“High tech” is a phrase not usually uttered in a sentence discussing farms, but moving U.S. farming forward in the 21st century is the precise role University of Wisconsin Farm Research Stations play.
Run by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the stations and other on and off-campus farm research sites provide the resources and land for UW researchers to get their hands dirty and make discoveries, according to CALS Associate Dean Margaret Dentine.
Thirteen Agricultural Experiment Stations spread across Wisconsin, but according to Dentine, these centers are just an icicle-thin tip of UW’s agricultural research iceberg at the university.
“Many of our programs are multidisciplinary and integrate with departments across campus,” Dentine said. “Research runs the gamut from transgenic research with commodities to research in organic farming.”
In the changing landscape of Wisconsin’s farm economy, research stations are used to test new ideas that can eventually translate into profitability, said Ed Jesse, a UW professor of agricultural and applied economics.
“There is a notion … that the number of small Wisconsin farms is disappearing — simply not true,” Jesse said. “The number has actually stabilized over the past few years.”
As agriculture becomes a less conspicuous economic engine in Wisconsin, the force of agricultural research at UW and research institutions with similar roots may go unnoticed but remains vital, Jesse added.
Although a large part of Wisconsin farming centers around dairy production, UW research station projects involve crop and animal cultivation, Dentine said.
She said indoor programs such as UW’s greenhouse on Babcock Drive also support outdoor programs such as research stations. Facilities like the greenhouse are used for off-season growing, agronomy projects and research on fruits from warmer regions.
Dentine said UW research stations emerged from the university’s history as an agricultural land grant institution.
Most UW agriculture research was on campus a century ago, she said. As the campus has grown, the research stations have moved.
Buttressed by suburban sprawl, the West Side Research Station on Mineral Point and Pleasantview roads serves UW researchers with 527 acres of soil that, according to Superintendent Thomas H. Wright, is always changing in composition to fulfill the needs of individual research.
“A part of the plot is used to grow alfalfa for the dairy herd on the campus,” Wright said. “Otherwise, we have a lot of field-breeding trials for sweet corn, carrots and other labor intensive crops that go directly to consumer.”
A section of the West Side station is also dedicated to research of natural turf used in sports stadiums.
Wright said his job is to prepare the soil before research projects begin.
“Sometimes the soil preparation can take a few years because the researcher wants to see how a crop will grow after rotation of another crop,” he said.
In a local environment with concern for over-development on the West Side of Madison, Wright said he feels his station stakes a claim for open space.
“People are always asking me when this place is going to turn into a bunch of town homes,” Wright said. “‘No time soon,’ I tell them.”