The sustainability of Wisconsin agriculture

Photos courtesy of Alice in Dairyland Julia Nunes with Perry Brown standing next to the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute Sign
CROP RESEARCH: While touring Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis., I was able to see field crop research being done on which farming practices are the most efficient and sustainable. I am pictured with Perry Brown.
Alice in Dairyland: Farm families have been caring for land and animals for generations.

What does it mean to be sustainable? This word gets a lot of attention. When I hear “sustainability,” I think of the farmers who care for their land and resources to produce food and fuel for Wisconsin communities. For more than 175 years, Wisconsin farm families have been caring for their animals and the land and ensuring resources are available to farmers for generations to come.

All farms are unique

Every farm operation is different, but many have a common goal: to take steps — some small and some large — toward becoming a more efficient and profitable contributor to our nation’s food system and communities. For instance, with increasingly modern and innovative dairy farming practices, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 was significantly smaller than in 2007, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint.

 Julia Nunes with dairy cows in fieldMORE SUSTAINABLE: With increasingly modern and innovative dairy farming practices, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 is significantly smaller, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007.

Some farmers have installed digesters that turn cow manure into energy. Micro-organisms break down organic materials such as cow manure or food waste in a process called anaerobic digestion. This happens in a closed tank, where there’s no oxygen, called a digester. There, bacteria break down the cow manure and food waste, creating biogas that can be used for electricity, heat, compressed natural gas and even vehicle fuel. As of 2015, there were 39 manure digesters in Wisconsin.

One Wisconsin operation that prides itself on its sustainability efforts is Crave Brothers in Waterloo. Not only do they produce delicious dairy products like mozzarella cheese and mascarpone, but they also are a carbon-negative company, which means they produce more power than needed to fuel their business. Their computer-controlled anaerobic digestion system generates enough electricity to power the farm, cheese factory, and 300 area homes.

Wisconsin farmers are also implementing sustainable measures in the field. Alsum Farms and Produce, a Wisconsin potato grower, is continually working to improve soil conservation and planting techniques. They do this by planting and harvesting using equipment with GPS technology, which helps optimize planting efficiency and fuel consumption. Alsum Farms also utilizes eco-friendly integrated pest management techniques that reduce toxic pesticides, preserve water quality, restore native ecosystems and protect wildlife.

Farmers around the state are adjusting tilling practices and adding buffer strips to field crops to decrease erosion and runoff.

Field crop research

While touring Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis., I observed field crop research being done to better understand which farming practices are the most efficient and sustainable. Michael Fields Agricultural Institute has been working to advance sustainable farming practices since the 1980s. The institute has researchers working on cover crops, hemp, wheatgrass, organic crops and more. Their research benefits consumers and the environment and contributes to the future vitality of farms and rural communities.

Improving farming practices to become more efficient and sustainable is key to feeding the growing population.

It takes hard work to produce the food and fuel for our communities. You can become more sustainably conscious at home by being mindful of water usage and reducing food waste. Buying, preparing and eating the right amounts of food is a great way to become more sustainable. When food is wasted, the natural resources that went into creating it are also wasted, and if that food goes to landfills it generates greenhouse gases.

You can also help raise awareness by sharing the sustainable practices and techniques that farmers are using.

For generations, Wisconsin farmers have been caring for our state’s rolling hills, sandy soils, and low-lying wetlands. Research is being done to improve sustainable efforts and other farming practices. Learn more at usdairy.com/sustainability and michaelfields.org.

Nunes is the 73rd Alice in Dairyland.

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