Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association

Water Conservation Is Important to All of Us

August 30th, 2012 | Posted in: News, Sustainable Farming

A recent article in the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation publication highlights the efforts of Wisconsin potato growers to improve water conservation throughout the state. Following is a synopis of the article.

According to the article, Wisconsin and much of the nation is currently suffering through one of the worst droughts in recent history. But thanks to today’s science and technology, along with advanced irrigation strategies used by Wisconsin potato and vegetable growers,  agriculture’s impact on the water supply has been reduced.

The Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) formed the Water Task Force—comprised of citizens, farmers, industry leaders and scientists, and co-chaired by central Wisconsin farmers Nick Somers of Plover River Farms, Stevens Point, and Jeremie Pavelski of Heartland Farms, Inc., Hancock.

“Science, not opinion, should drive all discussions on water issues, beginning with a broad range of data collection,” says Somers.  “The more data we have, the more effective our water conservation practices will be.  This is not just an issue in Central Wisconsin; there are water challenges all across the planet.”

The vast majority of Wisconsin vegetable growers employ a variety of water conservation measures. Most importantly, growers only apply water when the crop needs it.  Pavelski says that is the key to water conservation.

“We use prescription farming,” Pavelski said.  “We use all the tools at our disposal to help us apply only what the crop needs.  We don’t want to stress the crops by underwatering, but we don’t want to overwater either.  Overwatering would increase costs and would also increase the possibility of disease development and could lead to the leaching of valuable nutrients before the plants could absorb them.”

Low pressure irrigation systems are now the norm, using much less energy and less water than in the past.  Drop nozzles are also used extensively, allowing the water to be applied closer to the ground, reducing the amount of evaporation that can take place.

Add in a sophisticated watering schedule that utilizes soil moisture testing and computerized irrigation systems, and you have high-tech farms making wise use of water. Using the grower-funded and research-based Wisconsin Irrigation Scheduling Program (WISP), a grower can use a soil probe to test the moisture of the soil and then use computer software to calculate what the crop needs.  If it begins to rain during irrigation, the system is designed to pump only until a combination of rain and irrigation reaches the calculated crop need. Many irrigation systems can even predict the weather and the system will not irrigate if the forecast exceeds the crop needs.

“The next time you see an irrigation system applying water when it’s raining, consider all the technology and planning that goes into water conservation and smart farming,” Pavelski said.  “The very livelihood of our families and employees depend on these resources, and as people who have lived and farmed here for many generations, we fully understand that we need to protect these resources for our children, and their children.”

Though not everyone understands the complexities of the water cycle, groundwater recharge, and evapotranspiration (ET), Wisconsin farmers have to be experts on those subjects.

Despite Wisconsin’s large and plentiful underground aquifer, today’s potato and vegetable growers use a number of research-based technologies to help them do a better job of water conservation.  The WPVGA is continually working on and funding a variety of water conservation projects — from new technologies that help determine optimal irrigation scheduling, to landscape management for water recharge.  Researchers are even exploring new varieties of crops that require lower amounts of water during peak need times.  Over 200 wells are being monitored to help provide a scientific data bank on fluctuations in the groundwater.

The WPVGA also checks the accuracy of groundwater level mapping through sophisticated recording at 35 continuous monitoring sites. This information combined with the growers’ monitoring data enables agencies, farmers and communities to factually track and map the groundwater resource.

Across the Central Sands region of Wisconsin, nearly 100% of the potatoes are irrigated, as well as over half of all the processed vegetables (peas, beans and sweet corn).  In short, the economic vitality of potato and vegetable production is directly tied to the success of irrigation.  And the economic impact of Wisconsin agriculture is staggering. Wisconsin ranks second in the nation in the production of processing vegetables and third in potato production.  A 2011 study by the University of Wisconsin found that potato and vegetable production and processing provides the state with an economic impact of $6.36 billion annually.  Additionally, the study found that there are 132,000 jobs in agricultural production.

“The impact of farming goes far beyond economics,” Somers said.  “We need to use the water to produce the food to feed the world.  There’s nothing more important.”

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