Variety Development – Badger Edition

February 1, 2023 in Crops

Variety Development – Badger Edition

Ginseng and Gene Banks

This week, the Medius team is traveling to Wisconsin to exhibit at the Wisconsin Corn⦁Soy Expo on February 2-3 in Wisconsin Dells. The event is coordinated by the state’s corn and soybean industries as well as the Wisconsin Pork Association. We are excited to be joining the more than 1,200 attendees and 100 exhibitors. Since we have not yet highlighted the Badger State in our tour of America’s Best Idea, we thought it would be a good time to do exactly that. 

The Wisconsin Corn•Soy Expo is Wisconsin’s premier grower event where the Wisconsin Soybean Programs, Wisconsin Corn Programs, and the Wisconsin Pork Association bring together over 1,200 corn and soybean growers and pork producers.

An original “America’s Dairyland” license plate.

In addition to the Badger State, Wisconsin is also known as America’s Dairyland. In fact, the dairy industry is so ingrained in the state’s history and culture that Wisconsin legislators voted to add the “America’s Dairyland” moniker to Wisconsin license plates beginning in 1940, or more than 80 years ago.

And, more than a quarter of America’s cheese comes from Wisconsin–that’s more than any other state–and helps to explain why Green Bay Packer fans are frequently referred to as “cheeseheads.” (There’s more to that story, which you can read here.)

A cheesehead captured in its natural habitat.

Finally, to dispel any remaining doubt as to how proud the state is of its dairy heritage, since 1948 it has been an annual tradition to crown “Alice in Dairyland” in the state of Wisconsin. 

Julia Nunes, the 73rd Alice in Dairyland

You’ve probably been on this America’s Best Idea journey with us long enough to know by now that Wisconsin does more than just make great cheese. In fact, in addition to being the top cheese producer in the country, no other state exceeds Wisconsin’s production of ginseng, cranberries, and mink pelts. Yes, mink pelts. Don’t believe us? Check out this and some other interesting stats from the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). All told, Wisconsin agriculture contributes $104.8 billion to the state’s economy and employs 435,700 people. 

Wisconsin is home to approximately 14% of dairy cows in the U.S.

Our reliable friends over in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) report that nearly $6 billion worth of milk was produced in Wisconsin in 2021, and the DATCP reports that the state’s dairy industry contributes $45.6 billion by itself through value-added products like cheese. Producing all that milk is 1.28 million cows that eat a lot of hay, so it should not come as much of a surprise that hay is the third-largest crop in the state at $1.3 billion. Besides hay, Wisconsin grows more corn for silage than any other state, according to DATCP. The silage serves as another feedstock for Wisconsin’s huge herd of dairy cows. The total value of corn production in the state, including silage, is $2.8 billion, or about double the size of the second-largest crop–soybeans–which was valued by NASS at $1.4 billion in 2021. 

After the heavy hitters of dairy and its supporting feedstocks, corn, and soybeans, we jump to potatoes, which had a 2021 value estimated at $377 million. Specific to potatoes, whereas most potato-growing areas in the U.S. are highly specific to a particular sector of the industry (frozen processing vs. chipping vs. fresh market), Wisconsin’s is quite diversified. If you’re on the hunt for Wisconsin spuds, you are just as likely to find a potato field destined to become chips as you are to find one destined to become fries, for example. Following potatoes you’ll find a steady stream of other specialty crops, including: cranberries ($164M), followed by sweet corn ($53M), beans ($52M), cabbage ($19M), peas and cucumbers ($18M each), maple syrup ($12M), carrots ($8M), cherries ($6.5M), and pumpkins ($5M). Interspersed among the specialty crops you’ll find some grains, including wheat ($112M), rye ($5.4M), and barley ($1.9M). Suffice it to say that Wisconsin continues the trend of next-level diversification of agricultural production that we see elsewhere in the Great Lakes region–Michigan and Ohio both come to mind. 

Within two months of achieving official statehood on May 29, 1848, Wisconsin’s state government founded the University of Wisconsin (UW) on July 26, 1848. UW became the state’s first land-grant university (LGU) and was later joined by 1994 institutions the College of Menominee Nation and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College. For the purposes of our survey of Wisconsin agriculture, we will focus our research on UW, which is headquartered in the state capital of Madison. 

One of 23 distinct colleges and schools within UW, the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences (CALS) claims nearly 45,000 alumni and currently has an enrollment of about 2,900 total students. The UW Plant Breeding & Plant Genetics Program is annually home to about 50-60 of those students and studies 18 different crops. When it comes to the development of new varieties, UW has released everything from alfalfa to winter rye and potatoes, of course. UW is also home to one of the few remaining public sweet corn breeders–Dr. Bill Tracy–in the country, which we wrote about in a post back in June 2020.

When I was a PhD student in plant breeding in the 1980s, there were around 30 public-sector sweetcorn breeders, maybe 10 of them developing cultivars. Ten years later, there were around six or seven producing cultivars. Now, I'm basically it.

Dr. Bill Tracy in 2016 (

Outside of Madison, the UW Agricultural Research Station (ARS) network encompasses 11 additional locations across the state and helps the university execute its research, education, and outreach mission. The Peninsular Station in Sturgeon Bay is of particular interest to the potato industry since it is home to “the world’s largest collection of wild and cultivated potato species.” The collection of species maintained here in the U.S. Potato Genebank serves as a critical resource to potato breeders around the world. As we wrap up this stop on our tour of America’s LGU system, please check out the video below featuring USDA Agricultural Research Service and University of Wisconsin scientist and U.S. Gene Bank project manager, John Bamberg.

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Hope to see you in Wisconsin Dells!

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