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Seed potatoes tumble out of a planter at Coloma Farms in Coloma, Wisconsin.

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.

The ubiquitous Russet Burbank is the king of potatoes in America, thanks in large part to the fact that it is the primary potato used to make McDonald’s French fries. But while it may produce the perfect fry—and boasts a superb shelf life—the Russet Burbank is also greedy, requiring lots of water and fertilizer. Though originally bred for resistance to late blight, the fungal disease that caused the Irish potato famine, in production-scale agriculture it’s susceptible to early blight, late blight and the Colorado potato beetle. It’s virtually impossible to produce in quantity without herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The rebirth of Wisconsin’s potato industry coincided with the growing use of these agricultural chemicals in commercial agriculture after World War II.

At first this was considered progress. But perceptions of pesticides began to shift in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s exposé of DDT, Silent Spring. Environmental concerns mounted every time a new substance—alar, aldacarb, atrazine—made headlines.

That was the terrain in 1979 when Walt Stevenson PhD’73, now an emeritus plant pathologist, arrived back in Madison to assume the chair of his Ph.D. mentor. That year an epidemic of late blight had farmers spraying potato fields relentlessly, 12 to 16 times a year, sometimes as soon as the plants broke the ground. And understandably so: When late blight surfaced it cost producers $12 million, out-of-pocket. “When you have late blight in the area, you just don’t sleep when you’re a grower,” says Stevenson.

But for all the cost and potential health risk, growers weren’t necessarily spraying scientifically. They followed product labels and their instincts. But these chemical tools are not one-size-fits-all, and CALS researchers began working with growers on a more scientific, interactive approach. Scientists closely studied environmental conditions to identify when blight emerged, while scouts scoured fields, reporting back on pest and crop conditions. Researchers crunched the numbers to determine whether the risk of blight was high, alerting farmers to spray only when the situation merited.

The project focused on late blight first, and the forecasting soon reached the point of preventing from two to four chemical treatments. The real surprise came from Steve Diercks, a potato grower in Coloma, Wisconsin, who had volunteered a field where Stevenson and his students were testing their early blight forecasting techniques. Not only had Diercks sprayed the test plot only when told to, he revealed at the end of the year that he had scaled up the experiment, running his entire operation on the recommendations: “He followed the science and he believed in the science,” says Stevenson, still flattered and a little flabbergasted.

The success of disease forecasting meant farmers could reliably reduce the number of fungicide applications and still get good—or maybe even better—disease management. The technique gained power when other inputs were added. For example, using monitoring to inform irrigation cut back on water use, which in turn reduced the leaching of pesticides and fertilizers into the water. This meant more nitrogen available to the plant, making it more resistant to early blight, and less pollution.

This ecologically informed technique is at the heart of integrated pest management, or IPM. It’s adaptive, science-based and sometimes downright clever. In the case of the Colorado potato beetle, for instance, simple science deduced at which point in development the beetle was most vulnerable to insecticide. But it was a stroke of ingenuity to plant a “trap crop” bordering the field to attract the beetles. The innovation allowed farmers to get more mileage out of using less pesticide.

IPM engages a farmer’s stewardship and entrepreneurial instincts. For example, while Diercks was using the early blight forecasting, he realized he was just three weeks from harvest and still hadn’t sprayed. He wondered: How much damage could early blight do in those three weeks? Could he avoid spraying altogether?

“He never would have asked that question if he hadn’t already eliminated the first four sprays,” says Stevenson. “He wasn’t doing this blindly. He was looking at the environmental data, he was plugging this into the software, he was walking the field. He was making an informed decision and asking what I think were the right questions.”

IN 1996 NICK SOMERS TOOK WISCONSIN’S innovative disease forecasting software to a national growers meeting. Also sharing the podium that day was a representative from the World Wildlife Fund, and afterwards the two got to talking. They clicked, deciding on the spot that their two organizations should find a way to work together. The result was a partnership between WWF and WPVGA to experiment with reducing the use of high-risk pesticides and expanding the implementation of IPM in Wisconsin’s potato fields. In 1999 the UW IPM team officially joined in, and by 2001 the Healthy Grown standard was launched.

Once the nation’s leader in potato production, Wisconsin still farms nearly 40,000 acres of the crop. Farmers hoped Healthy Grown wold give the state a unique brand to claim back some of its market dominance.

At first, Healthy Grown focused on IPM and the adoption of best management practices for fertilizer application and soil erosion. The team also developed a ranking system for pesticide toxicity, giving the growers a simple tool allowing them to compare their options and make less toxic choices. Growers could no longer use the full arsenal of legal agents. The most toxic and problematic were put on a do-not-use list, while others were limited. In 2006 ecological restoration of non-cropped farmland was added to the standard, and organizers began to try to measure more challenging things such as biodiversity. In 2009 social components such as hiring practices and on-farm energy use were incorporated. Farmers fill out a lengthy questionnaire and are subjected to annual audits. Nearly a quarter of fields that apply for certification don’t achieve it.

The evolution of the Healthy Grown standard coincided with market trends—even as organic was raising the bar for food production, consumers and activists wanted more. We wanted our coffee bird-friendly, our chocolate grown without child labor and our eggs laid by happy chickens. Standards promoting various social and environmental goals have proliferated. Even retail giant Wal-Mart is rolling out a mission to define the sustainability of its products.

To the disappointment of Healthy Grown’s farmers, however, this wave of green marketing has not swept up Wisconsin’s eco-potatoes. Growers had hoped that consumers would be willing to pay a premium for the Healthy Grown brand to help compensate for the extra cost of IPM and certification. A market survey conducted by the WPVGA in the brand’s infancy gave them reason to hope. After hearing the brand’s story, 70 percent of consumers surveyed said they would have interest in buying Healthy Grown potatoes, and 88 percent of those said they would pay 25 cents more per bag to get them. But that hasn’t happened. In most years fewer than 5 percent of potatoes certified under the program have been sold under the Healthy Grown label. The rest get bulked with other fresh-market orders, earning growers nothing for their extra effort.

Part of the problem is low visibility. Even around Madison, with its eager market for environmentally friendly products, Healthy Grown potatoes are hard to track down. An informal survey of produce buyers for the city’s main groceries yielded only passing familiarity with the brand. One buyer for Cub Foods recalled stocking the brand in the past but said it was dropped because consumers weren’t willing to pay the higher cost.

At the Madison Hy-Vee, it’s clear that produce marketing is a work in progress. The picture of Somers and another local onion grower were too big, and so they went into storage. Ryan Lindner, the store’s produce buyer, says they’ve moved away from bins as well. “We want to bring a more on-the-table look,” he says. He’d like more marketing material, and he notes that Hy-Vee is working on new signage highlighting local produce that should be rolled out soon.

“Sometimes what consumers say and what produce buyers do are not the same thing,” says Tim Feit, marketing manager for the WPVGA. “It is so hard to get these buyers off of price. Even if consumers would be willing to pay more, that’s not necessarily what the buyer will pay for the product.”

Despite the disappointing sales, the growers have largely kept the faith. The number of acres enrolled in the program remains steady at around 5,000, and while a few growers have dropped out, others have stepped in or stepped up their acreage. Without a price premium to pay the bills, it helps that the WPVGA underwrites audit costs and grants support conservation work.

And Feit says the brand’s story can win over consumers, if only it could be heard above the din. This spring the WPVGA is testing some new point of purchase marketing tools in cooperation with grocery chain Piggly Wiggly. “The key is to educate the consumer that these potatoes are raised differently,” he says. “And while the WPVGA has put money into marketing Healthy Grown, it’s a miniscule amount compared to the amount that gets thrown at new consumer products.”

Feit points out that even some in the WPVGA don’t fully understand what Healthy Grown represents. “To try to communicate that to a consumer with a 30-second commercial or a poster?” he asks. “Without a big marketing budget, it’s hard to explain that complex message. Even if we spent our entire promotions budget, it wouldn’t be enough.”

A SUSTAINABLE POTATO CAN BE A HARD thing to love. To begin with, consumers don’t tend to fuss over potatoes in the same way they do apples or other produce. Botanically there are scores of different options for both plants. But while most people can wax on the relative merits of a Fuji or a Cortland, potatoes don’t engender such opinions. There are exceptions, of course, but for many shoppers, a bag of potatoes is still predominantly a bag of starch.

But most of the confusion seems to come from the concept of sustainability itself. One reason organic has become the gold standard for consumers is a relatively simple definition—food grown with no synthetic materials—that most people can grasp. At its root is a rejection of pesticides for personal and environmental health reasons. While there has been continual skirmishing over control of the details, there is a strong alternative production base along with a watchdog core of educated consumers.

Sustainability, on the other hand, is a murkier ideal. The general principle—that your methods of production can be maintained over time—seems simple enough, but it has become a gathering point for debate. There are numerous existing and ongoing efforts to define the term for trade. Just one example: The Leonardo Academy, based in Madison, is developing a scientifically measured sustainability standard under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute. ANSI standards help regulate everything from paper size to eye protection. But when Leonardo introduced its draft standard in 2007, a firestorm ensued, leading the committee to scrap its work and start from scratch. The group has six task forces still working out just how to define sustainability. Then they’ll have to figure out how to measure and monitor that definition. Similar discussions are taking place around other proposed standards, including the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops and the Field to Market program of the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.

“Sustainability has become a buzzword,” says Jed Colquhoun, a CALS associate professor of horticulture who works with Healthy Grown. But despite his association with the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, he won’t offer up a quick definition. “We’re coming up with a new name that doesn’t involve sustainability, because it’s such a nebulous and difficult term,” he says. “It depends on who you ask and which value filter you run that through.”

One of the first potato farms to adopt IPM, Steve Diercks’ Coloma Farms plants more that 300 acres of Healthy Grown potatoes, but these days Diercks is driven more by the environmental benefits than the market.

For example, while most consumers regard organic as meeting the standards of sustainability, the bigger picture isn’t so clear. Is the price premium on organic produce sustainable with 20 percent of U.S. families struggling to put food on the table? Is the production capacity of organic systems sustainable enough to meet the demands of feeding more and more people using less and less land? The truth is the challenges facing agriculture and the environment may be bigger than organic alone can handle.

“Organic isn’t the solution,” argues Jeb Barzen, of the International Crane Foundation, one of the organizations supporting the Healthy Grown program. It’s a lesson he learned from a soybean farmer in western Minnesota. The farmer cultivates organic fields, but he also grows soybeans using a ridge-tilling technique that leaves the valleys between rows untouched by the cultivator. Plant matter accumulates and non-crop species take root, making the ridge-till fields less prone to soil erosion. The catch: The ridge-till fields do require some pesticide use.

So which soybean crop is more “sustainable”? The organic field produces healthy food, but perhaps at a greater expense to the land and surrounding water. The ridge-till field requires accepting some chemical use in exchange for other benefits, including clean water and nesting for upland sandpipers, which won’t take up residence in the organic field.

“Healthy Grown is an attempt to look at all of those resources coming off the land at the same time—habitat for cranes, habitat for lots of other species, productive agricultural fields—because these fields need to be productive in order for people to retain them. And they also need to produce clean water, healthy soil, rural aesthetics, possibly carbon sequestration and so on,” says Barzen. “The real challenge is figuring out how to fit this into a market system that, especially for commodities, likes sound bites. It doesn’t like complication, and that’s essentially what we’re selling.”

Those complications have kept Healthy Grown from finding a foothold in markets such as Whole Foods, says Deana Knuteson, a CALS researcher who has been coordinating the Healthy Grown program since before it came to market in 2001. She says the chain ultimately decided not to highlight the fact that not all of its produce is organic. “It was a marketing thing,” she sighs. The experience leaves her wondering whether the market will allow a niche for agriculture that is both progressive and production-scale. “How can we develop an ecologically sound production model for large-scale agriculture that fits a need and helps the landscape without having to transition all the way to organic?” she asks.

The answer could well hang on the emerging definition of sustainability in the marketplace. Will the playing field be set by corporations large and small as they jockey for the marketing advantage that sustainability might confer? Or will more rigorous standards, monitored by independent observers, gain momentum and market share?

NOT EVERYONE THINKS NATIONAL standards will be helpful. “I don’t have a lot of confidence that you can create a national standard that would be worth a grain of salt,” says Barzen. He’s been helping quantify the biodiversity element of Healthy Grown potatoes, and like most scientists he has a hard time imagining how we’ll ever be able to develop meaningful comparisons between regions as different as Idaho and Wisconsin. “By working at such a broad scale you have to water it down, and it really doesn’t mean much.”

But if anything, says Barzen, Healthy Grown is feeling the double-edged sword of the market. “I do know we have really got to sell some potatoes under Healthy Grown to make this work. If we were selling a lot of these potatoes, we’d have the whole Wisconsin potato industry following us. If that were working, we could influence Idaho and Washington and other potato producing regions.”

If anything, Healthy Grown may not survive a shift to national standards. “People want to differentiate themselves,” explains Colquhoun. “I think one of the risks is that we raise the bar across the board so that there isn’t a market advantage to doing it, so that there isn’t a grower advantage in terms of price received and such. We’ve just increased the price of doing business.”

That would put a decade of research and several million dollars worth of taxpayer and grower investment on the shelf. “We’ve shown it can be done. It’s been through this development phase that other groups are just starting. It’s science-based. It’s research-based, which is unique. It’s third-party certified,” says Knuteson, ticking off the selling points. The bottom line, as far as she can see: “Grocery stores want to be green, but don’t want to be paying more.”

The sustaining grace here is the growers, who despite the setbacks are even considering expanding the Healthy Grown concept to other vegetable crops. “They were looking for a different way to grow because they wanted to do the right thing for the land,” says Knuteson. “With the economy the way it is, industry is still doing it, and that tells you it’s real. It’s actually going to be beneficial and save money in the end.”

“It’s been a struggle,” admits Somers. And while Healthy Grown doesn’t help his bottom line, “we feel it is the right thing to do,” he says. “We just keep going at it, and we feel that one day people are going to realize that.”