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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Rejiggered U of Wisconsin Sustainable Ag Institute Launches Sustainable Agriculture Projects Across State

January 4, 2012 |

Over the past couple of years, scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s College of Agricultural & Life Sciences (CALS) have broken out of their specialized disciplinary “silos” to focus on initiatives aimed at revitalizing the university’s Wisconsin Institute of Sustainable Agriculture (WISA).

This break from routine and change in strategy was prompted by a review of the institute initiated by Molly Jahn, Former Dean of CALS, in 2009. The review included 10 listening sessions with broad-based participation from stakeholders both within and outside the university. Several commonly held themes were identified, including the need for faculty members to “get out of their ‘disciplinary silos’ and take a more holistic, systems approach to issues.”

Interest in sustainable agriculture was high and widespread. While participants said they were pleased with the level and breadth of expertise at UW, Madison, they felt that the university could improve the extent to which it ‘connects’ with citizen stakeholders could be strengthened, “particularly through place-based learning or ‘working landscape laboratories.'”

CALS faculty and staff took the feedback to heart. Just a few months into the implementation phase of CALS’ WISA revitalization initiative, more than 50 WISA faculty, staff and students, along with hundreds of stakeholders are carrying out sustainability research and outreach on-site around the state.

Included among the projects highlighted on WISA’s website are:

  • The Healthy Grown Farms project has resulted in a 52% increase in adoption of integrated pest management (IPM) methods and a reduction in pesticide toxicity of 30% between 2001-2007. Now being expanded across entire farms with crop-specific modules, the program aims to meet the rising sustainability demands of consumers in today’s marketplace, according to WISA. The whole farm standards developed will be third-party certified, research-based and grower-driven, and will be base on the three pillars of sustainable agriculture: producing economic, social and environmental benefits.
  • WISA researchers are leading a project that aims to inventory and bring together resources related to grazing and organic agriculture across the state, including other campus and technical colleges, UW Extension, citizen groups and other agricultural stakeholders. Included are analyses of organic agriculture and grazing systems.
  • In its preliminary development stages, the Coalition for Sustainable Food aims to develop sustainability standards that are increasingly being sought by end users, retailers and consumers. With the objective of establishing standards that will be certified by third parties, driven by growers and based on research, the project has attracted the attention of national commodity organizations.
  • Bringing together Wisconsin’s diverse agricultural strengths to improve nutrition and combat malnutrition is the goal of the Feed to Foodbank project. Nearly 20% of US households with children aren’t fed adequately, WISA notes, having grown to record levels during the last recession. With Wisconsin second only to California in terms of vegetable production, the project team is developing the logistics to collect and distribute surplus processed vegetables to those in need. Project leaders say that early indications based on talks with vegetable processors suggest a potential supply of over 100 million pounds per year alone of “relatively shelf-stable, nutritious vegetables – more than 10 years’ worth of current total Second Harvest of Southern Wisconsin food distribution.”
  • Falling groundwater levels in Wisconsin’s Central Sands region – down 1-2 meters in recent years – are plaguing agriculture, tourism, natural resources and rural communities. Stakeholders are particularly concerned about the negative economic impact on specialty crop production in the region, which is estimated to be more than $1 billion, with another $5 billion produced as a result of processing. Moreover, 100% of the potatoes grown in the region are on irrigated land, as are 50%-100% of the processed vegetables. Overall, 75% of the state’s potato and vegetable production is enabled by irrigation. WISA has organized a project to optimize water use in growing these crops that allows for the creation of water budgets that ensure economic sustainability.
  • Dairy farming continues to be a strength and mainstay of Wisconsin agriculture. The environmental effects of dairy farming, however, are being scrutinized to a greater degree than in the past, and WISA is working with farmers to improve wastewater handling, conduct a life cycle assessment of dairy processing, and to develop “innovative, experiential learning opportunities around sustainability.”

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