Nick George senses opportunity. With sales of organic foods outpacing the market for conventional vegetables, the executive secretary of the Midwest Food Processors Association sees a niche for Wisconsin’s processing industry: canning and freezing organic veggies.
“When you see something get wheels, you want to be part of that,” George says.
The vision makes sense. Wisconsin ranks among the nation’s leaders for processed snap beans, sweet corn, peas, cucumbers and carrots, and it has more certified organic growers than any state except California. But one thing Wisconsin doesn’t yet have is a vast quantity of organic vegetables to keep the packing lines running. While the state grows more than 200,000 acres of processing vegetables, organic production was just 348 acres by a 2005 estimate.
“We have to be able to figure out organic production on a large scale,” says Mike Bandli, an economic development consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “If we don’t, the likelihood is that organic commercial-scale vegetable production will move out of the state and out of the region.”
To help avoid that fate, a team of CALS researchers have been studying the challenges of large-scale organic production. Spearheaded by horticulture professors Jed Colquhoun PhD’00 and A.J. Bussan PhD’97 and graduate student Heidi Johnson, the group includes experts in soil science, entomology, plant pathology, agricultural engineering and economics, as well as state and industry officials.
The researchers say they can’t count on simply scaling up techniques used on smaller-acreage fresh-market operations. “For example, we didn’t think hand weeding was feasible when you’re talking about several thousand acres of vegetables,” Bussan says. Organic fertilizers present another challenge, both because of their cost and high phosphorus content.
Instead, the researchers are taking an integrated systems approach, looking at complementary practices to accomplish multiple goals. One aspect they are studying is the use of legume cover crops to add nutrients and control pests. For example, one strategy is to plant sweet corn into alfalfa, which continues to grow between the rows of corn, suppressing weeds and providing nitrogen.
Colquhoun notes that Wisconsin does have some advantages that favor large-scale organic production. The state’s bitterly cold winters help suppress pests that are problems in more temperate regions, and its livestock industry provides an ample supply of organic fertilizer.
“Even though our organic vegetable production has been small scale, we learn from the experience of those growers,” Colquhoun says. “(We can) take the knowledge learned in smaller-scale production and look at the feasibility of scaling it up.