Wisconsin farmers are struggling. Four main commodity crops dominate the agricultural industry today: dairy, beef, corn, and soy. Increased production efficiencies and rising input costs for these crops have led to shrinking margins. As a result, small to mid-sized farms with higher costs of production are struggling. Nowhere is this more evident than in the dairy sector, where more than 40% of dairies have been lost in the last decade. Dependence on just a few crops makes Wisconsin agriculture highly susceptible to changes in international markets or other disruptions. Furthermore, each of the four products have significant environmental issues with no easy solutions.
Crop diversification offers opportunities to address both the economic and environmental challenges facing agriculture in Wisconsin. New crops, in particular, offer high-value income opportunities for farmers and processors. Income from these crops stays in local and regional economies more so than commodity crops, benefitting rural communities. Perennial crops and continuous living cover cropping systems, such as perennial grains and winter oilseeds, offer solutions to persistent soil and water quality problems. More diversity on the agricultural landscape provides greater resiliency in the face of extreme weather and climate uncertainty.
The Emerging Crops Accelerator exists to enable farmers to take the steps they want to improve their farm’s impact on the landscape and local communities. The interest and grassroots energy are already present. Farmers are eager to learn about alternatives to commodity crops. What is lacking is the support structure to help them mitigate risk and develop markets for their products. The Emerging Crops Accelerator aims to provide this support through the germplasm development, agronomic research, and market and supply chain development needed to empower growers to incorporate these crops.
The Emerging Crops Accelerator is a collaboration of UW-Madison faculty and extension educators from around the state convened in 2021 to support new crop development. Team members are engaged in many aspects of new crop development, from research to outreach, education, and supply chain development. The team is working to recruit the army of people it will take to commercialize all aspects of each crop and building coalitions with farmers, entrepreneurs, non-profits, private companies, grower associations, and other stakeholders who share an interest in new crops. Doing this work will not be easy, but we are laying the foundation and securing the funding necessary to carry on this work long-term.
Oversupply is Causing Economic Contraction in Rural Areas
Agriculture is the backbone of rural Wisconsin, but is facing unprecedented challenges. Our farmers and agricultural professionals have become so good and so efficient that we now have too much supply of many of Wisconsin’s most important crops, resulting in stagnated or declining prices and a consequent loss of farms and jobs. New options are desperately needed.
Today's Eaters Are Looking For New and Healthier Ingredients
Today’s consumers are increasingly picky eaters looking for foods with new and healthy ingredients. In response, the average number of SKUs in grocery stores has increased from 7000 in the 1990s to more than 47,000 today. Yet, Wisconsin agriculture continues to be dominated by just 4 main crops with dairy, beef, corn, and soy accounting for 83% of annual farm gate sales. Keeping up with consumers and ensuring future vitality of Wisconsin agriculture requires a new investment in diversification.
Rising Input Costs Are Outpacing Farm Revenues
Our main cropping systems are input-intensive and the costs of those inputs continue to rise even as crop prices fluctuate widely. The result is lost income, bankruptcies, and rural decline. Lower input and higher-margin crops are needed to improve long-term profit margins and restore stability to Wisconsin farms, large and small.
A New Approach Is Needed To Solve Our Persistent Water Quality Problems
Tweaking our annual cropping systems isn’t working to meet water quality goals and a new approach is needed. Continuous living cover provided by a new suite of winter annual and perennial crops can deliver clean water AND economic vitality for farmers.