100 years of research

John Oncken

A hundred years is a long time for anything or anyone to exist, but the  UW-Madison Hancock Agricultural Research Station has been in business for that long. Last week, hundreds of people came to Hancock to celebrate the event.

They enjoyed tours of the 400-acre farm, viewed research plots, looked at experimental potato storage, heard speeches about what the station was and is and did a lot of talking. The display of antique and current potato planting and harvesting equipment drew interest from visitors, many who remembered their own days growing up on the farm harvesting potatoes with a one-bottom plow or potato fork.

Over the decades, I’ve traveled US Highway 51 (now I-39) from Madison north to Stevens Point (and farther) and back dozens of times, always past the Hancock ARS, without seeing it or thinking about it (the location is just west of the highway and not easily visible from the highway while moving at 65-70 miles per hour).

A logical visit

The 100-year anniversary celebration seemed like a logical time to get acquainted with historic and important facility where so much vegetable crop research has been carried on over the years.

After a brief walk around and talking with UW-Madison friends, I sat down with Dwight Mueller, director of the UW Agricultural Research Stations, to refresh my memory.

“There are 11 outlying facilities and the UW campus itself,” he said. “Dairy research is carried on at the campus, Arlington, Marshfield and the U.S. Forage Research Center at Prairie du Sac. “

Hancock centers on vegetable and soybean research on 400 acres of Plainfield sand soil.

“We have about 130 permanent employees, plus a few seasonal workers at times,” Mueller said.

In 1967

Friend Bob Rand, a Sunday, after church, coffee-drinking friend and UW faculty staff researcher, established his first test plot at the Hancock ARS in 1967. He had graduated from UW-Platteville two years earlier and began working with  Dr. Don Hagedorn, a renowned UW plant pathologist and agronomist, in his work with bacterial brown spot and root rot in green beans.

“These were two major green bean diseases,” Rand explained. “The research resulted in the development of germ plasm that was released to seed companies for use in their plant breeding programs."

Although retired, Rand has continued work on white mold and root rot in kidney beans that is nearing completion and release.

Touring the station

Paul Sytsma, Hancock ARS ag project supervisor, supervises the 120 full-time and several part-time workers at the station who work with the 120 to 140 ongoing field projects. He offered Rand and me a guided tour of the station.

We passed many acres of small plots, each undergoing its own research conditions: water usage, fertility, diseases, varieties, genetics, insects and more.

Sytsma explained the unique linear irrigation system that  travels straight down the field, rather than in a circle.

“It’s a research oriented system,” he explained. “It’s too complicated and expensive for most commercial use.”

We traveled through the long potato storage building that was built by commercial potato growers and given to the UW for research to hopefully extend the length of time potatoes can be stored.

Some history

Ever since the University of Wisconsin was founded in 1848, agriculture has  been of major importance to the institution. The passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 (the purpose was to fulfill the food and fiber needs of the nation) and the creation of the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture in 1866 put farming into the top ranks of education.

Hiram Smith, a Sheboygan dairy farmer and member of the Board of Regents, a strong advocate for the education of farmers, faced two challenges: to convince farmers of the benefits of scientific agriculture and to associate those benefits with the university.

As early as 1880, the University of Wisconsin was holding winter educational meetings around the state and early on sought the formation of  experimental stations at the urging of Smith, who believed that “agriculture’s problems were for the university to solve.”

Meanwhile, William A. Henry, the first dean of the UW-College of Agriculture, had no way to deliver his message of production and prosperity to is agricultural clients.

In 1885, the Board of Regents established the Farm Short Course — the first in the nation — for young men with a grammar school education who planned to farm as a livelihood.

In 1887, Congress funded agricultural experiment stations to “to do research in areas of soil science an plant growth and to disseminate that information.”

The University of Wisconsin established its first agricultural experimental stations, Spooner and Madison Hill Farm (long gone and site of a mall and houses today), in 1909, followed by the Marshfield station in 1912 and the Hancock station established in 1916.

Central Sands

The sandy plains of central Wisconsin are the lake bed that covered the area some 15,000 years ago. The land had little agricultural value: easily eroded, low in fertility with little water holding capacity and crop failures were common. It was also land of sand burs, weeds and scrub trees.

In 1915, one T.A. Hoverstad, the ag commissioner for the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault St. Marie railway came to Hancock and told of  research being done elsewhere in Wisconsin on sandy soils by the University of Wisconsin.

A good offer

Local farmers and businesses soon contacted the UW about the possibility of  establishing an experiment station in the area.  Moreover, they formed the Hancock Advancement Association and offered the UW a farm rent-free for 5-10 years for experiments and demonstration work.

In 1916, the Hancock Experimental Station came into being: First as a dairy farm and soon working closely with existing farms, vegetable/potato growers and food processors.

In the late 1940s, irrigation changed the area from Central Sands to the Golden Sands, and the Hancock ARS became the center of it all as the area became one of the nation’s top potato and vegetable growing areas.

Those 35 farmers and businesses that came up with the idea for a Hancock agricultural experimental so long ago would not envision it today.

Indeed, 100 years is a long time, and the Hancock ARS continues on its way with many central Wisconsin agricultural questions and challenges yet to be addressed.   If you are curious about the 100-year history (and future) of the Hancock ARS, the 135-page anniversary booklet tells all.  Call 715-249-5961 for information.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him