Increasing Crop Diversity in Wisconsin through the Emerging Crops Coalition
One of the perks of our jobs as statewide UW-Extension Outreach Specialists is traveling throughout the state, and not just on the freeways, but on the backroads and through the small towns. We all perceive the world around us in different ways, but we like to view it from the perspective of natural history, kind of like John McPhee and James Michener do in their great novels. When we approach a small town, we like to envision what the landscape looked like 150 years ago and think about why that town is there and why it is still there. Instead of hiding in hotels, we like to camp in the state parks to see the biological diversity in our natural ecosystems. Viewed from this perspective of a natural historian, our agricultural landscape is a cause of great frustration. Sure, it’s easy to get frustrated by the negative impacts of our consolidated monocultures, such as empty main streets and sullied rivers, but for us the frustration is more about lost opportunities. How many different crops and industries could there be in the Upper Midwest and what benefits would greater diversity and opportunity bring to our economy and environment? This isn’t to criticize corn and soybeans, exactly the opposite actually. Both are amazing plants and great examples of the opportunities the plant kingdom has to offer. Viewed from the long arc of history, is this the best we can do? Is this what our agricultural landscape was meant to look like or is it a product of happenstance? If we stepped back and tried it again, what would it look like? What if we made some changes? This unrealized opportunity is what fires us up and what has led to launch of the new WI Emerging Crops Coalition.
The Challenge of New Crop Development
The work of developing new crops and scaling them up on the landscape is enormously challenging and complex. At the crux of the issue is what is commonly referred to as the chicken or the egg problem: farmers won’t grow a new crop unless there is a market for it, but markets can’t be established until there is a crop or product to sell. There is also the problem of the fly wheel. Existing crops are hugely important to many people, and rightfully so, public and private spending is prioritized to support those crops. But, the inertia of that spending fly wheel makes it very challenging to invest in new unproven crops with uncertain markets. We shouldn’t be surprised then, that 85% of farm gates sales in 2021 were from dairy, soy, corn, and beef. The only way to overcome the inertia of the fly wheel and the dilemma of the chicken or the egg is through sustained interdisciplinary collaboration among a diversity of partners. Despite the challenges inherent to new crop development, we do have two very good examples of what happens when we explore the plant kingdom and make a concerted effort to build a new crop and industry: cranberries and ginseng. Why not do the same with ten other plants?
To that end, in the spring of 2021, we convened an advisory group of emerging crops growers and stakeholders from around Wisconsin to identify specific action steps necessary for supporting new crop development. This work led to the creation of the UW Emerging Crops Accelerator, a program at the University of Wisconsin that brings together faculty and staff engaged in research and development of emerging crops (for more information on the Accelerator, visit www.emergingcropswi.org). It also produced a white paper outlining the steps necessary to achieve a goal of 10 new crops on 20,000 acres by 2030, called the 10-20-30 Initiative. Additionally, the advisory group recommended forming a WI Emerging Crops Coalition of mission-aligned partners to facilitate the cross-sector collaboration needed to support new crop development.
Members of the WI Emerging Crops Coalition first came together in March 2023 representing 20 organizations including nonprofits, producer associations, environmental groups, and private industry working throughout the state and broader region on issues related to emerging crops. Many of these organizations are grassroots, membership-based organizations with extensive input and engagement from farmers and other stakeholders that they represent. Their support for new crop development comes from diverse interests, including environmental sustainability, economic opportunity, health and nutrition, and rural revitalization. Members bring a diverse array of skill sets needed to move this work forward, including political advocacy, agronomy, marketing, value chain coordination, and coalition building.
The WI Emerging Crops Coalition builds the capacity to undertake the complex and dynamic work of developing and scaling new crops on the landscape through four main objectives: 1) To serve as a communication and coordination mechanism for organizations working to develop and support new and emerging crops in Wisconsin; 2) To advocate for state and federal policies that advance the development of new and emerging crops in Wisconsin; 3) To develop public and private funding sources to support development of new and emerging crops in Wisconsin; and 4) To provide advice and guidance to the research and development programs of the University of Wisconsin’s Emerging Crops Accelerator.
The UW Emerging Crops Accelerator currently has a portfolio of about 15 emerging crops grouped into five main categories:
Bringing The $42 Billion Nut Economy to Wisconsin With Hazelnuts: It’s ironic that Wisconsin has never participated in the lucrative global nut economy despite hazelnuts growing wild on hundreds of thousands of acres in the state. That will soon change, though, as breeders get closer to releasing improved hazelnut varieties optimized for Wisconsin production. Walnuts, chestnuts, and hickory also have untapped potential.
A New Day For Old Crops: Hops, hemp, and malting barley were once an important part of Wisconsin agriculture. With a concerted effort in breeding and modern production systems Wisconsin farmers can once again grow these crops and supply downstream processors and end-users. Growing demand for specialty grains is fueling interest in food-grade varieties of naked barley, wheat, and oats.
Bringing Superfoods to Health-Conscious Consumers: Food as medicine is a concept front and center for today’s eaters. Packed with health benefits, cranberries have led the way in this space, but other berries native to Wisconsin are also loaded with anti-oxidants and other health benefits. Aronia berries, currants, haskaps, and elderberries all have potential to be the next cranberry.
Solving Water Quality Problems With New Crops: Continuous living cover represents a new approach to agricultural conservation where surface and water quality are protected WITH agriculture instead of FROM agriculture. Winter annual oil-seed plants such as pennycress and camelina make cover cropping a more viable option. Perennial grains such as Kernza protect the soil year-round and require fewer inputs.
Today's Crazy Idea Could Be Tomorrow's Next Big Thing: What other new crops can bring new opportunities and vitality to Wisconsin agriculture? We won’t know if we don’t try. Will it be ancient grains such as quinoa, millet, teff, or amaranth? Will it be new legumes such as Illinois bundleflower, Bambara groundnut, or lupini?
One of the primary objectives of the Coalition is to develop a roadmap for the development and commercialization of each crop in the Accelerator’s portfolio. These roadmaps will include a needs assessment identifying key challenges and bottlenecks that stand in the way of expanding production, as well as opportunities and assets that will facilitate the scaling of individual crops or groups of crops. They will help inform the research and development work of the Accelerator in terms of plant breeding, agronomics, engineering, product development, marketing, and consumer education, and help chart a path forward for achieving the goal of the 10-20-30 Initiative.
These roadmaps will be part of a larger effort by the Coalition to develop a comprehensive WI Emerging Crops Strategic Plan. The strategic plan will help focus the efforts of the Coalition around priority areas, such as developing brand and marketing strategies for emerging crop products, planning outreach and education events, and policy platforms. It will help shape working groups and advisory groups to provide feedback on research and development and commercialization efforts. The plan will also outline specific action steps for given crops and steps common to all crops, such as creating a state-funded grant program to fund germplasm improvement or other development activities. The strategic plan will be completed by fall 2024 and made available to stakeholders and the public.
The WI Emerging Crops Coalition is a much-needed collaboration to drive the development of new and emerging crops forward. The work and priorities of this new coalition will ultimately be shaped by its members over the coming months and years, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that none of us can do it alone. We know the work is difficult and requires long-term commitment, but we can draw inspiration and insight from the success of similar coalitions such as the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative. The issues related to our predominant cropping systems demand an urgency and all-hands-on-deck approach to restoring agricultural diversity that provides greater economic opportunity, resilience, and environmental sustainability for Wisconsin.
*We are currently working to expand membership in the Coalition. Membership is open to any organization and entity working in Wisconsin to develop new crops and agricultural industries, improve soil and water quality with new crops and cropping systems, and/or protect and enhance the economic vitality and resilience of Wisconsin’s agricultural economy. Please reach out with any questions or interest.
Want to Learn More?
Consider attending one of our emerging crops field days. Check out the website for a full listing: https://www.emergingcropswi.org/fielddayseries2023.html.
Issue: Jul 2023
By: Jason Fischbach and Steffen Mirsky