Potato industry commits $5M to support UW-Madison potato and vegetable research program

Wisconsin’s potato industry has had a strong, decades-long partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s potato researchers, one that has helped place Wisconsin among the top three potato-producing states in the nation. Now, in order to ensure the ongoing strength of this relationship, the industry has made a commitment to raise $5M over the next 10 years to support the university’s program.

“This support stems from the great value that our growers and our potato industry see in the University of Wisconsin-Madison research team and the related research facilities,” says Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA).

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Researchers harvest potatoes at the UW-Madison Hancock Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW-Madison CALS.

The funds will be raised by the state’s potato growers in the form of an additional assessment on their potato sales. The industry made a first step toward this commitment this past summer, when, at the request of the WPVGA, the Wisconsin Potato Industry Board increased the assessment on potato sales by one cent per hundredweight, raising it from six to seven cents per hundredweight. The Board will consider raising the assessment by another penny next year, the maximum it can be increased in a year.

“We decided the additional support was needed to make sure the relationship doesn’t end because of a shortfall or cutback in funding to the university,” explains Steve Diercks, owner of Coloma Farms and WPVGA member who helped advocate for the increased assessment. “We want to make sure we are able to keep the potato team—which has worked so well for the industry—intact and vibrant.”

A two-cent increase in the assessment is expected to generate around $500,000 per year. The money will go into a fund that was recently established at the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, which serves as UW-Madison’s non-profit gift-receiving organization.

The paperwork for the new fund was finalized in December, and the WPVGA and the university plan to celebrate this new commitment at the upcoming UW-Extension and WPVGA Grower Education Conference, which runs Feb. 7-9 in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

According to Jed Colquhoun, interim associate dean for extension and outreach at the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), the gift was made possible by the high level of trust that has developed over the decades as growers and researchers have worked side by side to solve problems and develop best practices.

“None of this would have happened if we didn’t have that trusting, long-term relationship to begin with. And that’s the part that I think is extremely unique, based on what I’ve seen in other states. It’s a true partnership. We’re at the table together,” says Colquhoun, a UW-Madison horticulture professor and UW-Extension fruit and vegetable production specialist.

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Potato planting at the UW-Madison Hancock Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW-Madison CALS.

The WPVGA has been a financial backer of the university’s potato program for many years, including spending around $350,000 per year to fund specific research projects.

The new fund, which will be overseen by a seven-member advisory board made up of potato and vegetable industry representatives, will expand the industry’s investment options, giving them more flexibility to invest in the university’s research, staffing or facilities—whatever is needed—to keep the program and the state’s industry at the forefront.

“We’ve seen some of our key researchers either retire or leave for various reasons, and a lot of those positions don’t get filled at all, and for others it takes years before they do get refilled. We thought it would be important to have funds available to help retain some of these researchers or to entice high-level, top-notch faculty to refill the vacant positions,” says Houlihan.

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The Potato and Vegetable Storage Research Facility at Hancock Agricultural Research Station was built with WPVGA funds and donated to the university. Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW-Madison CALS.

The funds may also be used to cover operational and maintenance costs at the university’s Agricultural Research Stations that help support this work. For instance, the Potato and Vegetable Storage Research Facility at Hancock Agricultural Research Station, which was built with WPVGA funds and donated to the university, is now over 10 years old. At some point in the future, notes Houlihan, it will need maintenance and repairs, and he wants the industry to be able to help cover some of those costs, if needed.

The WPVGA’s ultimate goal is to raise $10M for the fund over 10 years, with the help of additional private contributions from growers, vegetable processing companies and other allied industry members.

“We are very grateful for the industry’s investment in us. This will ensure we keep an energized research and extension community involved in potato and vegetable production here at UW-Madison,” says Kate VandenBosch, dean of CALS. “It gives us the ability to address new and emerging opportunities that will drive us forward.”