rely on the small, bitter potatoes produced by the hardy survivors.

Soon, however, they will have a better option. For the past two growing seasons, farmers near Puno and in three Peruvian highland villages have participated in a project to grow and test frost-tolerant versions of their favorite local varieties, with great success.

These special potato plants were developed in Wisconsin by a team of CALS plant scientists and plant breeders using germplasm stored in the U.S. Potato Genebank, located in Sturgeon Bay.

“I think this is the first case where a potato developed in the U.S. has been accepted by local farmers in these communities in the Andes,” says project coordinator Alfonso del Rio, an associate scientist in the lab of John Bamberg. As an employee of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Bamberg serves as director of the U.S. Potato Genebank. He is also a professor of horticulture with CALS.

The plant materials used for the project, like the vast majority found in the U.S. Potato Genebank, were brought to the United States from the Andes, the potato’s site of origin. This makes the project a special opportunity for potato breeders in the United States to give something back.

“We’re interested in returning the benefits of our genebank to Peru and the broader Andean region because that’s the area that supplied our country with germplasm,” says Bamberg, who led the project’s breeding effort. Earlier work by CALS horticulture professor Jiwan Palta, the third member of the team, made modern marker-assisted breeding for frost tolerance possible.

To make the new potato lines, Bamberg took an exceptionally frost-tolerant wild relative of the potato family—a weed, basically—and crossed it with seven popular native Peruvian potato varieties to generate frost-tolerant versions of the native potato plants.

Although the new potato lines were originally meant to be added to Peru’s national potato breeding program as germplasm for further breeding, the farmers who were involved in the trials are eager to start growing some of them right away. And no wonder. This past growing season in Puno, after a late, hard frost, a few of the new frost-tolerant lines far outperformed the local varieties, yielding twice as many pounds of potato per plot.

The CALS team hopes these more dependable potato plants will help bolster Peru’s vulnerable rural communities.

“If the farmers could send part of their harvest to market, even 10 or 20 percent, they could have some money to invest in community development—in things like clinics, schools and libraries,” says del Rio.

Field Notes: Certified Seed Potatoes for Kenya

When scientists in Kenya needed help developing a certification program for seed potatoes, a CALS plant pathologist stepped up to the task.

The new program is run by Kenya’s Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), a government-controlled agency charged with improving agricultural programs throughout the nation.

“They were looking for somebody to help improve their certification program. Since it’s my job at the UW to do this kind of thing, I applied,” says Brooke Weber, a scientist with the CALS-based Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Tissue Culture Laboratory, which helps produce certified disease-free seed potatoes for Wisconsin growers.

A nonprofit agency called CNFA, which supports economic growth in the developing world by empowering the private sector, selected Weber for the position, paying for her flight to Nairobi as well as her three-week visit to the ADC Molo Seed Potato Complex in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province.

On her first day at ADC, Weber went straight to the tissue culture laboratory and greenhouse facilities to learn about ADC’S main areas of concern and to discuss how to make her trip as productive as possible. From there, Weber launched into training ADC scientists how to run various diagnostic tests for plant-associated microorganisms at the tissue culture and greenhouse level.

It didn’t take long for her to experience one of the obstacles her peers in Kenya regularly face. “The electricity cuts in and out. If you are working in a sterile hood, the fan will go out and there’s nothing you can do about it. It takes a few minutes for the backup generator to kick in,” says Weber. “Still, I was really impressed by how well their tissue culture lab worked, considering the less-than-ideal conditions.”

Due to limitations associated with the available diagnostic tests, Weber recommended that ADC implement a broad pathogen eradication procedure for all of the company’s potato lines. “It’s very expensive to initiate numerous diagnostic tests, so a lot of times when you don’t know what microorganisms are present, it’s better to assume everything is infected and put all plants through a curing process,” she says.

Weber was also able to share some helpful tips to improve the company’s tissue culture media, increase lighting in the growth rooms and optimize the nutrient solution sprayed in the aeroponic systems used to grow mini-tubers.

Since returning to Madison Weber has stayed in contact with ADC scientists, exchanging e-mail correspondence regularly. She plans to assist with the pathogen eradication procedure from Madison, offering advice and answering questions via e-mail and Skype as needed.

“It is an ongoing project,” Weber says. “That has been the most rewarding part of this experience.”

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.

Is All Really Fair with Fair-Trade Coffee?

When you buy a cup of coffee that has been certified as Fair Trade, Organic or another “socially responsible” label, do you know what you are really getting?

“I think most consumers would be surprised to learn who really benefits from certification,” says Jeremy Weber MA’08, a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and applied economics.

Weber has spent much of the past five years studying the impact of certification on coffee growers in Peru and Mexico, and he says the small, family-operated farms often portrayed in fair-trade promotions are among the least likely to benefit directly from consumers’ purchases. Often the price premiums growers receive for certified beans are too small to cover the costs of becoming certified. The fees and coordination involved with gaining various certifications favor growers who are organized and aware enough to take advantage, Weber says.

Weber became interested in the coffee trade after spending a year in Peru on a Fulbright fellowship. During that time, he followed a growers’ cooperative as it became certified as Fair Trade, a standard that signifies adherence to sustainable development and fair-labor practices. For his doctoral research, he examined the experience of growers in three such standards—Fair Trade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance. He found that growers do often benefit—but not for the reasons consumers might assume.

“They received more money for their coffee, but the key was increased productivity from their plants,” he explains.

Growers working toward Rainforest Alliance certification, for example, received technical assistance from a nongovernmental organization, something that local governments rarely provide. Weber says farmers who implemented pruning techniques recommended by the NGO doubled yields in four years, although he says sustaining those yields will depend on how well they replenish soils.

Coffee drinkers also might not expect that certification can benefit public-works projects. NGOs working with certification agencies have helped bring running water and latrines into growers’ communities. One Peruvian farmer told Weber proudly: “Our town used to be seen as a backward place, where people were thought of as lazy and incompetent. Now, even though we are just small farmers, we are seen as just as good as other coffee growers from the outside. Farmers from other places are coming to see my crop and how I manage it.”

Still, Weber feels fair-trade and organic certification has a long way to go before it can live up the claims it makes. “Certification too often can become a once-a-year visit to fill out a checklist, not a holistic view focused on outcomes that consumers are expecting,” he says. More evaluations by third-party organizations and academic researchers are needed to fully understand whether certifications are delivering on their lofty promises.