The future of biofuels, unzipped

John Ralph PhD’82 talks with the easy, garrulous rhythms of his native New Zealand, and often seems amiably close to the edge of laughter.

So he was inclined toward amusement last year when he discovered that some portion of the Internet had misunderstood his latest research. Ralph—a CALS biochemist with joint appointments in biochemistry and biological systems engineering—had just unveiled a way to tweak the lignin that helps give plants their backbone. A kind of a natural plastic or binder, lignin gets in the way of some industrial processes, and Ralph’s team had cracked a complicated puzzle of genetics and chemistry to address the problem. They call it zip-lignin, because the modified lignin comes apart—roughly—like a zipper.


Unraveling the mysteries of lignin: John Ralph standing before a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, a sophisticated tool of his trade. Photo by Matthew Wisniewski/Wisconsin Energy Institute.

One writer at an influential publication called it “self-destructing” lignin. Not a bad turn of phrase—but not exactly accurate, either. For a geeky science story the news spread far, and by the time it had spread across the Internet, a random blogger could be found complaining about the dangers of walking through forests full of detonating trees.

Turning the misunderstanding into a teachable moment, Ralph went image surfing, and his standard KeyNote talk now contains a picture of a man puzzling over the shattered remains of a tree. “Oh noooo!” the caption reads. “I’ll be peacefully walking in a national park and these dang GM trees are going to be exploding all around me!”

That’s obviously a crazy scenario. But if the technology works as Ralph predicts, the potential changes to biofuels and paper production could rewrite the economics of these industries, and in the process lead to an entirely new natural chemical sector.

“When we talk to people in the biofuels industry, what we are hearing is that creating value from lignin could be game-changing,” says Timothy Donohue, a CALS professor of bacteriology and director of the UW–Madison-based Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, where Ralph has a lab. “It could be catalytic.”

After cellulose, lignin is the most abundant organic compound on the planet. Lignin surrounds and shapes our entire lives. Most of us have no idea—yet we are the constant beneficiaries of its strength and binding power.

When plants are growing, it’s the stiffening of the cell wall that creates their visible architecture. Carbohydrate polymers—primarily cellulose and hemicelluloses—and a small amount of protein make up a sort of scaffolding for the construction of plant cell walls. And lignin is the glue, surrounding and encasing this fibrous matrix with a durable and water-resistant polymer—almost like plastic. Some liken lignin to the resin in fiberglass.

Without lignin, the pine cannot soar into the sky, and the woody herb soon succumbs to rot. Found primarily in land plants, a form of lignin has been identified in seaweed, suggesting deep evolutionary origins as much as a billion years ago.

“Lignin is a funny thing,” says Ralph, who was first introduced to lignin chemistry as a young student during a holiday internship at New Zealand’s Forest Research Institute. “People who get into it for a little bit end up staying there the rest of their lives.”

The fascination is born, in part, from its unique chemistry. Enzymes, proteins that catalyze reactions, orchestrate the assembly of complex cell wall carbohydrates from building blocks like xylose and glucose. The types of enzymes present in cells therefore determine the composition of the wall.

Lignin is more enigmatic, says Ralph. Although its parts (called monomers) are assembled using enzymes, the polymerization of these parts into lignin does not require enzymes but instead relies on just the chemistry of the monomers and their radical coupling reactions. “It’s combinatorial, and so you make a polymer in which no two molecules are the same, perhaps anywhere in the whole plant,” says Ralph.

This flexible construction is at the heart of lignin’s toughness, but it’s also a major obstacle for the production of paper and biofuels. Both industries need the high-value carbohydrates, especially the cellulose fraction. And both have to peel away the lignin to get to the treasure inside. A combination of heat, pressure, and caustic soda is standard procedure for liberating cellulose to make paper; bleach removes the remaining lignin. In the biofuels industry, a heat and acid or alkaline treatment is often used to crack the lignin so that it is easier to produce the required simple sugars from cellulose. Leftover lignin is typically burned.

The economic cost of these treatments alone is significant, and lignin pretreatment is at the heart of many of the more egregious environmental costs of paper. On the biofuels side, lowering treatment costs to liberate carbohydrates from lignin could change the very economics of biofuels. In these large-scale, industrial processes, saving a percentage point or two is often worthwhile, but the Holy Grail is a quantum jump.

“Because it’s made this way”—Ralph jams his hands together, crazy-wise, fingers twisted together into a dramatic representation of lignin polymerization—“there is no chemistry or biology that takes it apart in an exquisite way,” he says. “We actually stepped back and thought: How would we like to design lignin? If we could introduce easily cleavable bonds into the backbone, we could break it like a hot knife through butter. How much can you actually mess with this chemistry before the tree falls down?”

Ralph’s team had their eureka moment more than 15 years ago, and have been trying to bring it to life ever since.

Please continue reading this story on the Grow magazine website here

Farmers benefit from UW – Vita Plus connections

It’s a crisp fall day as Augusta Hagen drives south of Monroe, Wisconsin into Illinois. Mahon Farms Dairy is just across the state line in Winslow and sits amid a landscape of cornfields and fall foliage, punctuated with wind turbines. The dairy farm is a mix of old and new buildings, sheds and barns, as well as rows of silage in their long, white tube-shaped bags. A biting wind rushes over the open areas, bringing promise that winter is on the way. Hagen, a dairy nutrition consultant, stands with herdsman Don Gilbertson and the two talk like old friends.

The two are in fact old friends. Hagen is from the area and knows many of the local farmers. Hagen and Gilbertson fret over important details like ration mixes, feed particle size, protein and starch levels, and manure consistency. These feed and nutrition details make all the difference, Hagen explains. They all help optimize milk production.

The consulting session really is a two-way street for them. Hagen knows her company’s feed mixes and nutrition science and Gilbertson, who also used to work in the feed industry, is the one interacting with the cows every day.

“Those girls out there are more like my family to me than anything,” says Gilbertson. “I am able to keep track of generations, see cows’ great, great, great grandchildren. I can see the genetics carry through them. This farm has come a long way with nutrition science.”


Don Gilbertson (left) and Augusta Hagen (right) discuss feeding strategies at Mahon Farms. Photo by Kaine Korzekwa.

Mahon Farms is a well-kept operation of 150 cows. While the farm has been around since the 1940s and is currently owned by Gary and Deb Mahon, one thing becomes apparent when you’re there — it takes a village to run a dairy.

On any given day, dairy farms across the country host a multitude of visitors. Nutritionists, agronomists, veterinarians and other consultants bring in outside expertise and also serve as a sounding board for new ideas or a second opinion.

Hagen, at 25 years old, is not the first person you’d expect to be doling out advice to farmers who have been in the industry for multiple generations. But, Hagen has had the benefit of a unique education. She spent her graduate career immersed in both hands-on training and scientific research projects — thanks to the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science and its strong relationship with her employer, Vita Plus.

Vita Plus is primarily a livestock feed company. The company markets feed products and services to dairies across all eight upper Midwest states, where 370 employees together with their reselling partners service the feed needs of about 350,000 cows.

The company was founded in Fitchburg in 1948. Several years later, it moved to its current plant location on West Badger Road in Madison. Today, the corporate headquarters is just a block away from the plant on Fish Hatchery Road. From the get-go, says Vita Plus vice president, Al Schultz, the company was built to not just compete in the dairy feed field, but to push it further. “The name ‘Vita’ means ‘life’ in Latin and the ‘Plus’ part was [about] more than just sustaining life, but optimal production of meat, milk and eggs. It was saying, ‘We’re not just feeding [animals] to keep them alive,’” he says.

Vita Plus’ founding idea — that vitamin and mineral fortification could boost animal health and productivity — wasn’t common practice in the 1940s and today it serves to push the company to constantly strive to be ahead of the field. That drive places a premium on research and education, as the company seeks state-of-the-art approaches to developing and using feed.

Schultz himself has benefitted from Vita Plus’ commitment to education, obtaining his Ph.D. from the UW-Madison dairy science department in 1991 while also leading the company in his current role. Seeing the benefit of continued education, Schultz helped found the UW Dairy Science/Vita Plus Master’s Degree Fellowship, an opportunity that offers an undergraduate student the chance to pursue a master’s degree in dairy science while the company pays their tuition and employs them part-time.

“We see a need for trained nutrition staff that may not necessarily want to go on into research and get a Ph.D.,” Shultz says. “There wasn’t much funding for master’s candidates who didn’t want to go on to a Ph.D. and do basic research, so Vita Plus stepped in and said we would fund a graduate student who is going to get a master’s degree with an emphasis on the practical aspects of dairy nutrition and the science behind it.”

Hagen obtained her master’s degree through the Vita Plus fellowship in 2012. She also did a research internship with Vita Plus as an undergraduate. She says the work was “a good way for me to get a better handle on the science and have a better appreciation for how much work it takes to research something.”

The fellowship is just one part of a robust and mutually beneficial relationship with the UW-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science. Schultz says the company’s close ties to the university serve as “an opportunity for consultation with UW staff on an ongoing basis.” Vita Plus employees often help lead lectures in the department, or participate in dairy judging and Dairy Challenge competitions. The result is a lot of discussions, e-mails and conversations about problems in the industry and opportunities to collaborate.

Kent Weigel, chair of the UW-Madison dairy science department, says the relationship is advantageous to both parties. “Our long and mutually beneficial relationship with Vita Plus is a perfect example of the Wisconsin Idea. It extends the borders of our animal nutrition and dairy management laboratories well beyond the boundaries of this campus or its research stations, and together we solve practical problems and enrich the lives of Wisconsin dairy farm families.”

“It’s a world-class group,” Schultz agrees. “So for us to be able to continue to tap into that knowledge base is important. Besides, that’s the pool where our future employees are going to come from.”

Nick Uglow, a dairy specialist with Vita Plus, is one of those employees. A UW-Madison graduate with bachelor’s degrees in dairy science and agricultural journalism, Uglow’s consultant position includes working closely with dairy farmers to build rations based on examining forages, reviewing herd records, walking facilities and troubleshooting farm challenges that may stand in the way of performance and profitability. The UW-Madison connection, he says, makes that job a lot easier.

“If there is any sort of question that I have on one of my customer’s farms or a dairy I’m prospecting, I feel I can reach out to UW faculty like Randy Shaver or Dave Combs, who are very approachable on answering any questions. We also have our technical staff in the Madison office who have a close relationship with the university.”

Building relationships with students that don’t end upon their graduation is a rewarding experience, says Randy Shaver. Shaver, a UW-Madison dairy science professor, has seen four of his students move on to jobs with Vita Plus. “In our students, both graduate and undergraduate, I try to plant the seed for curiosity, active and life-long learning, critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. This really seems to fit in well with the approach at Vita Plus.”

“When I was in school,” Uglow says, “if you had told me I would be in the nutrition field, I would have laughed.” But all that changed when he enrolled in Dairy Science 535, the undergraduate capstone class. It gave him the opportunity to get out on especially progressive farms and see how the care for cows was transitioning. Uglow says it was “exciting,” and he knew then that he wanted a job in an industry that’s “ever-evolving.” If Uglow’s laughing today, it’s only because he’s on a career path he never imagined to be so progressive back in college.

Like Uglow, Cindy Cooper stumbled across her love for dairy nutrition back in the UW-Madison dairy science department. For Cooper, it was professor Ric Grummer’s formulation class. “That was when I felt my interest growing in working in the dairy nutrition field,” she says. The department led her to join the dairy judging team and other clubs, as well as work to hone her speaking and presentation skills. “And all those real life experiences,” she says, “were a huge part of getting me ready for my career.”

Today, Cooper serves as a formulation and nutrition specialist, a sort of feed alchemist, processing the countless orders that come in from the company’s producer customers as well as other feed dealers and co-ops. “We are the central hub for all the formulation requests from all the Vita Plus locations,” she explains. Her workspace indicates what a big job that is — Cooper’s desk and any adjacent clear space is filled with piles of organized papers, each stack a list of amounts and ratios carefully calibrated to provide the perfect mixture of grains, feed, minerals and supplements to the customer.

While orders from dairy cows make up the bulk of her work, on any given day Cooper could be building feed recipes for beef, chickens, goats or the occasional alpaca. “Some days can get quite hectic,” Cooper admits. But, she says, she loves working one-on-one with a customer to formulate a feed order specific to their needs — a recipe that will help them provide the best nutrition possible for their stock.


Cindy Cooper looking over the day’s load sheets. Photo courtesy of the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science.

“What sets us apart from our competition,” says Schultz, “is the quality of our staff helping to work with producers on both their nutrition programs as well as overall herd management.” Farmers don’t pay any consultant fees, he notes. That service just comes with the feed order. Consultants like Augusta Hagen drop by to make sure that Vita Plus is connecting what academics and industry leaders are studying to what is working for farmers in the field.

The Mahons and their dairy managers would be the first tell you that it’s this focus on people that keeps them coming back to Vita Plus. Back on their farm, Hagen and Gilbertson have gone inside for coffee and to escape the wind in order to continue their consultation about feed rations. Mid-conversation, rain droplets begin to hit the windows.

“Stop it!” yells Gilbertson at the clouds. “Come back tonight. It better not be raining … I have things to do.”

Killing time, he then begins to discuss the farm’s 18-year relationship with Vita Plus, with Hagen being his third consultant during that time span.

“My philosophy is I’m not looking elsewhere [at other companies] because I’m satisfied and happy with the product and nutritional advice I’m getting,” he says. “Vita Plus gives me the flexibility I need to use my own products and theirs together. That’s a kind of relationship you don’t get elsewhere.”

After the rain, the pair finishes the visit with forage sampling and a walk by the cows as they eat. Hagen bends forward to take a handful of feed, inspecting it, and again comments on the particle size.

“Cows are picky,” she says. “If the particle size isn’t just right, they’ll only pick out and eat what they want to, leaving important nutrients behind.”

In essence, the company that provides this mid-sized dairy with its feed rations is also able to help them with all aspects of their business, tapping into a sixty-year history of experience and the world-class science being done by the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science.

“The only problem is the cows haven’t read the diet requirements to know what exactly they should eat in the ration,” Gilbertson says with a laugh as he pets one of his cows on her nose.

Joe Hickey celebrated for 1965 landmark peregrine falcon conference

Joe Hickey

The late CALS wildlife ecology professor Joseph J. Hickey, the successor to Aldo Leopold’s faculty position at the UW-Madison, was celebrated last week at the Raptor Research Foundation’s annual conference. The celebration marked the 50th anniversary of a landmark gathering organized by Hickey on the global status of the peregrine falcon, now known as 1965 Madison Peregrine Conference.

That conference, a highlight of Hickey’s career, helped establish the peregrine falcon as a symbol of how synthetic chlorinated hydrocarbons like the pesticide DDT had become a ubiquitous threat to wildlife worldwide. It set in motion events, led by Hickey, that led to a ban of DDT in Wisconsin in 1970, and then later throughout the U.S., allowing for the eventual recovery of the peregrine falcon.

More information about Hickey’s career and the concerns that spurred the Madison Peregrine Conference is available in this wonderful blog post written for the 50th anniversary commemoration by Stan Temple, UW Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation and Hickey’s successor.

Ag Hall exhibit showcases Wisconsin’s developing artists

For going on seven years now, the Ag Hall foyer has served as a public exhibit space for artworks from the Wisconsin Regional Art Program. The program, originally known as the Wisconsin Rural Art Program, was founded in CALS in 1940 with the mission of fostering the development of nonprofessional artists. It is now administered by the Wisconsin Regional Artists Association, a non-profit organization.

This year’s Ag Hall foyer exhibit includes:

  • Gail Kniska, “Woodpecker Family”
  • Karen Loper, “Crazy With Eights”
  • Audrey Wilde, “Summer Sundance”
  • Bryan Stangel, “Spring Rain”
  • Maureen Luzenski, “Lazy Day”
  • Jan Wood, “Ace in the Hole (Acorn Woodpecker)”
  • Mary Heinze, “Footprints in the Snow”
  • Nan Wallschlaeger, “Social Committee”
  • Dee Schultz, “WILD Flowers”

It’s worth noting that (at least) one of the featured artists has a connection to CALS. Mary Heinze, who pained “Footprints in the Snow,” is the mother-in-law of our very own Beth Heinze, UW-Extension Dairy Youth Specialist in the dairy science department.


Mary Heinze’s “Footprints in the Snow”

Fruits of cooperation: VandenBosch and Blank celebrate cranberry partnerships

Chancellor Rebecca Blank, left, and Kate VandenBosch, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, wade into the knee-deep water of a cranberry marsh as university officials tour farming operations at Cranberry Creek Cranberries, an 850-acre farm owned by Paul and Sandy Hatch in Necedah. Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison University Communications.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and CALS Dean Kate VandenBosch waded into the knee-deep water of a cranberry marsh during a tour of Cranberry Creek Cranberries, an 850-acre farm owned by Paul and Sandy Hatch in Necedah. Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison University Communications.

At a family farm where over 2 percent of the world’s cranberries are grown, Wisconsin’s state fruit sat in two bowls available to guests.

In one bowl, dried cranberries — sweet, wrinkly and gathered in ruby clumps — were an instant crowd pleaser. In the other bowl, fresh berries — tart, firm and in an autumnal variety of deep reds — were an exotic treat.

The fresh berries are a new experimental cultivar called “The Sweetie,” a result of decades of research between cranberry growers and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Like traditional cultivars, the Sweeties crunch when bitten and are white inside with four hollow chambers that give them buoyancy. But they have a natural sweetness that may unlock new markets or offer clues for future cultivars.

After wading into the harvest at Cranberry Creek Cranberries in Necedah on Tuesday, Chancellor Rebecca Blank sampled the berries and stressed that close partnerships between growers and university researchers sustain the industry in many ways.

Aided by decades of research at UW-Madison, Wisconsin has become the international leader in cranberry production, responsible for approximately 60 percent of the world’s crop.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has patented two cultivars — HyRed in 2003 and Sundance in 2011. These, and others in development, offer cranberry growers more effective, sustainable crops.

Like the family farms on which they are grown, the research on cranberry cultivars stretches back decades. Horticulture professor Brent McCown and plant scientist Eric Zeldin (both now emeritus) created about 3,000 unique strains that were run through a series of field trials that eventually produced HyRed, Sundance and others.

“We are on our marshes every single day,” says Rocky Biegel, who grows at Dempze Cranberry Co. with his wife, Jamie Dempze Biegel. “We want to do things in a good, environmental way. We live here and we are generational growers.”

Fawn Gottschalk, a grower at Gottschalk Cranberry Inc., told Blank how her family started growing on a bed that was abandoned in 1940, and other growers in the area operate farms that date back to the 1890s.

“We are the stewards for the next generation,” Gottschalk says.

Nicole Hansen, the operator at Cranberry Creek, says UW-Madison is a key partner for farmers. She echoes what other growers told Blank — that the impact of university research extends beyond developing cultivars and growing cranberries. Growers also place a high value on studies that analyze the health benefits of consuming cranberries.

On Tuesday, Blank and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Kate VandenBosch rode in a pickup truck around the rectangular marsh beds of Cranberry Creek’s 850 acres. The berries grow on dense vines that create a mat of vegetation in the marsh beds. They do not grow underwater or in standing water; when they are ripe, the beds are flooded to aid harvest. Harvesters move through the flooded beds and separate the cranberries from the vines. The berries float to the top, where they can be more easily gathered.

It takes several years for new cultivars to be established in a bed, but so far, about 100 acres at Cranberry Creek are producing HyRed cranberries, and a few acres are dedicated to experimental varieties.

In the experimental beds, the vines are grouped into 3-foot squares. The promising cultivars move on to larger experimental beds. It’s a painstaking process, one that takes decades before the results — which can be yields two to three times the state average — take hold.

Only a sliver of the crop, about 3 to 5 percent, is sold as fresh fruit. The harvest used to be contained to a few weeks in October, and the fresh berries appeared at market within a day or two of being harvested. The broader range of cultivars has stretched the harvest from mid-September to late October, but the fresh cranberry is still an ephemeral fall phenomenon. The vast majority of the crop is dried, juiced or used as ingredients in cheeses, sausages and other products.

The cranberries being collected onto trucks at Cranberry Creek on Tuesday were not headed to the fresh market. As he visited the farm with other growers, Biegel picked a few berries from the water and showed that those destined for the fresh market have to be harvested in a special way to avoid little dents.

“Well, these don’t have any dents,” he said, examining a handful, but dented one with a thumbnail to demonstrate. Then he popped them in his mouth.

He and his wife are the fourth generation in her family to grow cranberries, and their daughter, Rochelle, and her husband, Nick Hoffman, operate a marsh in west central Wisconsin that propagates UW-Madison cranberry cultivars for sale to other growers.

And the red and white of cranberries flow through their family in other ways: Both of their sons are Badger football players. Hayden, a sophomore, is an offensive lineman and Vincent, a redshirt junior, is a linebacker.

“This is about sustainable farming,” Biegel says. “It’s about taking care of these fields for the next generation, about taking care of what you have: the wildlife, the soil, and the plants that will keep producing year after year.”

This story was originally posted on the UW-Madison News website

Dick Cates and the Kilimanjaro trek

Given a penchant for remote places and a strong sense of adventure, Dick Cates set his sights on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“As a life-long skier, I’ve always loved being in mountains. In 2010, my son Eric, friend Andy Diercks and I climbed above the Mt. Everest base camp. Previously I’d climbed in the Rockies, the Tetons, up Mt. Rainier, and in the jagged coastal range of west Greenland,” says Cates, director of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers in the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, and a senior lecturer in the soil science department.

The Kilimanjaro trek would include spending time with his son-in-law Dan Bloom and provide a good test of a new pair of knees. Cates says it took the better part of two years of planning and training to prepare for this summer’s hike up the world’s largest free-standing mountain volcano, which rises to 19,341 feet.

Mt. Kilimanjaro rises in the distance.

Dick Cates hiked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, pictured here rising above the clouds.

“We started climbing on August 24 and summited on August 29. It was seven days round trip of strenuous walking,” he says. “On summit day we walked at very high altitude for over 16 hours. That’s as strenuous as it gets, for me anyhow.”

The wonders of the mountain revealed themselves as the group trudged along. Cates was surprised at how dry the place is. “It’s basically a high altitude dessert,” he notes. Blowing dust sometimes hampered his breathing, which was already challenged by the altitude. At 18,000 feet, the air holds about half of the oxygen it does at sea level, he says, and you can feel it get thinner toward the top.

“It’s spectacular to be up there with the glacier towering over your head,” says Cates. A climatic phenomenon known as “sublimation,” whereby the ice on the mountain evaporates directly into the air, is the main culprit in the retreat of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s glacier over time, he notes. “It isn’t really melting away like other glaciers do,” he says.

Sharing the mountain also held surprises. While Cates traveled with Bloom and their guides, many other people from around the world were doing the same thing. The relatively few flat, sheltered places push the hikers together to camp overnight.

“Out on the trail, you’d rarely see anyone else because people spread out,” he says. “But in the camps you’d be side-by-side with all kinds of other people, each with their own languages, schedules, and ideas about talking and behaving.”

At 12:30 a.m., at the start of the sixth day, Cates’ group broke camp and began the climb to the summit. After nine and a half hours the top was achieved. “I broke down in tears. It was the first time since we began planning the trip that I was sure I could make it,” says Cates. From the summit, they looked across the African plain—more than sixteen thousand feet below—a view that Cates describes as “breathtaking.”

The trip back down went much quicker. They gathered up their thoughts and gear and returned home.

“I loved the African people I met,” says Cates. “Our guides were extraordinary, patient, kind. Townsfolk were friendly and welcoming. It has always been so rewarding for me to have opportunities to meet and work with people from cultures that are so very different from ours.”

What’s next for Cates? His son Eric is returning to the farm near Spring Green this spring to join the business; there’s more teaching to do at the university; and there’s a 40th wedding anniversary to celebrate – Cates-style. “Kim and I are planning to either go sea kayaking in Baja, Mexico, which is Kim’s choice, or my choice is to hike the 110-mile circumference of Mont Blanc in the Alps,” he says.

1,252 miles and counting: The Shooks ride the Pacific coast

George and Nancy Shook are working in tandem—or rather, on tandem—this fall, wheeling their way down the Pacific Coast. As of yesterday they were about two-thirds of the way toward their goal of riding the full western edge of the continental U.S. They had covered 1252 miles of their intended 1,800-mile route—380 each in Washington (six days) and Oregon (seven days) and 492 so far in California.

“We rode out of Vancouver, B.C. on September 23,” says George Shook, professor emeritus of dairy science. “We flew out there on Sept. 22 and reassembled our tandem bike, which flew with us in two shipping cases as luggage. We hope to arrive in San Diego by Oct. 31, although I’ve told some that we’ll see how far we’ll be able to go.”

oregon coast

Nancy and George Shook with their tandem bike along the Oregon coast.

The weather has been great, and so has the view, he reports. “The Pacific coast in Oregon and northern California alternates between sandy beaches, rocky shores, and high cliffs. The sights and sounds of the waves flowing up on the beaches and splashing over big rocks are fabulous. In a few places we’ve seen or heard large colonies of sea lions resting (or arguing?) on rocky outcroppings.” That topography means the pedaling has had it’s ups and downs, he adds: “The roads along the coast rise and fall as the shore changes from rocky cliffs to sandy beaches.”

The Shooks are used to spending long days in the saddle along the Pacific. In 2012, the pair rode the same bike on a 1000-mile trip that covered about 60 percent of the coast of the South Island of New Zealand. And taking a trip that spans the country isn’t new either. In 1996, Nancy Shook and two of the couple’s kids rode from San Francisco to Maine. George joined them for the last 640 miles. Their youngest son, Kynan, then 13, chronicled the trip in articles that were published in the Wisconsin State Journal throughout the summer. The Shooks had a chance to reminisce about that ride this past weekend, when they stayed with Kynan and his family in San Jose.

Chop! Chop! Veggie videos support Wisconsin Farm to School efforts

In honor of National Farm to School Month, the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and partners launched a series of culinary training videos for school cafeteria staff on Oct. 1 titled “Chop! Chop! Culinary Skills for Wisconsin-Grown Produce in School Meals.”

The five videos are designed to help train school nutrition staff how to work with Wisconsin-grown fruits and vegetables and incorporate them into school meal programs, with the goal of getting more local produce into public schools.


Cynthia Holt of CESA Nutrition Purchasing (left) and Vanessa Herald of CIAS (right) thank project partners and premiere the Chop! Chop! videos at the kick-off party.

“We plan to share these videos broadly throughout the state via our partners, at trainings and conferences, via social media and newsletters,” says Vanessa Herald, CIAS’ farm to school outreach specialist.

Chop! Chop! partners held a kick-off party on Sept 22 to celebrate the completion of the project—and to take a sneak peek at the videos.

Herald, who has been organizing the effort with CESA Nutrition Purchasing, shared the following synopsis of the event:

It was a huge success. There were over fifty guests in attendance, representing every possible sector of farm to school. We had representatives from state agencies, non-profits, local organizations, local farms, schools, CESA, graduate students, CIAS staff and more. It was a genuine celebration of a year-long grant project, and everyone was thrilled to watch the video snippets. It was a true celebration of the partnerships and collaborative work that make Wisconsin Farm to School a success, and there was genuine networking and relationship building throughout the night.

The highlight of the night was the video preview. We showed the sizzle reel, a portion of the culinary skills training featuring hosts Susan Peterman and Terese Allen demonstrating the use of leafy green vegetables, and a montage of the conversations between school nutrition directors and farmers. The last was the highlight of the night. Everyone was moved by the success stories of growers and school nutrition professionals who are making farm to school happen for healthy kids and healthy communities.

View the sizzle reel:

Three training videos are available online, with three more slated for release during the early weeks of October.

Five families of vegetables/fruits are featured in the series, one per video: dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach, romaine and chard); winter squash; root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes); brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage); and tomatoes and bell peppers. A sixth video highlights whole grains. Each video includes an introduction to the crop; culinary skills needed to prepare it; suggestions for how to incorporate it into the school menu; and nutrition information.

For many school nutrition staff, there will be some familiar faces in the videos. Therese Allen, Wisconsin-based food writer, helps narrate the videos, as does Susan Peterman, respected nutrition consultant and former Middleton-Cross Plains School District nutrition director. The videos also include Wisconsin school food service directors and specialty crop producers.

In addition to CIAS, project partners include: CESA Nutrition Purchasing, Wisconsin Farm to School, DPI, DATCP and SNA-WI.

For more information about the project, visit

A bobbing bounty: Giant Pumpkin Regatta set for Oct. 10 at Memorial Union

Chris D’Angelo and Lynn Maher with the Giant Atlantic pumpkins they helped grow for the Giant Pumpkin Regatta.

Chris D’Angelo and Lynn Maher with the Giant Atlantic pumpkins they helped grow for the Giant Pumpkin Regatta.

There’s a fun, alternative way to enjoy the fall harvest: attending the university’s Giant Pumpkin Regatta. The event, which features students paddling hollowed-out pumpkins grown by fellow students, is set to take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10  at the Memorial Union Terrace.

The event, which will be held at the pier below the Memorial Union Theater, is organized by UW-Madison horticulture professors Irwin Goldman and Jim Nienhuis, with help from the UW’s Hoofer Sailing Club. Racers, called “pumpkin pilots,” are recruited from Goldman and Nienhuis’ class on world vegetable crops. They will paddle hollowed-out, three-foot-wide Atlantic Giant pumpkins – rendered buoyant by tractor-tire inner tubes – through a course set up by sailing club members.

The massive pumpkins were tended by a number of UW students over the growing season, including Chris D’Angelo and Lynn Maher, graduate students in Goldman’s lab who are in the university’s Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program.

The inaugural Giant Pumpkin Regatta was held in 2005, with the idea to make it an annual event. Mother Nature, however, doesn’t always cooperate.

“We’ve done it a number of times since 2005, but we have had to skip some years due to poor pumpkins,” says Goldman.

Fortunately, 2015 yielded a good crop.

Taking flight: Ento 201 students help release monarch butterflies

If you noticed a monarch butterfly on campus in recent weeks, you may have entomology professor Dave Hogg to thank. As part of a research project, Hogg has been gathering and raising monarch butterflies and then releasing them on campus. This fall semester, he got his students involved.

12015217_515616745262994_2511464071144299190_oAs part of Entomology 201: Insects and Human Culture, Hogg’s students had the option to join him for a visit to campus’ Biocore Prairie, one of his field collection sites. They helped gather monarch butterfly larvae in the field and also visited Hogg’s laboratory to observe butterflies at various stages of development. Finally, the students helped release the adult insects.

“We probably released about 100 adults,” says Hogg. “The students really enjoyed the whole experience.”

Entomology 201 has a long history of providing engaging, hand-on insect experiences for students. It started around 20 years ago, when entomology professor Walt Goodman started teaching the course.

“Walt implemented this new project, where students need to raise a tobacco hornworm from egg to adult in their dorm room or apartment,” explains Hogg. “This project causes a lot of students freak out at first, but many end up overcoming their fear of insects by doing this.”

The revamped course grew in popularity, swelling over the years to fill Russell Lab’s largest lecture hall, which fits about 150 students, where its held today.

Six years ago, Hogg started teaching Ento 201 during the fall semester (Goodman still teaches it in spring), adding his own insect buzz: honeybees. In addition to raising hornworms, he started taking students to visit the honeybee hive on the 6th floor balcony of the Microbial Sciences Building. They also learn about Colony Collapse Disorder and write a term paper on the subject.

After teaching about bees and beekeeping for a couple of years, Hogg decided to walk the talk. He bought a few bee hives and has added an additional hive each year. It’s turned into a sweet side project for him.

“I’ve got 150 pounds of honey this year, the most I’ve ever had,” he says.

Hogg added the monarch butterfly project – as an alternative to the honeybee option – for the first time this year.