Wisconsin Potatoes Go Global

Larry in AfricaThe stories that comprise the lives of Wisconsin farmers are as varied as the land itself — and just as compelling. The majority of Wisconsin farmers operate family farms — many passed down generation after generation — but the paths that bring them to the family farm are never the same.

Take Larry Alsum, President and CEO of Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. Larry grew up on a family-owned dairy farm. After he graduated from college Larry decided to pursue a different career path, as a CPA. But eventually, Larry came back to the land. He started with a partnership in a small potato and onion packaging business in 1989; by 1992, he had 750 acres. Now, over twenty years later, Larry — a sustainable farmer — has 1,300 acres and he works tirelessly to protect endangered ecosystems while sharing his agricultural know-how with farmers in Liberia and Ghana.

In January 2012, Larry and Derrick Smit, Safety and Training Coordinator at Alsum, spent two weeks in Liberia and Ghana working with local farmers, sharing their experience in sustainable farming and water conservation, and holding farming and marketing workshops for farmers interested in establishing agribusinesses.

In Liberia and Ghana, most of the farmers grow yams and cassava, but they wanted to learn how to grow what they called “Irish potatoes” — or Russets — because Russets have greater nutritional value — they’re free of salt, cholesterol and gluten, but rich in fiber, potassium and Vitamin C. And that nutritional value can make a huge difference in the lives of families living in Ghana, where hunger is prevalent in rural areas, and Liberia — one of the poorest nations in the world.

Why potatoes? Potatoes are one of the most versatile and easiest vegetables to prepare — and potatoes can grow just about anywhere, even in the most inhospitable climates.

Does that mean growing potatoes in Liberia and Ghana will be easy? Certainly not. But Larry’s never shied away from a challenge — and he has seen first-hand the difference agriculture can make to these families, providing them with fresh meals and a new stream of income. According to Larry, “Both Ghana and Liberia are emerging market countries with new opportunities to expand business. There’s a large expatriate population in these countries who want to buy Irish potatoes and these crops can fill some of that need.”

To help farmers Larry shipped forty ton of Wisconsin seed potatoes, as well as four ton of fertilizer, to the capital cities of each nation in November 2012. Larry worked closely with seed potato growers at Wild Seed Farms and Guenthner Farms, Inc. (both located in Antigo, Wisconsin) to determine which seed potato varieties would be best suited to the soils, precipitation levels and climate of Ghana and Liberia. Alsum consulted with Tom Wild, who has been exporting seed potatoes to Central America for 15 years, and Peter Joyce, Seed Consultant to the United States Potato Board, who has completed agricultural projects in Burkina Fasso. They selected Red La Soda and White Langlade seed potatoes. In addition to carefully selecting seed varieties, Alsum has collaborated with Jay Mar in Plover, Wisconsin, on a fertilizer that would provide a sound fertility plan for the potatoes.

Each farmer, whose tools consist of machetes and hoes, will plant about one-half acre of potatoes, which should help support about 80 families. The farmers will be assisted by

US Agency Partners Worldwide and two affiliate agencies — Hopeline Institute in Ghana and Liberia Entrepreneurial and Asset Development Inc. (LEAD) in Liberia — to provide training, education and micro financing for the farmers.

As the project progresses, we’ll keep you updated on the challenges and successes. As for Larry, he’s busy harvesting his current crop of Wisconsin potatoes. Bon appetit!

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