Surrounded by the peak autumn colors of Wisconsin, we thought we’d take a turn to talking about trees, specifically about integrating trees and crops in a system called agroforestry. We call up Jacob Grace of the Savanna Institute, a Wisconsin non-profit focused on promoting, educating, and breeding trees for agroforestry and Eric Wolske of Canopy Farm Management, which specializing in agroforestry installation, maintenance, and management, to chat about the many benefits of trees in cropland and some of the challenges.
Photo taken by Eric Wolske
Will Fulwider 0:00
I used to work in tropical agroforestry systems. So for me, it’s like, it’s a very different ballgame. And in temperate systems, yes. Trees that lose their leaves, which you don’t really have as much. And you have when you know, it’s a totally different thing,
Jacob Grace 0:17
Right, you’re used to trees that never stopped growing.
Will Fulwider 0:21
Right? Exactly. Although there’s this one tree called faidherbia albia. That is a reverse phenology tree in that in the dry season, it has its leaves and in the wet season, it doesn’t have its leaves, so it’s perfect for growing crops. Underneath it, it’s a great agroforestry cheat in tropical systems that won’t grow here. So we just need one of those for Wisconsin. You know, a tree that doesn’t have leaves in the summertime.
Jacob Grace 0:50
Only has leaves in the winter Yeah.
Will Fulwider 1:00
Welcome to Field Notes from UW Madison Extension. I’m Will Fulwider. And I’m joined by my co host, Michael Geissinger. We bring farmers, experts, and agronomist to the table to talk about research-based approaches to the issues facing agriculture in Wisconsin. Today, we’re joined by Jacob Grace with the Savannah Institute who also hosts a podcast called Perennial AF. Pretty good name for a podcast, if I do say so myself. And also Eric Wolske, with canopy farm management. And we’re going to talk about agroforestry, Jacob and Eric, could you take a minute to introduce yourself and you roles before we jump in further?
Jacob Grace 1:36
Yeah, thank you, Will. Like you said, my name is Jacob grace. I am a communication specialist with the Savanna Institute. And among the things I do there is I host a podcast called Perennial AF, which obviously stands for perennial agroforestry. I get a lot of questions about that, and not sure why I get so many questions about it. But yeah, if you’re interested in agroforestry, you can check us out. And yeah, I’m happy to be here with Eric.
Eric Wolske 2:08
Yeah. So I’m Eric Wolske. I’m with canopy farm management. I’m the director of agronomy there. We do the establishment and management of agroforestry systems. And so I help lead the sort of on the ground work at our different hubs, and do a bit of the background stuff of figuring out, you know, what’s the newest disease or insect? Or will this new locusts outbreak next year, severely damage our tree crops?
Michael Geissinger 2:39
Great. Well, it’s great to have you guys on Jacob and Eric, and I just want to kind of kick things off here. We have a lot of farmer listeners and things like that. So Jacob, what is agroforestry? Right, let’s just answer that question. Why might it be beneficial in Wisconsin?
Jacob Grace 3:00
Yeah. So agroforestry can describe a lot of different things. Agroforestry is basically using trees for agricultural purposes. Keith Keeley, our executive director likes to say that agroforestry is trees on farms on purpose. So obviously, that can describe all kinds of different things. And there are a lot of different reasons why people might want to have more trees on their farms or be taking advantage of the trees they already have. I know we’ll get into that more later. But for to get started, at least I’ll say that the savanna Institute which I work for is a nonprofit organization working to support agroforestry in the Midwest. So we’re trying to help share information and resources and, and build a community around people who want to do agroforestry on their land.
Will Fulwider 4:00
Cool. Now let’s let’s kind of drop it down a little bit for the farm level. If you take your average Wisconsin farm, that they have agroforestry already there, or they’re hoping to adopt it, what would it look like?
Jacob Grace 4:13
Yeah. So the USDA has outlined a few different examples of agroforestry. And again, thinking about the pretty broad definition of agroforestry. There are 1000s of different ways that agroforestry can look. I mean, it’s it’s practiced all around the world. It’s been practiced for 1000s of years. So it can look different on pretty much every single farm. But the USDA has kind of outlined what it considers five distinct agroforestry practices. And these are good ways to help people kind of visualize what this might look like in the Midwest. So those five practices are windbreaks, which I think we’re all familiar with using true He’s to control airflow riparian buffers, which is similar but thinking about using trees to influence how water moves across the landscape. forest farming, which is not especially common in the Midwest these days, but in other parts of the country, it definitely is where that’s kind of raising crops or managing crops under full canopies in what are really forest ecosystems. So that would be raising things like mushroom or ginseng goldenseal some of these forest crops. And that leaves us the last two. And these are really, I think, the two that I end up talking about the most. And that’s alley cropping, and silvopasture. So one of the questions we get all the time at Savanna Institute is, “If I want to start doing agroforestry, how am I going to get started? How am I going to keep using my farmland? How am I going to keep producing something off it while these trees are growing.” And the two best examples are alley cropping and silvopasture. So if you’re already growing crops, you can do alley cropping, which is planting rows of trees within the crops that you already have growing. And I know Eric’s going to talk a lot more about that. But that’s growing trees, among other crops, and then you’re harvesting those crops, the trees get larger and larger. Eventually, the trees in theory become your primary crop, and you’re making money off of those. So that’s integrating trees into crop farming. And then silvopasture is integrating trees into livestock pasture. And there are many different ways to do that you can do you can start with a woodland that needs some management and fin it out into a silvopasture. You can start with a pasture that doesn’t have any trees and plant trees into it and get a silvopasture. So that can look a few different ways. But a lot of the agroforestry we’re seeing take off these days is either silvopasture. So trees into pastures or livestock or grazing, or ally cropping, which is planting rows of trees into row crop fields. And then I’ll just add kind of finishing up on the the question you started with why this might be beneficial is that so often when we’re thinking about trying to get conservation benefits, like improving our soil health, reducing flooding, holding, keeping soil on farmland, supporting biodiversity, things like that, it feels it sometimes feels like a one or the other, we have to choose between having those conservation benefits or having profitable agriculture. And I think one of the big benefits of agroforestry is that it’s a way to have both, we can have profitable crops that we’re raising. These tree crops or agroforestry crops, that are also providing some of these conservation benefits by providing habitat, you know, building soil, reducing flooding, and things like that.
Michael Geissinger 8:05
Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks, Jacob. I know you mentioned those last two types of agroforestry, alley cropping and silvopasture. And so Eric, I might jump in with a couple of questions for you here. So how would integrating trees into like an alley cropping system or into like a conventional row cropping system? What are the ways that would be affecting row crop production for farms?
Eric Wolske 8:34
Yeah, so it’s pretty multifaceted. It’s a very long term process then changes across the farm system. So your first like one to five years, up to 10 years, you’re not getting quite the same, what you might say a negative impact from the trees. The trees are still relatively small, you’re gonna get more edge effect for your corn or beans or wheat, which can actually help increase some of your yields. Sometimes you get better light penetration, and you get more edges for the farm field. But then, as time goes on, you might start getting more into the trees being the dominant species there, you know, so that’s, that’s more likely about the 10 year mark onwards, depending on what tree crop you’re going with. And at that point, you’re going to get more shading effects that can negatively affect things particularly like your corn, some of the yields right on the edges there. But what most of the research has been showing is that you also get sort of a boost a little bit farther out from that wind braking effect, and that when braking is not just stopping wind, it’s not just preventing lodging, but it’s also helping to prevent some of that dry air from moving across. It can help with keeping a little better soil moisture, a little bit better humidity and the actual canopy of the of the corn crops. Some of the other benefits that you get from that root system is you get reduced nutrient runoff, which can be a pretty big issue, particularly on some of the sloped soils you guys have there in Wisconsin. But another thing to kind of keep in mind and that same same side of the coin for the roots is if you have drain tiles and stuff that can run the year 10 Mark, you might start running into some issues with with the root zones. But one of the one of the practices that you can do is called root pruning. And so that’s essentially driving with a sub soiler along the edges of the tree crops. And that can help drive the tree roots down below where the roots of the corn and and other crops might be. And so you can really kind of help reduce some of that negative impact from the from the roots themselves.
Michael Geissinger 10:45
Yeah, I hadn’t heard of that practice before, but in my head, I suppose it would work. So yeah, something I do a lot of work with is nutrient management. And so it’s interesting that you mentioned, you know, you’re capturing nutrients that are going off the field, which we think about pretty often as an environmental sort of issue. But in this case, you’re actually capturing those nutrients and putting them into the other crop that’s right there. So tree crop. So a little bit different, maybe than like a cover crop scavenging them, but kind of interesting to think about how they’re staying and kind of cycling through the system like that. So that’s some good insights on like the row crop system version of it. Maybe a quick question before we get into pastures would be, you know, what would be typical for a farm as far as like, distance between, you know, areas where they’d be planting trees in a row crop situation?
Eric Wolske 11:45
Yeah, so I think we have a pretty mixed range that we manage ourselves. I think 70 feet is typically on the sort of narrower rows that we do. So that’s 70 feet in between the trees, that usually allows two or three passes, one pass, depending on the size of the equipment, the largest width that we usually have is about 200 feet, 220, right around there. And that’s, around there is when you start kind of losing that benefit of the alley crops themselves when you get towards the middle, and you’re starting to approach what you might consider then a windbreak at that point.
Michael Geissinger 12:24
Yeah, sounds good.
Jacob Grace 12:26
I might jump in there, too. I think in some ways, the practical answer that question is, you know, people ask how far apart should I plant my trees? And I think the answer is you measure your biggest piece of equipment that you’re planning to drive down the alley, and that’s how far apart he is you’re playing your trees or a little bit farther apart, probably.
Eric Wolske 12:46
That distance plus 10, or 12.
Michael Geissinger 12:49
Yeah, yeah. And I know, some farmers still just like multiply it by two sometimes. So they could do two passes. So my other question then is, in relation to silvopasture. Eric, how is that you know, different than the alley cropping? What are the considerations that you’re thinking about in a system like that?
Eric Wolske 13:13
Yeah, so with with silvopastures, you’re now thinking about trees as shading and as forage for the, for the for the livestock. There you also have some considerations in terms of the the pasture itself, and the trees and their impact on the pasture. And so you typically get, once the trees are, you know, fully established, you might get lower yields on your pasture, but University of Missouri has found that the quality actually goes up underneath the shade of trees. So that’s kind of a nice little trade off, you get. So that’s where you’re trying to select purposely select, it’s not just like, I have a pasture and it’s got four oak trees out there. And that’s silvopasture. It’s intentionally planting the right tree crop that you want out there. So something like mulberry or pecan, something that’s going to drop fruit. Locusts have have good bean pods on them that will drop or if it’s something like poplar or also mulberry where you can drop the foliage. And that alone too can be a good source of food and browse for the for the livestock. But then at the end of the day, you have a nice space for the livestock to hang out when it’s hot out, particularly in the summer, that becomes really nice, useful, and in the winter, then it can provide some good spots for the livestock to get protection from the elements.
Will Fulwider 14:44
Great. And I kind of want to, you mentioned a couple of species there. And so I want to kind of turn the conversation over to species selection for both the trees and the crops. You know, we were talking about alley cropping about how corn maybe wouldn’t do as well at year 10. And so I’m curious about, when you’re doing these alley cropping systems, or their tree species that are primo for it as far as both maybe from a timber standpoint, and or like a forest product standpoint, like you’re saying with the nuts and berries or whatever. And also, from the cropping side of things in the beginning, you seem, it doesn’t seem to matter that much, but at year 10, is there maybe a transition of that rotation over to crops that deal better with shade? And have you seen that or experienced that?
Eric Wolske 15:28
Yeah, so I think one good prime example that we can look at globally is in France, they do a lot of black walnut intercropping, with wheat. And so the black walnut trees are high value timber crops, you can make make some really good money with black walnut, grows relatively slow, but you’re looking at at 80 to 120 years until harvest, but you’re getting quite a bit of money from those trees. And what they’ve been doing is planting winter wheat and that black walnut is a pretty late in the season, when it starts to leaf out and might not be leafing out until around May or June at full leaf out. And winter wheat then has had, you know, most of the fall when the trees aren’t as heavily, you know, heavily leaved and through the spring to grow out. And so by the time that the the black walnut are at their, you know, full leaf out, it’s at the point of the lifecycle of wheat, where it doesn’t necessarily need as much light to finish out. So that’s one example. And that’s one that could work well here too. And Wisconsin, black walnut grows quite well. And wheat is a pretty common crop up there. So you know, for selection, that’s one big aspect of it is, you know, trying to get your timings, right. So really utilizing the times when, you know, you might not be getting the leaf on of the trees, but you know, those winter winter, annual crops do really well with that kind of system. And there’s a difference too, I think when you think of the tree crops themselves, you know, silvopasture, you’re definitely looking for something that has either edible foliage, or produces a good fruit or nut that is good for the for the livestock themselves. And you can really utilize those to help particularly you see it more kind of in the fall, sort of the fall drops persimmons and some of the nuts that can help fatten up your hogs and finishing them out. Compared to with alley cropping, you know, you have a pretty multifaceted reasons why people might choose that, whether it’s simply looking at nutrient reduction. And in that case, you know, your tree species selection might be pretty broadly selected based more on what’s not going to affect my my actual crops. And so those might, you might be selecting for more lower growing trees or shrubs. Whereas some people are looking to transition their fields. And so they might be planting at, you know, let’s say 70 feet, row widths, and are planting something like hazelnut or pecan, northern pecan that they can in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, their children or grandchildren, when they take over the farm will have an alternative crop. And so finding ones that work well, you know, now but also with with the, you know, the changing climate, and it’s heating up a little bit more, you know, also thinking 30 years down the line, what’s going to be a good climate and a good crop at that time.
Will Fulwider 18:30
Yeah, absolutely. That makes total sense. I want to jump back to where you’re talking about some of these low growing varieties that might be more suited to maintaining that kind of double crop. You know, there’s the transition, and there’s the ones that hey, can we take the best of both worlds? And I’m just wondering, like, what, what are ones that you work with a lot, that kind of fill that niche.
Eric Wolske 18:51
I think the big one for Wisconsin right now is hazelnut. Hazelnut is sort of a growing market for the Midwest. It was primarily captured from the northwest, Northwest markets, Oregon, Washington, were the primary growers in United States for hazelnuts. They’ve had some issues with diseases, and there’s sort of an opening now, here we have Nutella the ferrero rocher they have a company in Bloomington for processing. So it’s a nice option there. And that one, you know the the height typically stays under about 15 feet, and it’s got a good root system. You can grow it like a shrub so it can work really well for nutrient reduction, while also utilizing those nutrients towards an actual high value crop.
Will Fulwider 19:41
Yeah, and I’m just curious like when you’re trying to find a farm in between these. I guess we’ll call them tree even though hazelnuts kind of more shrub but tree lines. Is it is the harvest season kind of does it work well with our traditional crops here in Wisconsin with corn, wheat and soy where it’s you’re done harvesting with that, and then you get to the hazelnuts or do they kind of line up at the same time and it’s frantic, all hands on deck?
Eric Wolske 20:07
I think that’s where you’re gonna have to be very particular about your your cultivars selection both in your, in your row crops and in your hazelnut crops. Some of them are a little bit earlier harvest, so you’d be able to get to them before you would start on your on your corn or soybeans, they sometimes do line up, that’s sort of the downside of the fall harvesting of everything. But I think that’s definitely something you could work around quite, quite well with.
Will Fulwider 20:36
And so we’re talking about kind of these products that have, especially with hazelnuts that are high value. And Jacob, I want to turn to you and kind of talk a little bit beyond the species or the products themselves. We talked a little bit about nutrient management and how it can reduce nutrient runoff through the species. But, are there benefits beyond that income from the timber, whether it be black walnut, or from these nuts like hazelnuts in these agroforestry systems that you all have worked with?
Jacob Grace 21:06
Yeah, it amazes me how many different ways people find agroforestry, I would say, which to me is a sign of how many different benefits there are for people. Usually I don’t, I’m not trying to convince anyone to do agroforestry usually they come up to me and tell me why they want to do agroforestry. And it is kind of across the board. It’s, you know, people that want another source of income for their farm. If it’s livestock producers, they’re concerned about shade and about heat of their animals. But like you say it’s a lot of other things, too. There are a lot of conservation benefits. People like seeing more wildlife on the farm, they like having a more diversity of plants. I mean, people just like having trees on their farms, trees and shrubs. They look nice, they make people feel like they’re at home. It’s you know, one of the pleasures of of getting to live and work on a farm. And kind of like Eric was saying, I’m talking to more and more people who are thinking about trees and agroforestry as kind of a way to bridge or connect different generations on the farm. So people who have farmland and don’t necessarily know where it’s gonna go, or who’s gonna get it or maybe people who know exactly what, you know who, who’s going to be taking over that land, they want to do something now that can be a benefit to the next generation. And they’re, they’re attracted by the potential of trees. If we have a little time, I wanted to ask Eric, how the harvest is going this fall. So I don’t know how many acres you’re working on now, Eric, but we I know he’s involved in some of our agroforestry demonstration farms in Illinois, where we have very large scale tree plantings. And so yeah, it’s October 9th today, how’s how’s the harvest going? Eric?
Eric Wolske 22:59
hasn’t started yet. I’ve been I’ve been waiting for it. You know, I like getting the drone shots. I’m a drone pilot and a photo aficionado. So for me whenever I can, whenever I get out there when they’re doing the harvest, it’s always very exciting. But we did go through and harvested currents, the summer blackcurrants and spent a fair amount of time harvesting elderberry this year so that was sort of a new and exciting crop we’ve just started working with
Jacob Grace 23:31
Yeah, would you be able to say just a little bit about maybe about Hudson Demonstration Farm I know that’s when I’ve been seeing the drone photos. So that’s a pretty sizable, you know, field scale agroforestry planting?
Eric Wolske 23:46
Yeah, so Hudson, I think it’s Hudson Research and Demonstration Farm is the official name is 120 acre farm. This is in Illinois down in Urbana, Illinois by the University of Illinois. And this, this site is a good demonstration of windbreaks. There are I believe 11 or 12 different types of windbreaks out there, ranging in various species compositions. It also has an alley cropping system on site. So we have roughly 70 acres of corn and bean rotation with various sized alley crops planted in between, ranging from a one to a three row alley crop system and spacing ranging from 70 feet up to I think 240 feet is the wider one. And then also on that site. We also have 15 acres of hazelnuts as sort of a demonstration, but also a little bit of research going on trying to determine if tree forms versus shrub form hazelnuts are better. We got I think four or five different cultivars, new releases from collaboration with the University of Oregon, University of Nebraska, and Rutgers. And the same site then we also have about six acres of elderberries production grown in between Hartnett trees, which is Japanese walnut that’s for food production. And also blackcurrants with, I think six different cultivars of blackcurrants grown on that site. So it’s it’s a very sizable Demonstration Farm. It, I think shows, you know, a few of the more common agroforestry practices that we see. And so this year it’s in corn last year was in beans, beans are, you know, kind of exciting from a from a drone shot aerial footage. But I am incredibly excited for the corn harvest. The corn looks actually relatively good given the drought we had this year and associate makes some, some pretty exciting videos coming up soon.
Jacob Grace 25:59
Maybe I’ll ask Eric, just because I’m curious, what’s been one of the biggest challenges with you know, I know you guys aren’t doing the corn and bean management, but kind of trying to raise trees in the middle of corn and bean production,
Eric Wolske 26:13
I think it’s probably the same as the corn and bean farmers themselves. Drought makes it very difficult. And so we’ve had two years in a row now of pretty pretty hard droughts over the summer. And just like corn and beans, the trees don’t do well, particularly early on with a drought. So for establishment that makes it difficult. And similarly, weed control can actually be really difficult. So those first couple years for the trees, they really need good weed control. Otherwise, you know, the weeds typically can choke out trees pretty pretty well, anyone who’s ever tried planting some trees in their backyard can can attest to how difficult it can be to keep a tree alive in the early stages. So that’s another one that’s can be pretty challenging for us is just maintaining good proper weed control, finding the right herbicide mixes or mechanical methods that can help keep weeds under control, and doing it all in a cost effective way. So, in particular, you know, some of these alley crops are for timber or stuff that might not be quite as high value as you know, as a as a nut over fruit production. But so it can be a little hard to justify the cost to go out there and to pay that extra money to actually keep the weeds under control, so your trees can establish. So that’s been a few of our, I think, major challenges, overall.
Will Fulwider 27:42
I’m curious with the with the drought that we’ve had, like you mentioned over the past two summers, in the more established agroforestry systems, you know, where you have more shading, have you seen kind of those row crops that are working within these more established systems do better as a result of that shading or windbreak or what have you?
Eric Wolske 28:05
Honestly, it’s kind of variable, it really depends a little bit on the soil types that we see. And even then the placement, you know. If it’s on the, the, you know, the south side, you know, we kind of see sometimes a little bit more a little more issues compared it on the north side, a little bit better shading. So it can be kind of mixed, we do notice that the soil will stay a little bit more moist in those areas, especially when they get that shade coming. And I think the crops really can benefit from that. But again, in other spots if the if it’s on the other side of the windbreak where the winds coming from, we can see it, you know definitely can impact the crop some overall,
Michael Geissinger 28:49
This is kind of a variation of a question that we would typically ask on all of our different episodes. And we can dive into it as much as we’d like. But maybe I’ll have Eric give his impression first. So what steps like if somebody’s you know, just learning about agroforestry and this kind of stuff, whether it’s a alley cropping or silvopasture. What steps would someone take if they’re interested in trying to integrate this on their farm in Wisconsin?
Eric Wolske 29:24
I mean, obviously, the first step is listening to podcasts like these. I know there’s plenty of good resources out there that will, you know, perhaps help entice you or help sway you in one form of agroforestry or another. The other great options are organizations like Savanna Institute. They have technical service providers that if you’re like, “Yep, I’m doing it and I just need to start going through these steps.” They can help you know, help you get through what’s government assistance, then cost offsets available and some of the design aspects, our own company canopy farm management, we have project managers that can also walk you through a very similar process. If you need help with tree planting or acquiring tree tubes, or even cultivars selection, we’re able to do that with with our company. Or if you say, hey, I want to be able to do it myself. Probably jsut need access to a tree planter. I think there’s some people in Extension that can help you track down who maybe in the NRCS might be able to get you that tree planter you need for specific times and what nurseries to be looking for. So I think there’s a pretty multi, plenty of options out there if you know, I think both private nonprofit and public extension work that you can go to and start tracking down the areas that you need to, you know, to go through and get this actually planted and established.
Will Fulwider 29:31
Great, well, Jacob and Eric, thanks for coming on chatting with us today. We really appreciate it.
Jacob Grace 31:05
Thank you both. It’s been great to be here.
Eric Wolske 31:11
Yeah, thanks for having us.
Will Fulwider 31:12
Thanks for listening. This has been Field Notes from UW Madison extension. My name is Will Fulwider, regional crops educator for Dane and Dodge counties. I was joined by my co host Michael Geissinger, outreach specialists in Northwest Wisconsin for the Nutrient and Pest Management program of UW Madison. A big thank you to Joe Ryan for creating our theme music and Abby Wilkymacky for our logo. If you have any questions about anything you’ve heard today, or about your farming practices in general, reach out to the extension agriculture educators serving your region
Transcribed by https://otter.ai