Inga Witscher: Organic Farming Rocks!

inga witscher

By:  Jan Carroll

Inga Witscher, host of Wisconsin Public Television’s Around the Farm Table, has been farming for nine years and now runs a thirty-acre certified dairy farm, milking eleven Jersey cows with the lower-tech bucket milking system. She is a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and it was her dad who talked her into moving to West-Central Wisconsin and trying her hand at this farm. The family had lots of experience with big vegetable gardens and an organic creamery as she was growing up. She was not sure about the new venture at first,but it didn’t take long before she felt at home. “I just fell in love with it. It completed me,” she said.

Witscher uses managed intensive grazing for the cows, a method that involves moving the cows to new pasture every twelve hours. This gives each patch of pasture a forty-day rest. Milk from her farm is shipped to Westby, Wisconsin, where it is made into butter, cottage cheese, and cheese and then sold in the Madison area. Witscher notes that even her cows eat locally, since she supports local farmers by buying hay and grain from them.

As a kid, Witscher says, everything the family ate was off their farm. She feels the trend toward organic sustainable farms that serve local markets will continue to grow because people are becoming more aware of it and more educated about it. She feels small and midsize farms will guide the community supported agriculture (CSA) movement. Although it can be an adjustment learning to eat some of the new foods you receive in CSA, she adds that “CSAs are great, because they push you out of your comfort zone.” Also, kids are growing up with fresh organic local food as the norm, so they will expect the same as they grow into adults who buy produce and other farm goods. “Wouldn’t it be great if we got rid of labels of local and sustainable because they had become so common?” she wonders.

Living in the city, it can be hard to connect with local organic farmers. Besides looking for them at area farmers markets, Witscher offers three ways to cultivate relationships with your local farmers:

  • Throw a local-food potluck party, where each guest brings some local organic food or a dish made with a local organic food.
  • She advises, however, to remember that these are working farms, and although farmers love to have you stop by, they will be taking time away from their work to talk with you, so limit your time there, bring a small token of appreciation like a bottle of wine, or offer to help with tasks around the farm, like weeding the garden. Leave your dog at home!
  • Invite local organic farmers to speak to your group or at your event or dinner party. This is nice, she adds, because it allows farmers to get off the farm.

Witscher lists two challenges to small and midsize organic farmers. One is the lack of available land. She’d like to increase her herd to fifty cows, but she’d need more land to do so, and it’s hard to come by. If you can find afordable land, if it hasn’t already been transitioned into organic land, that process takes three years, which is quite an investment since it is expensive to convert regular land to organic land. That process of going organic is also an emotional commitment for the farmer because it can often mean you lose the camaraderie of local conventional farmers. Second, she agrees that organic food often costs more, but she explains that is because the cost of farming is high, especially organic farming. But, she says, even though the cost of organic milk is high, there is a huge demand for it. There aren’t enough organic farmers producing organic milk to meet demand. Witscher says she strategizes often about how to make the farm more financially feasible.

In looking to the future, Witscher would like to have better communication and mutual learning opportunities between organic and conventional farmers, to get to know and interact “just as farmers,” sharing ideas such as cover crops to prevent erosion. In organic farming, “the soil is the foundation of everything else,” she explains. From there, the main thing is to make sure the cows are happy and relaxed, and then fewer other issues arise healthwise. She is happy to report that women “are the fastest growing sector in agriculture,” though it has taken a while to become accepted.’

Season 3 of Around the Farm Table will be on public television later this fall, probably in October sometime. Check local listings for day and time. Witscher says the goal of the program is to promote original local products and to show people what those products are like and how to use them, with recipes and ideas. By visiting and featuring organic farmers from all over the state, Wisconsin viewers can become more educated, and hopefully this will encourage them to try more local foods! Witscher loves the way the program “connects the consumer to the farmer.”

Winterizing Your Perennials

By Ben Polzin, Down To Earth Garden Center

Winterizing your perennials garden doesn’t have to be a big job, especially if you take little steps all year to prepare your plants for whatever nature gives us. The most important task is getting any diseased foliage cut back and removed to prevent any unwanted diseases or insects from overwintering in the plant or soil. Spending a little time in the garden this fall will help your plants reach their potential next year. It’s a great time of year to be out and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of fall. Relax and enjoy the task; it’s the one chance you have to do a cleaning job that stays done for six months.

► How do I know what my plants need? While some varieties of perennials may need more protection than others, all of them will benefit from your attention
► When should I cut back my perennials? Most perennials are cut back after we have had a killing frost in the fall. This usually occurs in early October. It is important to clean off all plant debris after the frost to help minimize soil-borne diseases.
► What kind of protection should I provide? Most perennials simply need a good layer of mulch applied late in the fall. The purpose of mulching in this case is to protect the crowns of the plants from the alternate freezing and thawing that occurs very late in fall and in early spring. It is important that the ground be allowed to get cold before mulching, so wait until early to mid-November before covering the plants. Ideally an inch or two of frost in the ground is best.
► Are some mulches better than others for perennials? There are several mulches that work well for winter protection of perennials. Straw, hay, and leaves are the most common.
► How much mulch should I use? A layer 4 to 6 inches deep is best for most perennials.
► Are there any perennials I shouldn’t mulch? Bearded iris should either go without mulch or be mulched extremely late. The iris borer seems to be worse on mulched plants, especially those mulched early. If you have had any disease problems with your peonies, leave them unmulched as well.
► Should I continue to water in the fall, even after a killing frost? Making sure your perennials stay WELL watered until the ground freezes is important to successful wintering. Quite often we go through several dry weeks late in October. If the soil is dry an inch or two below the surface, give the area a thorough soaking.
► Can I divide or move my perennials in fall? Many perennials can be divided or moved in fall. Generally if a perennial blooms in spring or early summer, it can be divided or moved in fall. If it blooms in late summer or fall, it is best divided or moved in spring. There are a few exceptions, of course. Irises and day lilies prefer to be divided in August, and a few plants with taproots don’t ever want to be disturbed.
► When can I remove the mulch in the spring? Wait until all the frost is out of the ground before removing the mulch. If it gets very warm early, you may want to pull back part of the mulch, but leave at least 2 to 3 inches.Some gardeners leave mulches in the beds, just pulling them back away from the crown of the plants. This adds organic matter and helps suppress weeds. Mulches that have been removed can be composted.

The Science of Happy Gardening

By Dr. Judy Soborowicz

Hard to imagine anyone who is not absolutely grateful for the beautiful beginning to spring in Wisconsin! While spending as much time as life will possibly allow outside in the sun and fresh air, a recent study about soil has me eager to dig into the dirt.  As if we don’t already know how good digging in the dirt feels, the exquisite feeling of sun-warmed black dirt pushing through bare toes is truly hard to beat. As it turns out, there exists a friendly bacteria within soil that acts to promote our brains’ production of natural antidepressants.

According to researchers at Bristol University and  University College in London, our brains are activated to release, and increase efficiency of, the use of our natural serotonin when we are exposed to specific bacteria found in soil. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness, along with regulation of mood, appetite, sleep learning, and memory. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, aggression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar, IBS, and fibromyalgia.

Apart from how this neurotransmitter affects the brain, it also helps regulate digestive enzymes and helps to control the movement of food and waste through our gut. Because our gut health is a primary player in immune function, this study is a hint as to why immune function so greatly affects our mood.

How fascinating to consider our brain is set up to feel pleasure gardening, which in many ways, over time, has greatly contributed to our success and survival. Perhaps the positive feeling we get from digging in the soil is a part of what has increased the odds of our enjoying a delicious and bountiful harvest. Research has shown it, many of us have experienced it, digging and planting generously promotes well-being.

Judy Soborowicz practices chiropractic and nutrition at Active Health Chiropractic along with her husband John.  She enjoys writing, researching and lecturing on topics concerning chiropractic, healthcare and experience gained along the way.

Did You Know Compost Can…

Did You Know Compost Can:

  • Suppress plant diseases and pests.
  • Reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Promote higher yields of agricultural crops.
  • Facilitate reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization efforts by amending contaminated, compacted, and marginal soils.
  • Cost-effectively remediate soils contaminated by hazardous waste.
  • Remove solids, oil, grease, and heavy metals from storm water runoff.
  • Capture and destroy 99.6 percent of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in contaminated air.
  • Provide cost savings of at least 50 percent over conventional soil, water, and air pollution remediation technologies, where applicable.

700 POUNDS

Amount of material diverted per year from each household when you compost

Yard Waste trimmings account for 31 MILLION TONS of municipal solid waste in the US each year.

6.7% of the municipal solid waste in the United States is food scraps – that’s over 13.2 MILLION TONS per year!

Campus Composting

UW-Eau Claire

On Campus: Since 2009, UW–Eau Claire has provided composting services on campus. The Davies Center and the Hilltop Center both have collection receptacles for food waste that will be composted. The dining facilities on campus use materials that can be composted, which are made from paper or corn-based materials. The food services also divert a lot of food waste from landfills by composting it.

Off Campus: Students who live off campus can sign up to have their food waste picked up and used in the composting effort for the campus garden. When students sign up, they are each given a yellow bucket to collect their food waste in. Once a week, they set the bucket out on their front step or porch, and student “eco-reps” come by via specially equipped bicycles to pick it up. This program operates spring, summer, and fall. For more information, contact the Student Office of Sustainability.

UW–Stout

Compostable materials (organics for composting) are collected in every building on campus and also within the kitchens of the dining halls, according to Sarah Rykal, sustainability coordinator at UW–Stout. Stout’s dining services also use compostable to-go containers, and the campus also collects paper towels from the restrooms. Rykal explains that the collection containers are all green with photographs of the things that can be composted. “We do this to make it easy and intuitive for students, faculty, staff, and visitors,” Rykal said. “In 2014, we had 326,583 pounds of compostable material diverted from the landfill.”For more information, contact the Sustainability Office.