Networking opportunities, business management strategies and educational programs in varied disciplines were presented at the recent Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Wisconsin Dells, WI.

Attendees could participate in seven specifically focused programs offered in Apple, Vegetable, Business Strategies/Tourism, Christmas Tree, Berry, Grape and Winery categories. Besides educators from multiple departments of the University of Wisconsin (UW) Madison and the UW Extension Service, speakers hailed from Cornell University, the University of Illinois, Michigan State, the University of Minnesota and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

The event’s trade show included more than 50 vendors offering the latest technology, production and packaging equipment for vegetable, berry and Christmas tree farms as well as vineyards, greenhouses and orchards. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency, National Agriculture Statistics Service and Risk Management Agency and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection staffed information booths as well.

Key industry experts were also on hand to cover both marketing and general business topics during the conference and trade show that attracted 680 attendees from four states. In addition, seven Wisconsin agriculture association annual meetings were part of the
three-day event hosted by the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association.

The Nitrogen Cycle

Two speakers from the educational program series focused on the importance of soil health and the impact of nitrogen transfer in vegetable farming. Guolong Liang, a UW water quality Extension specialist, kicked off the vegetable speaker track with his topic: applied nitrogen and vegetable farms. Despite today’s market showing both the high demand and higher pricing of nitrogen, vegetable crops need high nitrogen input to sustain yield.

Guolong Liang, a UW water quality Extension specialist, spoke about applied nitrogen and vegetable farms. Photos by Gail March Yerke

Liang began by explaining the basic nitrogen cycle and how our ecosystem is a constant balance of what goes in and what goes out – the relationship between inputs, outputs and nutrient storage. For example, when the last autumn crop has been harvested, the after-harvest residue contributes an abundant amount of nitrogen to the soil. Add manure compost, and together these inputs add organic nitrogen into the soil over winter. Other sources include nitrogen gas in the atmosphere and commercial fertilization.

Yet another source often overlooked in cropping systems is the additional nitrogen available in irrigation. “A lot of vegetable farms use irrigation systems that pump groundwater for their irrigation source,” he said. He explained how the groundwater’s high nitrate concentration in some Wisconsin locations can also reflect on the health of crops grown there. Testing groundwater wells throughout the growing season can monitor what additional nitrogen is being made available to irrigated crops. This is easily done with simple water test strips much like those used for swimming pools.

Overall Soil Health on the Farm

Jamie Patton, an outreach specialist with the UW Madison Nutrient and Pest Management Program, does both research and outreach activities that focus on farm system approaches to benefit soil health. Patton presented “Good Practices to Improve Soil Health” with a focus on functionality of your farm’s soil.

“Not all soils are created equally and you need to know what your soil is capable of,” she stated. “I want to know is that soil doing what it is supposed to be doing? What is your soil capable of today and where do you want it to go?”

While soil and pH tests are important, it’s even more important to understand the overall quality of the soil. She challenged the audience to have a soil plan that stresses “intentionality.” It’s important to not only know what you are doing, but also why you are doing it.

Soil Compaction

In her UW contacts with farmers in Northeast Wisconsin, Patton shared that soil compaction is one of the biggest problems she encounters. “That one pass you made through the field when the soil was too wet is going to haunt you for the next decade or two. If you can see your footprints, it’s too wet,” she warned. “Some farmers think they are growing in the Arctic Circle and only have a three-day growing season,” she bantered. “You can wait a bit.”

A study by Penn State has shown that once soil is compacted below about eight inches, compaction remains up to 20 years. “This is after using cover crops,” she emphasized. “Even after using biologic processes, compaction is still there.”

The trade show included something for every type of grower, including those who raise and harvest Christmas trees.

Cover Crops

Another recommendation from Patton is the careful selection of cover crops and incorporation of no-till planting when possible. The word “intentionality” was referred to once again, as she explained how cover crops should be chosen for the right reason.

For example, root systems on cover crops can vary from one to 60 inches, and their benefits can vary. Buckwheat was one cover crop highlighted that is not tilled under in spring and left in place for weed suppression.

While some are grown to help bring organic material to the soil, others can aid in erosion control or even help break up compacted soils. Unfortunately, some fields have soil so beyond repair that they have a poor return on investment for any crops grown there. That is when Patton suggests putting those areas into permanent vegetation for erosion control and the support of pollinators and beneficial insects.

Like Patton said, “Not all soils are created equal.” Whether it’s waiting for your field to dry out for spring plowing, opting to test for nitrogen in the groundwater you use for irrigation, deciding on where to go no-till or choosing the best cover crops for different fields, it’s all important to your farm’s soil health.

by Gail March Yerke