Small Grower Uses Potatoes to Promote Enviromentally Friendly Ag

Published online: May 14, 2018 Articles Jim Dayton
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Source: Gazette Xtra

Scott Johnson’s farming setup differs from most farmers in southern Wisconsin.

He doesn’t have a shiny John Deere tractor.

He doesn’t have expansive rows of corn or soybeans that roll toward the horizon.

Instead, he runs a homestead operation in his historic home’s backyard in Cooksville, an unincorporated hamlet between Evansville and Edgerton.

Johnson is playing a small but important role in local agriculture. He received a grant of more than $13,000 from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program’s regional office for a project focused on small-scale potato farming.

This year, the USDA-funded organization awarded 42 grants totaling $515,000 across its 12-state region, said regional spokeswoman Marie Flanagan.

She defined sustainable agriculture as something that is profitable and environmentally conscious. It’s important to get grant dollars into the hands of farmers so they can try out new strategies on their own, she said.

“They’re the folks on the ground doing the work every day. They know the soil; they know their weather conditions; they know their market,” Flanagan said. “When it comes to research, the more research that can happen on the farm level, the more sustainable that farm will be in the long run.”

Using the grant, Johnson and nine other farmers through southern Wisconsin will test five potato-growing methods to see which is the most cost- and time-efficient.

Johnson wants his study to bring “scientific rigor” to local potato gardens.

“Nowadays, you can find information about growing anything online, which is great,” he said. “But very little of it is scientifically based. It’s almost all anecdotal.

“I’m hoping to bring some definitive data to show or suggest that one way of growing potatoes is more yield per input than another.”

Johnson tried to blend traditional growing strategies with ones popularized on the internet.

Those range from planting potatoes in trenches, as farmers have done for centuries, to planting potatoes in boxes or recycled grain bags from breweries.

One method uses old newspapers as a cover to stifle weeds. Who says print is dead?

The other farmers working on the study are all professional market growers.

After buying inputs, most of the grant money will pay the other participants as an incentive in case a method backfires and causes a poor crop, Johnson said.

Potatoes aren’t a common commodity in the area. Wisconsin ranks fourth in the country for potato acres planted, and most of that acreage is located in the central and northeastern parts of the state.

But the USDA hasn’t kept spud stats in Rock County since 1986. A mere 30 acres of potatoes were planted here that year.

Johnson suspected there could be a way to mechanize one of his small-scale methods and use it to mass-produce potatoes. But that was not his expertise; he was more comfortable growing food at the community garden level, he said.

Besides potatoes, Johnson grows berries, spinach and other produce in his yard. He raises bees and harvests eggs from chickens named after celebrities who met untimely deaths, such as Janis Joplin and Prince.

He also operates a nonprofit out of his home—the Low Technology Institute—which offers a variety of do-it-yourself workshops. Johnson’s goal with his garden and nonprofit is to use self-sufficiency to reduce fossil fuel consumption within the food system.

Fossil fuels are part of the entire food supply chain. Fertilizers are made in factories powered by fossil fuels. Food is planted, harvested, processed and cooked using machinery that runs on fossil fuels, he said.

When fossil fuels run out, people must find a way to take care of themselves, he said.

“We really need to be looking into the deep future,” Johnson said.

“I think of the past 10,000 years since we started agriculture. We need to think long term what’s going to work.

“In 100 years, how will people still be growing enough food to feed themselves without fossil fuel inputs?”