MADISON — While UW-Madison professor Jed Colquhoun recognizes and appreciates Wisconsin’s focus on America’s Dairyland, he also thinks there is another agricultural area in the state’s portfolio that’s worth noting.
“Specialty crops can add diversity in the long-term strength that really balances our outlook for agriculture,” he said during his presentation at the Wisconsin Agricultural Outlook Forum held in late January on the UW-Madison campus.
Not only do specialty crops add value in a farmer’s rotation, but more importantly, they add value in processing, packaging and distribution, contributing to Wisconsin’s economy. However, not unlike other agricultural sectors in the state, specialty crops have also been fighting the trends, which have led to challenging times as consumption decreases while production continues to increase.
Cranberries remain “an absolutely wonderful, historic strength in Wisconsin agriculture,” Colquhoun said. Wisconsin produces about 60 percent of the nation’s cranberries. Globally, the state remains the top leader in production.
However, he’s seeing an increase in acreage and a decrease in farm price in the majority of the nation’s cranberries, with Wisconsin’s farm price per barrel for cranberries down 39 percent since 2012. Colquhoun said this is not only because of the decrease in consumption of many cranberry products, but globally, there continue to be increases in acreage and production as others learn how to produce cranberries.
“It’s the worst of both situations,” he said.
Processing vegetables, like sweet corn, snap beans, green peas, carrots and cucumbers, are “in a similar conundrum,” he added, with Wisconsin’s planted acres down 21 percent since their peak in 2012.
“Crop value is also down, alarmingly by 53 percent since a peak in 2013,” he said.
This is partly due to a decrease in consumption, which has been recorded since 1996. Even with pushes from nutritionists about the benefits of incorporating vegetables into a healthy and balanced diet, a decrease in consumption can be seen across all types of vegetables, from fresh to canned to frozen.
A particular example Colquhoun shared was with canned snap bean consumption. Wisconsin supplies 40 percent of the nation’s snap bean crop.
“We’ve seen a drastic decrease from about 4½ pounds (annually) in 1970 down to just about 3 pounds (annually) in 2016,” he said, adding that with decreased consumption comes decreased farm prices.
Some of this issue can be traced back to efficiencies and gains that have been made in production, similar to other agricultural sectors in Wisconsin and across the nation. Based on genetics and better management, “we’ve almost become too efficient in some cases,” Colquhoun said, finding ourselves with an oversupply that also matches with a reduced or stagnant consumption.
“Our production (of snap beans) over the past 30 years has increased from an average of 3 tons per acre up to above 5 tons per acre in 2015,” he added. “That’s a significant increase in a very short time period.”
For Wisconsin potatoes, Colquhoun has seen fewer harvested acres over the past few years, but with production down, the price has continued to increase. He warned that this might not be the case moving forward as the price tends to balance out, but it has “been a shining light” as the volume has been controlled to allow the price to stabilize a bit.
But even as consumption decreases, Colquhoun is quick to add that consumers aren’t the only variability that presents risk and opportunities. Specialty crop farmers, and farmers in general, are seeing a change in the length of growing seasons, with Wisconsin farmers planning on the season being 10 to 14 days longer than the growing seasons of a generation past. This allows them to plant earlier and harvest later, which could translate into an opportunity for farmers.
However, 2018 was an anomaly in that as cold, wet weather delayed planting, shortened harvesting time and affected crop quality in many areas throughout the state, he said.
Labor is also becoming an increasing issue. Over the past 100 years or so, those involved with agricultural employment in the U.S. dropped from about 35 percent of the population to 1 to 2 percent of the population.
“And those in the specialty crops require a lot of labor and that’s becoming an issue that we’ve heard about in dairy and other agricultural sectors,” Colquhoun said.
There has also been a decrease in economic activity stemming from production and processing of specialty crops in Wisconsin; the number of jobs has decreased along with it, with a 24 percent decrease in production jobs and 32 percent decrease in processing jobs, for a total 29 percent decrease in the specialty crop industry in Wisconsin.
“So while they’ve been part of the rural glue and have historically been strong contributors to that portfolio, right now we find ourself in a depressed situation in the specialty crop production also,” he said.
But innovation is one advantage farmers have in Wisconsin, and it’s why the state has enjoyed a diverse specialty crop portfolio, Colquhoun said.
Hemp production in Wisconsin has been a great example of the innovation that Wisconsin farmers have. Colquhoun has seen market developments in grain, seed, CBD oil and fiber, with growing interest in adding more producers and processors for Wisconsin’s hemp crop.
Wisconsin also has a transportation advantage, with access to railways that carry the state’s products across the country. Our geography also poses an opportunity to Wisconsin as there are 34 million people to feed in the Great Lakes Basin, with more than 20 million people within 200 miles of Wisconsin alone.
“If local is an interest to consumers, we’re at that table and we have a strength and opportunity there,” Colquhoun said.
There is also a Specialty Crop Task Force that has been created to continue to study ways to strengthen Wisconsin’s specialty crop sector, asking questions about what farmers are growing, how they are growing it and if there are opportunities in marketing and the creation of new products.
“I have optimism that we’ll continue to diversify and continue to have a strong specialty crop sector, but it may change what we produce, how we produce it, and that’s an opportunity where we can build on the innovation we’ve had historically in Wisconsin,” Colquhoun said.