Advancing the cutting edge of agriculture with new crops

Article was written by Leigh Presley, Agriculture Extension Educator. 
Originally published in the Kenosha News.

A few years back a local resident gave me some educational bulletins from the year 1914, highlighting findings of livestock and agronomy research performed at the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Stations and county demonstration plots throughout the state.

One of the bulletins discusses the emergence of soybeans as a new, promising crop for Wisconsin. At the time, soybeans were common in Asia and becoming a popular crop in the southern U.S. Seeing the potential in soybeans as a source of oil and livestock feed, Wisconsin researchers were trialing varieties and testing production and harvesting methods that would work for farmers in our state.

Many of the crops we know today as some of our most common, most widely grown and highly marketable were once new to American farmers. Since the days when soybeans were “new” to this country, universities, nonprofits, private researchers, farmers, and food and beverage companies have continued to push the envelope in the development and commercialization of new crops.

Emerging crops showing promise in Wisconsin are discussed in a new podcast series developed by some of my colleagues in the UW-Extension called “The Cutting Edge.” In the series, interviews with researchers and stakeholders illustrate the hard and intentional work involved in advancing new crops for commercial production from plant breeding to perfecting on-farm production practices and finding markets for the end products.

Some of the crops highlighted in the series have gotten a lot of attention, while others are relatively unknown to both growers and the public. Here’s a sneak peek:

Hemp – the term “Wild West” is often applied to the recent renaissance of hemp in this country. Since the introduction of state pilot programs for hemp, growers learned some hard lessons that have dampened some of the hemp hype. The podcast discusses the production, harvesting and marketing challenges faced by the brave, early adopters of hemp. Emphasis is also placed on the many applications of hemp, and the hope for continued developments in infrastructure for a crop that has just recently been legalized.

Malting barley – Wisconsin was once a major hub for the malting industry, with several companies processing barley and grains into malt—a key ingredient in beer. The malting industry still has a presence in the state – we are home to several malting companies, the American Malting Barley Association, and the ARS Cereal Crops Research Lab in Madison, which evaluates barley’s malt qualities for university breeders and the malting and brewing industries. However, it’s growers in western states like Montana who meet most of the demand for the high quality barley used for malting purposes. The podcast discusses how craft brewers, university researchers, and some adventurous growers are working together to find and produce malting barley varieties that will do well here and add more local flair to Wisconsin beer.

Kernza ® is a perennial grain being developed by the Land Institute, an organization dedicated to breeding perennial grain and seed crops. Wisconsin researchers are helping to fine-tune this crop, which produces both good-tasting grains for human food and forage for animal consumption. Research on Kernza® is in it’s infancy, but it may someday compete with common annual grains, while providing the environmental and economic benefits of being a perennial.

Hazelnuts – this multiuse crop has several edible applications, including the popular Nutella spread. Most commercial hazelnuts are grown in Turkey where the European hazelnut plant is well adapted, producing large, flavorful nuts. While American and beaked hazelnut species are native to and grow well in Wisconsin, they don’t produce the size of nuts demanded by the industry. The podcast discusses work of the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Institute, a network of early-adopter hazelnut producers growing hybrid seedlings derived from crosses between European and American hazelnuts.

To learn more about these and other emerging crops in Wisconsin, listen to the Cutting Edge podcast, available at https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/grain/cutting-edge/.

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