In Wisconsin, agriculture matters. The state’s farms and allied agricultural businesses generated $88.3 billion in economic activity and created 413,500 jobs in 2012. That’s the most recent data available, presented in a study released in 2014 by professor Steve Deller of UW-Madison’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
Although one may traditionally think of Wisconsin as the “Dairy State,” the agriculture sector is becoming more diversified, Deller points out. He says the beef industry, vegetables, breweries and more specialized activities like hops, grapes and wineries are growing in size and importance.
Cutting-edge research keeps Wisconsin ag strong
A major component in keeping Wisconsin an agriculture powerhouse is a research support system that ensures a quality food product, improved cultivation methods, cutting-edge growing and harvesting techniques and perfected breeding.
Financial support has come from numerous sources. According to CALS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture contributed $19.8 million for projects in 2014, with another $26.6 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, $22 million from the National Institutes of Health and $7.5 million from the National Science Foundation. In addition, $22.8 million came from non-federal sources, including industry groups, nonprofits and state and local governments.
This aid has beefed up endeavors like Wisconsin’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program, administered by the state with funds from the USDA. For additional agricultural support, as a land grant university, UW-Madison is home to the federal agricultural experiment station in Wisconsin.
Faculty, farmers are active partners
CALS faculty and staff are committed to research that promotes opportunities in food and agriculture, emphasizes Heidi Zoerb, CALS’ assistant dean for external relations and advancement. Farmers are a big part of that effort.
“Farmers are our active partners,” she said. “They pose problems for scientists to tackle, plus host research projects directly on their farms.”
Ben Brancel, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, agrees. “There has long been an understanding that farms need modern and current research.
“Research today also addresses issues that are of public concern. As the public becomes more removed from the farm, they have less understanding of food production,” Brancel suggests.
For him, research provides evidence and answers about improving and evaluating what happens on the farming landscape.
Tackling these contemporary issues attracts students throughout the state’s higher education system. Currently, 4,420 graduate and undergraduate students are enrolled in CALS, a record high. Throughout the entire UW System – including Platteville, River Falls, Green Bay, Superior and Whitewater, as well as private institutions – enrollment is high in animal science, agribusiness, environmental horticulture, reclamation, resources management, aquatic biology and related study areas.
“Providing safe and healthy food for everyone, developing sustainable energy sources and coping with changes in climate are some of the pressing global concerns that will influence future CALS research,” reiterates Kate VandenBosch, CALS dean.