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Research Helps Wisconsin Farmers Produce Potatoes With The Healthy Grown Label

People who care about wildlife and the environment will have a new way to act on their concern in 2002. They can buy “Healthy Grown” potatoes.

Bags of the Wisconsin potatoes will begin appearing in select stores this winter. The bags will carry the familiar panda logo of the World Wildlife Fund. The World Wildlife Fund supports Protected Harvest, the independent, non-profit organization that certifies that the potatoes were produced under strict growing standards.

The Healthy Grown brand resulted from a major program to label potatoes that are grown in an environmentally sensitive way. The program is a cooperative effort involving the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The program gives consumers a choice to buy a product that was produced in a way that is healthier for the environment,” says Jeff Wyman, a UW-Madison entomologist who helped make the effort a success. “It also gives consumers a chance to reward growers for their investment of time and money to reduce environmental impacts.

“Wisconsin potato growers have worked closely with UW-Madison researchers and extension specialists since the 1980s to build the foundation for this program,” Wyman says. “Our growers lead the nation in adoption of innovative strategies to reduce reliance on pesticides. They deserve recognition in the marketplace.”

Wisconsin”s potato growers began working with people at the World Wildlife Fund in 1996. The UW-Madison researchers became the third partner in 1997. The goal was to grow potatoes in a way that protected wildlife, the environment and reduced growers” reliance on pesticides. If the Wisconsin growers could meet certain environmental standards, the World Wildlife Fund would allow its panda logo to be used in marketing those potatoes.

Wyman says that the program is a model for identifying ecologically sound methods of food production. He is part of a team from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences whose research has been critical to the program. The team developed an intensive program for managing pests that emphasizes monitoring and avoiding pesticides – especially the most environmentally harmful ones – whenever possible. By implementing the methods, Wisconsin potato growers reduced their pesticide use by a total of 500,000 pounds between 1997 and 1999.

However, it became clear that statewide reductions wouldn”t satisfy consumers, according to Wyman. Consumers want to know that the potatoes they buy have been grown in an environmentally sensitive way.

Next the program focused on individual growers. It hired entomologist Deana Sexson to help growers with the time-consuming and complex task of applying the intensive pest management techniques on their farms. Those techniques include scouting and spot-treating pests, using predictive models that identify when pests are most problematic, employing intensive crop rotations, adopting newer, less toxic pesticides, and keeping more extensive records.

In 2000 Sexson worked with 15 growers who participated in a preliminary trial to see if they could meet the strict standards. Last summer 17 Wisconsin growers produced the first crop of Healthy Grown potatoes on 9,000 acres, according to Sexson. She says another five growers with 4,000 acres were considering becoming part of the program.

“Growers who have participated in the program have found that it takes them substantially more time to produce Healthy Grown potatoes,” Sexson says. “That seems to be their biggest challenge.”

“The success of the program is now allowing us to introduce two major new research directions,” Wyman says. “These directions will take the advances achieved on individual farms and apply them to the agricultural landscape as a whole. In 2002, we will initiate research that addresses ecosystem diversity in cooperation with the International Crane Foundation, as well as research on healthier soils.”

The research was supported by the state of Wisconsin and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Wisconsin Potato Research Board, The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, the Joyce Foundation, and the Wisconsin Department of Agricultural and Consumer Protection.