The Central Sands is one of the nation’s premier potato and vegetable production areas, ranking third in potatoes, first in snap beans (also called green beans) and third in sweet corn, and the farmers who grow these crops are a vital component of the state’s economy — generating over $6 billion in revenue and providing close to 40,000 jobs.
This agricultural bounty is possible because of the area’s broad expanse of fertile, sandy soils laid down by retreating glaciers over 10,000 years ago, which are underlain by a deep groundwater aquifer providing the water for irrigation that enables the area to flourish.
Every Central Sands farmer is acutely aware of the need to balance the water that is withdrawn from the aquifer for irrigation with the water that is returned to it in the form of precipitation that recharges the system annually.
Every drop of irrigation applied is based on sophisticated scheduling programs that take into account exactly how much water each crop needs at each stage of its growth, how much water the soil can hold and how the weather will impact supply. Water is then only applied to match the precise crop need.
The investments made by farmers to enhance the long term sustainability of this area and its precious resources are being enhanced by a gradual evolution of the crop landscape in the Central Sands.
This process, which is influenced by changing economic times as well as the need to conserve water, has seen crop landscapes move slowly from high water use systems based largely on potatoes to a mixture of potatoes and processed vegetables, such as sweet corn and snap beans that require significantly less water. In the decade between 1996 and 2006, potato acreage in the Sands decreased by 28 percent, while sweet corn increased 36 percent, and snap beans increased 26 percent.
But what does this mean in terms of water and a more sustainable landscape? Well, potatoes need 15-18 inches of water, while sweet corn needs only 10 inches, and snap beans (the shortest season crop) needs only 5 to 7 inches.
To put this in perspective, sweet corn uses 54 percent less water than potatoes and snap beans use 68 percent less! This means that today’s typical crop landscape uses significantly less water than those of a decade ago.
Water conservation is just one of the ways our Central Sands farmers are striving to become more sustainable. The potato growers have long been recognized as the national leaders in "green" production with the 2000 release of the Healthy Grown brand. They have since followed up with expanded ecosystem enhancement requirements and industry-wide sustainability assessments to track improvement over time.
Sweet corn and green bean growers have now taken up the banner and are expanding the concept of sustainable production across the modern crop landscape. Working with University of Wisconsin Agriculture economist Paul Mitchell, farmers have recently completed an assessment of growing practices used in sweet corn and snap bean production systems across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois where the bulk of U.S. production is located.
Dr. Mitchell has developed a unique analysis called the “Frontiers of Sustainability.” The analysis takes information from individual farmers and identifies key practices that drive sustainability for that grower. The resulting score cards enable farmers to identify practices that will improve performance and measure that improvement over time.
This capability raises the intriguing possibility of designing crop landscapes in the future that can be profitable and protect natural resources across whole ecosystems that include cropping systems, forests prairies and wetlands.
This region is fortunate that the farmers growing potatoes, sweet corn, snap beans and the myriad of other specialty crops in the Central Sands landscape, recognize the importance of developing and fostering practices that will sustain the area’s resources for future generations. This philosophy may not always be the most profitable in the short-term, but fortunately the satisfaction of doing things ‘the right way’ for future generations is often enough.