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What’s Growing: Agroforestry Takes Root

By Jeff Arnold, Director of Farm Production

Garlic sprouting in the fields.

Signaled by the longer and warmer days that arrive with the Spring solstice, fall-planted garlic sprouts impatiently from the soil while fields transform to vibrant green again as winter wheat comes out of dormancy. The first signs of a new growing season. With those, the farm production team is busy putting finishing touches on equipment preparations, fine-tuning crop plans, and eagerly awaiting another opportunity to carefully coax life from the soil. Spring is a hopeful time on a farm. 

Ingrained in that hopefulness is a deep sense of responsibility; an understanding that we as land stewards have a duty to ensure that this farm will sustain life – all life – for generations to come. Choreographing this dance between humans, land, and food in a way that all participants are nourishing and sustaining one another in perpetuity is one of the great honors of farming today, and one of the great challenges. How much can we take from the land and how much must we give back? That balance has long been skewed by short-sighted industrialized farming models, but as the agricultural paradigm inches towards regenerative systems, our relationship to food and land can be rebalanced, and protecting land, food, and the humans who so dearly depend on both becomes a singular and attainable goal.

Introducing Agroforestry
To that end, a new initiative for the Farm Hub this year is the integration of perennial tree crops into some of our farmland. The practice of intentionally incorporating tree crops into farmland is called agroforestry, and it is one of the many ways a farm can utilize its land base to not just produce food, but also create a positive impact on soil, water, wildlife, and our changing climate.

Hickory butternut. Photo courtesy of Jesse Markson/Yellowbud Farm.
Persimmon tree. Photo courtesy of Jesse Markson/Yellowbud Farm.

Agroforestry mimics natural systems much more closely than the monoculture plantings that dominate the modern agricultural landscape – conventional and organic alike. Similar to native forests, agroforestry systems are resilient during both periods of heavy rain and drought and provide a landscape that is highly resistant to wind and water erosion. Tree plantings provide habitat for native wildlife and can provide critical shade for livestock such as chickens and cows during the hot summer months. Trees are strong carbon sequesterers, and can reduce other greenhouse gases, too. Deep tree roots protect water sources by absorbing fertilizer runoff and impurities as they travel through the soil. And, of course, tree crops produce a wide variety of delicious and nutrient dense foods that are a wonderful addition to a farm that is already producing a diverse crop mix. These attributes of agroforestry are becoming ever more important as the trajectory of our climate becomes less predictable. 

For our pilot project, the Farm Hub will be converting a 20-acre riparian hay field into a diverse perennial forest. About 2,000 trees and bushes will be planted spanning 20 different species, including yellow bud hickory, hazelnut, oak, raspberry, elderberry, cranberry, persimmon, pawpaw, spicebush, and mulberry, just to name a few.

Hickory bitternut. Photo courtesy of Jesse Markson/Yellowbud Farm.
Persimmons. Photo courtesy of Jesse Markson/Yellowbud Farm.

In contrast to the annual cropping systems that comprise most of the rest of the Farm Hub, these trees and bushes will mature slowly, with the first harvests not happening until between one and ten years after planting, depending on the species. Once harvested, there are many ways the crops will be utilized. The hazelnuts and yellow bud hickory nuts will be pressed for oil, while the pawpaws, persimmons, and myriad berries will be harvested for fresh eating. Some of the nuts can be used for flour production, while certain other trees such as willows can provide coppicing material and wood chips to be utilized elsewhere on the farm. Others such as the redbuds, alder, and honey locusts will absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and deposit it into the soil, through a process called nitrogen fixation. And all the trees and bushes will provide critical habitat and food sources for native wildlife, and future livestock on the farm.

Hickory nut bud. Photo courtesy of Jesse Markson/Yellowbud Farm.

The first trees will go in the ground this April and will be the beginning of what promises to be many decades of growth at the Farm Hub. We plan to continue to convert more under-utilized spaces on the farm to agroforestry in the coming years, serving as a complement to our established annual cropping systems that already produce a wide variety of vegetables of grains. Future tree plantings may be grown side by side with annual crops, in a practice called alley cropping, or trees may be integrated into systems that will be managed for both tree crops and livestock grazing in a practice known as silvopasture. We also plan to use tree plantings as windbreaks across the farm, breaking up and slowing down powerful winds that sweep through the wide open Hurley Flats.

Tree crops can be utilized on a farm to achieve many different goals in many different ways, and our hope is that in addition to strengthening this land and the community it feeds, we can also serve as a model for other land stewards that share the goal of creating new and more resilient farming systems that are adaptable to an uncertain future. As the proverb says, we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. With this at heart, we embrace the growing season ahead. Stay tuned throughout the year as we document the field prep, planting, irrigation setup, and growth of this pilot project.

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