State cranberry growers have made gains in sustainability

Wisconsin”s cranberry growers have made significant gains in the adoption of sustainable management practices over the past two decades, a new University of Wisconsin-Madison survey indicates.

That survey queried 114 producers who manage about 70 percent of the state”s cranberry acreage about their use of practices that bolster sustainability from an economic, environmental and social standpoint.

Among the most significant improvements were in nutrient management, says Jed Colquhoun, associate professor of horticulture, who surveyed producers in late 2009. Seventy-three percent of growers say they now follow a nutrient management plan, while 13 percent say they were doing that in 1989. Eighty-eight percent are basing fertilizer inputs on soil tests; fewer than 60 percent were doing so 20 years ago.

“This is impressive,” says Colquhoun. “Following a nutrient management plan greatly reduces the risk of excessive application of nutrients. It means that growers are applying only the nutrients the plant needs, based on soil sampling and plant tissue tests.

“They”re not doing this because they have to,” he adds. “They”re sincere about reducing environmental risk and also economic risk. Measurement allows for management. They now have real-time information on how to make their production decisions.”

Wisconsin”s 250 cranberry growers have more than 17,000 acres in production. Cranberries are the state”s leading fruit crop, valued at about $250 million in 2008.

Colquhoun says the survey offers both an inventory of current practices and a reference point for gauging further improvements in use of sustainable practices.

“Sustainability is a continuum and not an end point, and this survey suggests that cranberry growers have made great strides along this continuum in the past 20 years,” Colquhoun says “This survey sets a benchmark for assessing future improvements in environmental, social and economic metrics, as well as to identify areas of opportunity for the development of more grower-driven best management practices.”

Mike Moss, president of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, sees the study as a step toward identifying new and enhanced best management practices.

“Cranberry growers in Wisconsin have been working for years to implement farming techniques that maximize business while at the same time conserve land, water, resources and wildlife found on the marsh, and we hope to do even more,” Moss says. “The UW-Madison report provides an excellent baseline to measure growers” environmentally friendly methods of farming and the industry”s economic sustainability for the long run.”

Among other survey findings: