Current Projects

From national leadership of grower-driven sustainability standards to conservation of precious water resources, the reinvigorated Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (WISA), while only a few months into implementation, has had significant stakeholder impact in Wisconsin and beyond.  Current projects involve over 50 faculty, staff and students as well as hundreds of stakeholders in place-based sustainability research and outreach.

Efficient water use in Central Sands Wisconsin irrigated agriculture: balancing grower needs with environmental conservation.
Groundwater levels in the Central Sands of Wisconsin have dropped 1 to 2 meters in recent years, causing trout streams and recreational lakes to go dry in summer.  While the cause is debatable, the potential impact to agriculture, tourism, natural resources and rural communities is significant.  As such, state legislation was proposed in 2010 to create Groundwater Management Areas that could limit irrigation and vegetable processing.


Wisconsin Trout Stream

Central Wisconsin specialty crop production economic impact is estimated at over $1 billion with roughly an additional $5 billion in processing economic activity.  In Central Wisconsin, 100% of the potatoes are irrigated as are 50 to 100% of the processed vegetables.  About 75% of the economic impact of state potato and vegetable production is enabled by irrigation.  This project will optimize water use in these crops through a better understanding of water inputs and outcomes.  This information will allow for the creation of water budgets to ensure economic sustainability in the region while conserving precious natural resources.  Water limitations certainly aren’t unique to Wisconsin, thus this project has broad implications to many areas of the country and beyond.

Blue Skies, Green Pastures: development of a grazing futures network.

In 2009, more than 3 dairy farms per day went out of business.  Between 1993 and 1999, the number of dairy farms using managed grazing tripled and has since maintained steady growth to about 25% of all Wisconsin dairy farms in 2010.  According to the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability, graziers have higher net farm incomes per cow and per milk hundredweight than all other dairy producers, including large confinement systems.  In these continued challenging times for the dairy industry, this project aims to extend the benefits of grazing , such as lower debt and reduced production cost, to the 75% of dairy producers not practicing such methods.

Healthy Grown Farms.

This project is based on Wisconsin Healthy Grown Potatoes, one of the original sustainability programs that has demonstrated an increase in integrated pest management (IPM) adoption by 52% and a reduction in pesticide toxicity by 30% from 2001 to 2007.  Expansion of this concept to whole farms, with crop-specific modules, will be the first program to meet the sustainability demands rising in the marketplace.  More specifically, the whole farm standards developed in this project will be third-party certified, research-based and grower-driven, and will include all 3 pillars of sustainability (economic, social and environmental).  This project will put upper Midwest agriculture in the driver’s seat for sustainable agriculture standards and metrics, and will also serve as a starting point to build the national approach described in the Coalition for Sustainable Food.

Sustainability metrics for the dairy processing industry

The environmental consequences of agricultural production systems have become of increasing concern over the past several decades and this trend is likely to continue and intensify.  The environmental impacts of concern in dairy production systems include:

  • Nutrients released from production and processing facilities
  • Energy used per unit of product
  • Greenhouse gas released per unit of product
Dairy Cows

Wisconsin's Dairy Industry

Cheese production is the major user of milk from Wisconsin dairy herds and forms the backbone of Wisconsin’s agricultural economy.  The main objective of this project is to make Wisconsin cheese and ancillary dairy product manufacturing facilities the global leaders in efficiency and environmental innovation.  Work is currently underway to improve waste water handling, to conduct a life cycle assessment of dairy processing, and to develop innovative, experiential learning opportunities around sustainability.

Optimization of grazing systems and organic agriculture efforts

WISA is providing leadership for an inventory and coalescing of resources around the topics of grazing and organic agriculture across the state of Wisconsin, including other campus and technical colleges, UW Extension, citizen groups and agricultural stakeholders.  Erin Silva and Dick Cates are directing the organic agriculture and grazing systems analyses, respectively.  The result will be an efficient use of taxpayer resources in these complex but growing sectors in agriculture.  This effort includes an inventory of current research, outreach and teaching across the state and beyond, a stakeholder needs assessment, and identification of resource needs and utilization to advance these areas of agriculture.

The Coalition for Sustainable Food

The Coalition for Sustainable Food, while in the preliminary development stages, will develop sustainability standards that are highly sought by end-users, retailers and consumers.  This effort, based on successes and Wisconsin leadership in Healthy Grown Potatoes, has already attracted attention and projects from national commodity organizations.  The result will be third-party certified, grower driven, research-based and regionally appropriate standards.


Field to Foodbank project


Potato Production

The Field to Foodbank project unites Wisconsin’s agricultural strengths with the need to fight nutritional insecurity.  Nearly 20% of U.S. households with children do not have access to an adequate food supply.  This number has grown in recessionary times to the highest level since reporting began.  Meanwhile, Wisconsin is second to only California in vegetable processing.  This project focuses on communication streams among producer and foodbank communities and developing the logistics to capture and distribute excess processed vegetables.  Early discussions with the vegetable processors suggest a potential supply of over 100 million pounds per year in Wisconsin alone of relatively shelf-stable, nutritious vegetables – more than 10 years worth of current total Second Harvest of Southern Wisconsin food distribution.