Thoughts for Food #18

How did Wisconsin’s Central Sands emerge as one of the premier vegetable production centers in the nation?

The Central Sands region of Wisconsin is recognized as one of the premier vegetable growing regions in the watergraphic WaterMapnation; potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, peas, carrots and cucumbers all rank near the top of US production. This remarkable level of success was forged by the ingenuity and hard work of the farmers who settled here generations ago, and it is enhanced by our temperate climate with warm daytime temperatures, cool nights and ample rainfall.  The foundation of the region’s productivity, however, lies in its geological history, which began during the glacial ice age that encompassed Wisconsin over 15,000 years ago.  Geologically, the Central Sands is a large and relatively flat glacial outwash plain with abundant sandy soil—ideal for vegetable production—that is underlain by a deep groundwater aquifer that provides the water needed for crop growth and productivity.  The sandy soils deposited by the  glacial lake and its residual groundwater make this region ideal for vegetable production, which provides an economic boost to the region and enables Wisconsin to be a leader in providing a safe and abundant food supply to the whole nation.

The region extends from Adams County in the south, through Juneau and Waushara and Portage counties, to Marathon County in the north.  Covering around 1400 square miles, the region was not historically farmed, as there was no efficient way to utilize the abundant water supply and much of the area remained undeveloped.  In the mid-1950s, however, this largely unused, resource-poor area was transformed rapidly when modern irrigation technology became available and affordable due to aluminum supplies increasing with the de-commissioning of planes after World War 2. The ability to irrigate crops efficiently and economically with center-pivot systems, combined with advances in fertility and other farming technologies, quickly transformed the regional economic landscape into a thriving specialty crop production area.  Today, the irrigation pivots are technologically advanced—run by smartphones and computers—and based on sophisticated irrigation scheduling programs that deliver only the water that the crop needs when it is needed.  These pivots, which can have up to a half-mile long pipe supplied by a well in the center of fields, will effectively water 160 acres evenly as the arm moves slowly around the field with nozzles operating above the crop and delivering exactly the water needed in 10-24 hours.

The extensive groundwater aquifer (commonly referred to as Glacial Lake Wisconsin), where water is  anywhere from 80 to 200 feet deep and often accessible within feet of the soil surface, is relatively unique in US agriculture as the water in this system is replaced (re-charged) annually  by rainfall.  The delicate balance between water use and natural recharge can be challenging with climate changes; as seen in the drought of 2012, increased crop need and reduced rainfall can tip the delicate balance. Farmers need to be vigilant and responsive in adapting crops and technologies in order to maintain the balance of this precious resource.

 

In addition to the thriving agricultural base, valued at over $6 billion generating 35,000 jobs, the groundwater aquifer—supplied by glaciers 15,000 years ago—also supports a diverse and vibrant regional economy centered on rapidly growing rural communities, commercial industries, recreational fishing, and tourism. This geological heritage is vital to the state and our nation; it is the number one priority of the Central Sands vegetable farmers to protect it and preserve it for future generations.

 

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