Michigan Potato Industry Commission (MPIC) to be recognized for environmentally-sound agriculture efforts by G.W. Bird Family Foundation

News Category: State News

The G.W. Bird Family Foundation for Environmentally-Sound Agriculture is honoring the Michigan Potato Industry Commission (MPIC) as a recipient of the foundation’s annual Hero Awards. The award is in recognition of MPIC’s environmentally-sound agriculture efforts, specifically in the areas of soil health and water conservation efficiency.

In 2011, the Michigan potato industry identified soil heath as a key topic for research. Michigan State University Department of Entomology Professor Emeritus Dr. George Bird credited Don Sklarczyk of Sklarczyk Seed Farms in Johannesburg, Michigan, among others, for recognizing soil health as an area that needed improvement and for helping to make the research project a reality.

With support from MPIC and participation of several Michigan potato farms, the research project detailed soil health improvements between 2012 and 2022 at 68 sites in 17 commercial potato fields in Mecosta and Montcalm counties. Specific criteria for the fields included each farm’s top potato-yielding field, a field with a history of scab, and a field with severe potato early-die disease issues.

Between the 2012 initial samples and the 2022 retesting, growers focused on four key areas: increased use of cover crops and compost, reduced chemical inputs, and reduced tillage. Using the Cornell University Soil Health Laboratory’s 12 soil health indicators, researchers – including Dr. George Bird – determined 100% of the 68 sites showed increased available water capacity, soil organic matter, and active carbon. In addition, 94% of the fields had a reduction in root-lesion nematodes.

“Working with many researchers over the years, some stand out with the ability to provide their knowledge in a way to allow science-based practical application to be implemented,” Sklarczyk said. “Dr. Bird was one who would capture and hold an audience’s attention and deliver a message in an understandable way. 

“Dr. Bird had the ability to plant the seed of thought how important soil health was in a way everyone understood and were anxious implement.”

Potato farmer Jason Walther of Three Rivers represents the Ag Irrigators sector on the state’s Water Use Advisory Council (WUAC). MPIC Executive Director Dr. Kelly Turner serves as Walther’s alternate on the WUAC and co-chairs the Water Conservation and Efficiency subcommittee.

Walther’s representation and work on the council and service on committees held the WUAC provide recommendations to the state legislative body back in 2020 that received full funding. One of those recommendations directly positively impacts the agriculture industry as it provided for additional focus to be placed on conservation and efficiency education and training in the industry. To accomplish this, UDSA, MDARD, EGLE, and Michigan State University Extension (MSUE), under the direction of the WUAC developed and is implementing a strategy with clear objectives to expand training and outreach to each Agriculture Industry sector, with a focus in Zone C watershed management areas, to improve water efficiency, and where possible, provide water quality benefits by hiring two additional irrigation specialists. This program should also include education on USDA programs that address water efficiency and help irrigators navigate the application processes.

The WUAC on which Walther serves also put forth comprehensive recommendations for 2022, but those recommendations have gone unfunded. Included in those recommendations is a proposal for a three-year pilot program to evaluate and retrofit existing irrigation systems to improve water and energy efficiency. The goal of this pilot program is to develop Irrigation Best Management Practices (BMPs) through on-farm demonstrations, including evaluating and retrofitting the existing irrigation systems, measuring the improved water and energy use efficiency, and estimating the potential reduction of greenhouse gas emission and cost savings.

“Protecting our natural environment is paramount to sustainability and environmentally sound agriculture,” Turner said. “Potato farmers, the vast majority on family farms, view water and soil as their most precious resources, and they have every incentive to make sure to take care of the soil and to ensure water is plentiful and clean for years to come.

“Their livelihoods – and our food supply – depend on careful stewardship. That’s why farmers embrace new technology and growing practices to ensure they use the least amount of water and take care of the soil in the safest possible ways to grow America’s favorite vegetable.”

The G.W. Bird Family Foundation was formed in 2022 by Dr. George W. Bird, along with his family and colleagues. The Hero Awards for environmentally sound agriculture debuted last year with the inaugural recipient being Dr. Stuart Gage.

More information on the G.W. Bird Family Foundation can be found at www.gwbirdfamilyfoundation.org.

Environmentally-Sound Agriculture Day is Nov. 16

The G.W. Bird Family Foundation is organizing the first-ever Environmentally-Sound Agricultural Day at Michigan State University on Thursday, Nov. 16. It will include a lecture by Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) Director Dr. Tim Boring, as well as an international discussion, which are open to the public.

The day will start at noon with an international roundtable discussion featuring AgroLead CEO Gulunaz Kaseeva of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Dr. Karim Maredia, Director of MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, International Programs. It will take place in Room 201 of the MSU International Center, 427 North Shaw Lane, East Michigan.

At 4 p.m., festivities move to the MSU Food Safety and Toxicology Building, Room 162, 1129 Farm Lane, East Lansing, for Dr. Boring’s keynote presentation.

The day will conclude with a private reception and dinner to honor the 2023 Hero Award winners.

Email soilhealthbiology@gmail.com or call 517-775-2403 for more information.