One response to WI Potato & Vegetable Growers Assoc. request for rescue funds for Farming for the Future center

(Following is a response to the email sent to (some) Portage County Board supervisors in Portage County, central Wisconsin, a part of the “Central Sands Irrigated Vegetable Growing” zone. The request letter is posted below the response, at bottom.
Dear Mr. Houlihan:

As your request posed to our County Board is likely to come before committee and full board, I thought it important to pose a different narrative to the “metanarrative” that the Farming for the Future Foundation, tied to the large-scale agribusinesses of our County, is likely to be crafting for presentation to our residents.

This is especially timely at this moment when we consider whether Portage County can *ever* be freed of groundwater contamination with chemical nitrates (fossil nitrates let’s say) given the current mode of production in the “production agriculture industry”. As you well know, this County is one of the state’s true “hot spots” for nitrate contamination in the groundwater, as water specialist McNelley’s presentation to the County Board in October clearly revealed in bright red colors set against other “green” areas without the contamination.

For large-scale agribusiness, there is a much more worrisome problem on the horizon than citizen activism over the nitrates problem. That problem is the matter of petroleum and natural gas as “critical raw materials” laid-out in extreme detail by the Geological Survey of Finland in their late-2019 report “Oil from a Critical Raw Material Perspective” (Michaux, Simon, Dec. 2019, 512 pages).

If you’ve followed the energy sector in the literature as I have for the past 22 years, you may recognize that the “limits to growth” problem has been reached with these natural resources, and this poses a problem for growth (or even maintenance of current levels of production) in “production agriculture.” What is often called “industrial agriculture” is hyper-dependent on the “fossil” hydrocarbons, petroleum and natural gas–from field prep to planting season to weed-control, to harvest, to grain drying and diesel-fueled transport of raw material crops to the “processors, transportation, equipment companies, farm supply businesses and more” mentioned in your ask-letter to County Board.

The commodity-investment consultants Goehring and Rozencwagj released an article “The global Natural Gas Crisis is coming to North America” and-depending on how this crisis unfolds–this will impact greatly upon production or “industrial agriculture.” Natural gas is a critical raw material in the making of chemical nitrates which are used in this high-production agriculture.

Likewise, the developing global spotty diesel-fuel shortages should be a warning signal to industries such as large-scale or “industrial” agriculture that are highly dependent on this refinery product derived from higher-quality, heavier petroleum resources. A resource rarely found in fracked shale in the USA.

These are the natural-resources constraints imposing on the matter of “sustainability” of agriculture. Next you should consider the man-made constraints imposing on the sustainability question.

In the James & Lahti book “The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices” we learn of two of the four “system conditions” which are required to not be violated in order to consider a process/industry/community as “sustainable.”

Of these it seems that “production agriculture” is in ongoing violation of conditions 2 and 3:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

2. concentrations of substances produced by society

3. degradation by physical means

The concentration of nitrates in the groundwater, and off-gassing of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, from massive fossil-fuels combustion, is exactly a “concentration of substances produced by society.”

Likewise, the degradation of soils by “physical means”–extreme tillage as seen in the bare fields of the Central Sands Irrigated Vegetable Zone from post-harvest until spring sowing, leads to off-gassing of carbon dioxide owing to the degradation/oxidation of organic matter in the soil of our region. Fields east of the Wisconsin River generally have very low organic matter counts, contrary to those west of the river, which tend to have more grazed land with less extreme tillage and heavier, clay soils to prevent nitrate percolation as well.

The problem of concentration of nitrates is not going away any time soon, in the Central Sands region.

Among the prime concepts in “regenerative” agriculture is the re-carbonization of the soils, retention of carbon in the root-zones of plants being grown in this agricultural method. Even the organic growers, who tend to favor “clean tillage” because they avoid all herbicide usage, need to discover this relatively new wrinkle in “clean agriculture.”

I agree strongly with your points when you write “The Food + Farm Exploration Center will be a unique destination clearly visible from the I39 corridor… This area presents a growing opportunity to attract tourists and families seeking recreational/educational opportunities. Additionally, it will provide an attractive venue for meetings, conventions, and trade shows which often look to our central Wisconsin location as a convenient gathering spot.” And your paragraph saying “It’s hard to imagine a project that would better celebrate one of Portage County’s primary economic drivers…” Except that I would say “agriculture.”

Here in Portage County we have the Farmshed organization, in which I participated in the early founding discussions. Numerous local small-scale growers belong to a number of organic growers’ associations and would have a great deal to contribute in workshops that could be held at your Center. Likewise, the residents in the Nelsonville area who are struggling with high numbers of wells contaminated with nitrates, have developed an interest in regenerative agriculture as an alternative to their current predicament.

In conclusion, I will say while it seems likely you will get the SLFRF funds you request of the County, it will be crucial going forward that the Food and Farm Exploration Center would fully explore all the risk situations that you will face in the very near future. You could do this by including ALL the participants in local agriculture, from the most giant agribusiness dynasties to the small family growers found at our local Farmers’ Markets. After all, these are “Rescue Funds” you are seeking, and the need for “rescue” in our economy from this point on, will be an ongoing need with no end in sight.

Yours Truly,
Bob Gifford
Portage County Board, District 10

Sources I consult for this reply:

Richard Heinberg et al., Post-Carbon Institute,
Simon Michaux, Geological Survey of Finland, “Oil from a Critical Raw Material Perspective,”
Nathen Hagens at
Goehring and Rozenzwagj
Ron Patterson site,


Dear Portage County Board Members:

Hi, it’s Tamas Houlihan, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association. I am contacting you today to ask for your support of the SLFRF request ($999,999) for funding to support Farming for the Future Foundation’s construction of the Food + Farm Exploration Center in Plover.
I live at 1629 Casimir Road in Stevens Point, and the majority of the WPVGA members reside in Portage County. The WPVGA is a strong supporter of the Farming for the Future Foundation and we feel there are many good reasons for the Portage County Board to approve funding for this outstanding project.

The Food + Farm Exploration Center will be a unique destination clearly visible from the I39 corridor. It will be adjacent to Lake Pacawa Park and other complementary projects that already exist or are or in the planning process. This area presents a growing opportunity to attract tourists and families seeking recreational/educational opportunities. Additionally, it will provide an attractive venue for meetings, conventions, and trade shows which often look to our central Wisconsin location as a convenient gathering spot.

In its first year of operation, the Center is expected to attract over 100,000 visitors. These visitors will utilize local hotels, businesses, restaurants, and other community attractions. All industries that were negatively impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s hard to imagine a project that would better celebrate one of Portage County’s primary economic drivers, the production agriculture industry. This includes our rich tradition of multi-generation family farms but also processors, transportation, equipment companies, farm supply businesses and more.
Educational and workforce development programs like those offered through the Center and in school districts across the state, will be essential to prepare the next generation agricultural workforce. Portage County depends on a healthy agriculture industry and the Center will play a tangible role in helping meet the challenges of the future. An investment in education is one of the best a community can make with proven positive impact such as lower levels of crime and poverty. Education creates higher living standards and establishes life-long opportunities for residents.

Funding through the SLFRF program will complement the impressive private funding that has already been raised for the Center and demonstrate the county’s willingness to partner on a project that will have a significant, county-wide economic benefit. Through grower and industry donations, we’ve already raised over $26 million toward the Center, but we need an additional $12 million to meet our goal. The Foundation will not require additional capital investment once established as it will be self-sustaining and provide tax revenue for the county government for many years to come (i.e. room tax revenue, sales tax, property tax, etc.)

As the leader of the WPVGA, this project is the best venture I’ve seen in over 35 years of work for the state’s potato and vegetable industry. It will be a huge benefit to all of Portage County. We look forward to Portage County joining us in support of this important community project.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to talk more about the project. I can be reached at 715-551-0775. I hope the Portage County Board gives this request its strongest consideration.