CALS fields and gardens help feed families in need

Food banks have been lining up for tons of potatoes produced at the Rhinelander Agricultural Research Station. “We have had food pantry organizers coming from Shawano, Wausau, Tomahawk, Rhinelander, Minocqua and Price County, just to name a few,” reports Bryan Bowen, the station’s superintendent.

The Hancock Agricultural Research Station also contributes potatoes to food pantries south of Stevens Point, according to Mary LeMere, assistant superintendent.

Similar efforts are underway at CALS facilities across the state. At the Allen Centennial Gardens, the yield from this year’s Ornamental Edibles display is being donated, as described in this segment of WISC-TV’s Live at Five.

Tons of watermelons were among the wide variety of bounty donated by the West Madison Research Station to the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin this year. Each year food bank volunteers and station staff harvest and haul produce from the station’s demonstration gardens. This year area food bank clients had a chance to sample some phenomenal new melon varieties that won’t reach grocery store shelves for a year or two, says assistant superintendent Judy Reith-Rozelle. The station grew the fruit as one of the nations few “proving grounds” for the All-American trials, which tests yet-to-be-introduced commercial varieties.

The Rhinelander station is dedicated mostly to potato breeding. Every year it produces a surplus of potatoes from plants that don’t have good potential for new varieties, explains Bowen.

“We are looking to find all the (desired) breeding traits combined in one plant,” he says. Many of the plants don’t have all of the desired traits but still yield perfectly good potatoes. For more than 60 years, the surplus has gone to the state prison system in exchange for harvest labor. But in recent years, some have gone to local north central Wisconsin food pantries. This year the volume of potatoes donated to food pantries increased dramatically, thanks to contributions that help offset the cost of harvest and handling.

For example, on Sept. 23, 20 tons were picked up on for distribution through the Salvation Army in Wausau and a food pantry in Shawano. That required quite a bit of coordination, says Bob Gutknecht of the Wausau office of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, who helped connect the key players.

“The Rhinelander station provided the potatoes and oversight of the harvest. The Department of Corrections brought in 12 inmates for hand picking and bagging. Zeloski Farms in Eagle River donated burlap bags, Ardex Mineral in Shawano provided a transport truck, and Bennett Hardwoods provided the Salvation Army with a staging area in Wausau from which to distribute the potatoes,” says Gutknecht, whose own family made a monetary contribution to help cover costs.

Half of the 20 tons of potatoes went to the Salvation Army in Wausau to feed about 750 families. The other half went to the food pantry in Shawano. Organizers there estimated that the potatoes would be distributed within a week and a half.

“We dropped off the first ten tons of potatoes in Wausau and returned to Rhinelander for the second load,” said Gutknecht.

“I (told) one of the inmates working at the Rhinelander station that potatoes he’d helped bag were already being distributed to over 700 families. He was proud of that fact and told us that he would be calling his mom from prison to let her know that even though he was in prison, he was doing good things for people,” Gutknecht said.

“People need to recognize that farmers and the UW research stations are doing a lot of good for a lot of people,” Gutknecht said. “They don’t ask for much in return, but they certainly deserve our thanks.”