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MADISON – Specialty crops can be looked at as a kind of glue helping hold rural Wisconsin together—with $5.8 billion in economic activity and 25,000 jobs.

The raw fruit and vegetable products generated by Wisconsin’s specialty crop industry are worth about $700 million each year. Jed Colquhoun, a UW-Madison professor in horticulture, described the state’s specialty crop industry during an Agriculture Outlook Forum in Madison on Jan. 29.

Because of Wisconsin’s location, state growers and processors enjoy a significant transportation advantage over specialty growers in other regions of the country. “We have a proximity to the East coast that gives us a big advantage,” he said.

There are also 34 million people living in the Great Lakes basin. Another advantage that the state has is that it has abundant water. Twenty percent of the world’s (non-frozen) water is in the Great Lakes basin.

Another advantage for Wisconsin is that it has a large number of organic producers and processors and the organic label is something the marketplace is increasingly interested in.

One of the state’s premium specialty crops is the cranberry. State growers produce 60 percent of the nation’s supply of the tart, red berry—mostly in central Wisconsin.

As acres of land have been added to cranberry production, prices have declined. In 2018 cranberry growers were able to get national supply controls implemented through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Colquhoun said cranberry farm prices have declined 39 percent since 2012.

Prices have also declined for other specialty crops in the state including dry beans, carrots and vegetables for processing. Acres planted in vegetables for processing peaked in 2012 and have dropped 21 percent in the years since then. Crop value has dropped 53 percent since peaking in 2013, Colquhoun said.

The growing and processing of vegetables has declined along with per-capita vegetable consumption by U.S. consumers which has been on the decline since 1996. He commented that millennials aren’t fond of buying canned vegetables, something their parents and grandparents did routinely. “It’s a good product in an ultimately recyclable container, but it is falling out of favor,” he said.

However, he noted that 40 percent of U.S. snap bean production—grown for processing —is in Wisconsin.

As is the story in many other areas of agricultural production, yield per acre in vegetable production has increased dramatically, more than making up for the decline in planted acreage, he said.

Potatoes are one crop that has bucked the current trend of declining prices. Potato growers have increased their yields per acre, resulting in fewer harvested acres, but prices have continued to increase.

Colquhoun noted that weather data beginning in 1895 indicates that Wisconsin growers now generally have 10 to 14 days more to grow their specialty crops than they did a generation ago. “They can plant them earlier and process them later,” he said.

An oddity of climate change he noted is that in the southeastern states they now have a shorter season, which seems contrary to what we would assume to be the case.

He noted that 2018 featured a cold, wet spring for Wisconsin growers. That delayed planting and shortened the harvest time. It also affected crop quality. Wet weather in the fall—even in sand country—meant that significant amounts of carrots and potatoes were frozen in the ground because it was too wet to harvest them.

The state is still looking for its Napa Valley or its Vidalia onion, he said, referring to a region in California that is famous for wine production and a Georgia product that has become well-known as a unique, sweet onion.

Colquhoun said that there is plenty of optimism in the state around the idea of growing hemp as a specialty crop. The University of Wisconsin has made some investments in applied research in the crop, which was grown in several places in Wisconsin last year under a pilot program. “Every place I travel people are asking about it.”

Extension agents have planned local programming for farmers to learn about opportunities in growing hemp, he said. “We want to keep growers and processors aware of opportunities.”

Colquhoun said there are about 20,000 acres of cranberries in the state, 60,000 acres of potatoes and 250,000 acres of processing vegetables. It’s more difficult to come up with statistics on how many acres are under cultivation growing fresh produce for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations or with other fresh market growers. “Those numbers are harder to arrive at,” he said.

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