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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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In the Classroom and on Local Farms, UW-Madison Molds Future of Sustainable Agriculture

March 7, 2012 |

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is busy when it comes to helping mold the future of sustainable agriculture. Officials at the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences say thinking about how farming can be done in a more environmentally and socially sustainable is just part of the natural flow of what the college does.

“Nobody talks about crop or animal production without thinking about sustainability and without incorporating it into their research,” said Bill Tracy, UW-Madison’s agronomy department chair and professor who recently stepped down from his post as the college’s interim dean.

However, despite that fact, Tracy said a few of the college’s programs are a little more closely tailored to focus on those issues. There is an agroecology master’s program that specifically explores environmental, social and economic issues related to agriculture, which Tracy said has become very popular. On a broader level, the college also has a new undergraduate environmental sciences major, in which agriculture is just one of many areas of exploration.

UW-Madison has also shown leadership in sustainable agriculture through efforts such as helping develop new sustainable growing methods, providing specialized education in rotational grazing on dairy farms and conducting research on bioenergy.

UW-Madison is a “land-grant” university. The “land-grant” status is a result of the Morrill Act of 1862, which donated land to states so they could sell it and use the proceeds to establish public colleges that focused on agriculture and mechanical arts. The state of Wisconsin received 240,000 acres, sold it and directed the funds to UW- Madison, according the university’s Web site.

Over the next couple of decades, the university purchased a farm west of campus, established an agriculture department, launched the Wisconsin Experiment Station (established by the state legislature) and started offering course programs for farmers. The university finally established its College of Agriculture in 1889, the Web site said.

Today, UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has 19 academic departments, 12 research stations located in every region of the state, and several research institutes and centers.

Local Impact

The college has made its sustainable imprint on local farming operations. Some examples of the university’s impact can be found in the local potato and dairy farm communities.

The university currently partners with the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups in an effort to develop and market “Healthy Grown” potatoes, which are grown using processes that reduce crop input—particularly pesticides—while also working to rehabilitate natural environments. The Healthy Grown project started in 1996, building off of UW-Madison’s research combined with Wisconsin farmers’ efforts to create healthier potatoes with fewer crop inputs, said Deana Knuteson, the university’s Healthy Grown and Healthy Farms coordinator.

Potato producer Stephen Diercks, owner/manager of Coloma Farms and an active participant in the Healthy Grown Potato Project talking to a tour group on his farm in Coloma, WI

She noted that the university works with the farmers to use Integrated Pest Management. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes IPM as a process that uses information on the life cycles of pests and their interactions with the environment to manage pest damage in the most economical means with the least possible hazard to people, property and the environment.

“We use a lot of different things… cover cropping, various tillage practices, fertility tactics, rotational schemes,” Knuteson said. She also said the university’s researchers teach the farmers how to devise land restoration plans, which might include burning, cutting or planting prairies on privately owned non-agricultural lands.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has honored the “Healthy Grown” partners, known as the Eco-Potato Partnership, with its “Secretary’s Honor Award,” according to the college’s Web site. The university is now focusing on helping spread the sustainability model to farms that grow more than just potatoes, Knuteson said.

Tim Feit, WPVGA’s director of promotions and consumer education, said the project couldn’t have happened without the university, which conducted the research and developed the metrics for the Healthy Grown potato growing model, which requires third-party certification by Protected Harvest.

“It was the late 90s and sustainability was not really on anybody’s radar,” said Feit, who noted that the university was ahead of the game with its research. “It’s a credit to the University of Wisconsin (for) developing the standards that allow a farmer to go out there and understand his crop and apply just the crop inputs that are needed to be able to have a good yield in crop.”

The university also has an impact on local dairy farm operations. Through its Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, UW-Madison has conducted research and offered education that focuses on grass-based dairy production, economics and quality of life. Education in this area is offered through the center’s Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, which the center calls the only program of its kind in the nation.

“We emphasize business planning, and we offer a pasture-based management approach because it’s a lower capital means of getting started in dairy livestock farming,” said Richard Cates, the school’s director and co-owner of the Cates Family Farm in Spring Green, Wisc. “There are emerging markets that pasture-based farmers can take advantage of, emerging markets such as the organic market and grass-based cheese and grass-fed beef. These are emerging markets that add value to what otherwise would just be a commodity.”

Tracy said the university has particularly worked with dairy farmers to help them find ways to better make their practices more eco-friendly.

“Manure is a resource, so on the other hand, it could also be a pollutant,” Tracy said. “I wouldn’t want to claim that the college changed or started the grass-fed dairy industry, but we helped them (the farmers) … There are things like groundwater issues and also manure issues where our (researchers) looked at what was going on and said, ‘We’ve really got to get ahead of this because this is an environmental problem.’”

The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems also conducts research on other topics and has schools for market growers, apple growers and cut flower growers. It also has various farm-to-fork initiatives.

Information about the center’s past and current research projects can be found at and


One sustainability-focused feature of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences that can’t be ignored is the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, which was launched in 2007. The center is one of three bioenergy research centers established by the Department of Energy Office of Science, and it’s the only one based at an academic institution, according to the center’s Web site.

The center’s focus is to research a range of “high-risk, high-return biological solutions for bioenergy applications.” The research is expected to assist in the development of new bio-based products, methods and tools for the biofuel industry.

“UW-Madison was the only one of the centers, at least initially, that actually included concepts of sustainability in our proposal,” Tracy said. “It’s become a major effort in the college in terms of reviewing the impacts of the production of bioenergy using the agricultural systems.”

The center’s research focuses on a variety of things, from creating improved biofuel feedstocks to developing improved processing techniques and catalysts.

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