March 2004

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Producer Profile:
The Igl Family

Lynn Olson
Member Services Manager

The Igl (‘eye-gul’) family has been growing potatoes since the 1930s, but since 1997 they have remained the only organic potato growers in their Antigo, WI community. Settled among several other seed-potato farmers in their area, the Igls enjoy the cooler climate of northeastern Wisconsin where vigorous growing conditions are especially suited for growing potatoes. The Igl’s MOSA-certified organic Stark Red Norland, Yukon Gold and Gold Rush Russet potatoes are normally available in the Produce department November through March.

Nutrient-Rich Land

The Igls till around 180 of their 200-acre land with the remaining farmland resting in woods and wetlands. The landscape in that region of Wisconsin is predominantly flat, but the soil is rich in many of the minerals needed for farming. Brian Igl is grateful for the mix of nutrients found in their soil and praises it. “It’s basically a silt loam, sand/clay/tilth, a medium-textured soil. It’s not too heavy and it’s not terribly light either. It’s good for growing crops because it holds water in pretty well, it holds nutrients and it’s easy to work with,” he said.

The Igls also raise a small herd of beef cattle, chickens and hogs which they direct market to their customers or use to feed their own family. All the fertilizer produced by the animals is used on their fields although, as Brian points out, “It’s not enough to cover everything we need. Whatever we have, we use but it’s not enough. We could probably use ten times more than we have.” Despite the rich blend of nutrients found naturally on their land, Brian states their soil does lack calcium, which is addressed using organically-approved substances such as gypsum and limestone. Even with perfect soil health and a growing climate any farmer would be lucky to have, there’s another looming variable to potato farming that decisively separates organic from conventional.

Challenges to the Field
Historically, potatoes have had more than their fair share of biological enemies: potato beetle, leaf-hopper, blight and ring rot top the list of potential threats to potato crops. With conventional growing conditions, a plethora of chemicals are normally sprayed on potato fields to control outbreaks of the many fungi, bacteria and bugs that could destroy a crop. A potato grower’s ability to control damage in the field is the greatest challenge, especially for organic farmers who are prohibited from using any “quick-fix” chemicals to correct a problem before entire crops are infected and destroyed. Brian explains his family’s motivation to ditch the heavy deluge of chemicals commonly associated with conventional potato farming and to switch to organic farming, “It makes me really nervous, very suspicious...what it’s doing to our bodies, children and the air and the water and the soil and the food and everything else. It’s not just agriculture, it’s industrial and all kinds of other chemicals, but as far as I’m concerned if you can eliminate one of them then we probably should do that.”

Dealing with the Elements

The Igls practice several organic and sustainable measures to control infections including regular crop-cover and rotation systems. After harvesting the potatoes in early September, they immediately begin growing field peas. Alfalfa and hay cover crops to deter pests in the potato fields by preventing opportunistic infestations or bugs from wintering over from one harvest to the next. Ideally, in order to eliminate the recurrence of a beetle or fungus, an organic potato grower would leave an infected field dormant for an entire growing season. For most farmers, this isn’t an option as they rely on planting every acre to break even on their harvests. As Brian further explains his feelings on the use of conventional chemicals, “For me it’s more than a value thing because I don’t like chemicals, I don’t like working with them. I think they’re really more dangerous than we realize. They certainly came in handy when we were trying to fix a problem with a weed or an insect or a disease...but when you use them, you’re not really solving a problem, you’re just treating a symptom of it. It really does get frustrating when you have bugs chewing on your plants and you can’t find anything to kill 'em.” Despite centuries of growing potatoes, very few organic systems have proven 100% effective in eliminating the need for heavy chemical use. Recent advances in Integrated Pest Management (IPM), non-invasive, time-sensitive measures have helped considerably, which the Igls have assisted in developing.

Doing the Work

The Igls, who don’t employ any outside help during the growing season, do rely on some assistance during the harvest season. During that time, Brian says they’ve hired a lot of area kids to assist in separating the potatoes from rocks and dirt, but because of the tedious, unglamorous nature of the job, Brian says, “Most of the teenagers grow weary of the work within a day and don’t come back.” After the separating is done, a number of machines sort the potatoes by size before they are bagged right there on the farm.

Eating Potatoes

With such a long history of growing potatoes on their family farm, Brian had plenty of favorite potato dishes he and his family have perfected along the years. With their Catholic background, Brian said they regularly make potato pancakes on Friday evenings during lent. Another favorite for Brian are simple oven-roasted potatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmesan. Anything but boiled potatoes for Brian, who admits he’s had more than his fair share of them.

See for Yourself
For more information or to contact the Igl Family Farm directly, you can call Brian at (715) 627-7888. Brian enthusiastically encourages any members of the Willy Street Co-op who would like to experience the workings of a potato harvest to give him a call and arrangements can be made for a day of work on the farm.

On Special
The Igl's delicious potatoes will be on special in the Produce aisle this month. See the specials insert for more details.