Stalking the Sustainable Market

Wisconsin growers may have the greenest potato on the planet. So why can't you get it at your supermarket? It's complicated.

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.