Did you know that alfalfa production in the upper Midwest is possible because of a UW alumnus?
Medicago sativa — or alfalfa to most of us — has been identified in strata dating back to 6000 BC. But its prevalence in the upper Midwest — Wisconsin in particular — is the result of a hardworking kid from Mineral Point.
When Graber founded the Alfalfa Order of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experimental Association, Wisconsin was producing 50,000 tons of alfalfa annually. Today the Badger State is among the top six producers in the country.
As groups of people began to fill in the map of the world, so did alfalfa, moving from the Middle East to Greece around 500 BC, then to Britain and France in the late 1600s. Although there are accounts of Thomas Jefferson trying to grow alfalfa at Monticello, the hay variety wasn’t recognized for its agricultural and cattle-foraging potential until much later — when UW alumnus Laurence Graber 1910, MS1912 came along.
Graber was born in 1887 on a farm just outside of Mineral Point in Wisconsin’s Iowa County. He came to Madison to study agronomy, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the UW’s College of Agriculture (now the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences). He later joined the college’s faculty, teaching and researching in the Department of Agronomy until his retirement in 1957.
Before Graber, Wisconsin farmers scoffed at the idea of using alfalfa. It brought too many diseases; it didn’t grow well; and it didn’t survive the winter, farmers complained. But Graber was hard at work developing winter-hardy varieties and writing the book — literally — on alfalfa management. He soon became known as Mr. Alfalfa, in part for establishing the Alfalfa Order of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experimental Association, which reported annually on the progress and potential of research on the crop. “Don’t send your hard-earned dollars away for high-priced feeds,” Graber wrote in the Alfalfa Order’s 1917 annual report. “Grow your own feed. Grow alfalfa.”
And grow alfalfa is precisely what Wisconsin farmers did. When Graber founded the Order, Wisconsin was producing 50,000 tons of alfalfa annually. Today the Badger State is among the top six leading alfalfa producers in the country, yielding more than three million tons per year.