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October 5, 2009

Ecofriendly potatoes take hold in Wisconsin

Jim Offner
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Wisconsin’s potato industry says a little extra environmental consciousness can lead to a greener world.

And, perhaps, greener finances. The Healthy Grown Potato program, a collaborative effort of the Antigo-based Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, the World Wildlife Fund, the University of Wisconsin and various conservation organizations, is taking integrated pest management to a larger scale, its directors say.

“The markets are getting more positive about it,” said university entomologist Deana Knuteson, the program’s coordinator.

The program, which currently has 13  growers representing about 6,000 acres of production, isn’t new. It turns 13 years old this year.

Knuteson said there have been years when the program’s acreage was barely half of its current level.

But the timing appears to be right for the eco-friendly production methods that Healthy Grown offers, Knuteson said.

 “I think the sustainability movement and the interest in the marketplace for environmentally sound product has helped,” she said. “And I think it will for the longer term, as well.” There is room for further expansion among the state’s estimated 140 growers who are association members, said Knuteson, who coordinates outreach and educational programs for growers and helps them cut back on pesticide use and increase their use of IPM practices. It’s not a complicated process, she said.

“One of the requirements is that they have to work at preserving their landscapes,” Knuteson said. “By doing that, we’re looking to restoring them to what the landscape was before industrialization. It increases the biodiversity of the area.”

Healthy Grown directors have been working hard at spreading the word about getting involved, Knuteson said.

“You can go right away. There’s no transition period,” she said. “One thing we do in my program is we try to educate the growers so they can get certified right away. We have a couple of new growers this year.”

Much of being a member is focused on record keeping, she added.

“It’s data management, maintaining records and wildlife components,” she said. “If you know that and can get educated, you can get certified.”

Healthy Grown’s Web site, www.healthygrown.com, boasts that the program led to a 37% drop in overall crop protectant toxicity units in its first three years. 

The program has won numerous awards in the last several years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and various conservation groups.

In a sense, Healthy Grown has anticipated produce industry trends that place heavy emphasis on thirdparty audits and careful data management, said Duane Maatz, the WPVGA’s executive director.

“The growers are already ahead of the curve in regard to even the record keeping required,” Maatz said. “Having a third-party inspection seems to be the direction everything is going, whether you’re selling french fries to QSRs (quick-service restaurants). Healthy Grown growers have been doing it for a number of years.” 

 Healthy Grown potatoes are marketed through all of Wisconsin’s usual channels, mostly in the Midwest, Maatz said.

“Right now, it’s primarily regional,” he said. 

But that could change as the program matures and participants reap marketing benefits from Healthy Grown practices, nuteson said.

 “It’s one of those messages growers are getting,” she said.

“It’s been really helpful for Wisconsin to be able to leverage grant money from federal agencies. It’s a definite advantage. Customers like Sysco and Wal-Mart are asking for a lot of data. Growers that are certified are likely not going to have to go through all the rigmarole other growers do. The certification allows them not to have to do that.”

Participants are already seeing solid sales numbers, said Tim Feit, the association’s promotions director. 

“The potato growers were way ahead of their time 10 or 12 years ago, and right now I know some of the Healthy Grown potato growers are starting to get over that hump,” Feit said. “A couple of major retailers are interested in Healthy Grown potatoes.”

Feit added that the association has been aggressively promoting the program, and that effort is paying off.

“We’re starting to see some success with it,” he said. “We’re doing market research and developing point-of-sale materials to get that message out.” Consumer demand for the product is building, as well, Feit noted.

  “Now consumers are interested in eco-friendly produce and they’re taking notice,” he said.