By Tom Parker
Those same trends are now putting trees in a new light through the practice of agroforestry, an intensive integration of trees and shrubs into agricultural systems. But for successful—and profitable—integration, landowners must rethink trees as essential components rather than optional or undesirable. In short, trees have to provide tangible benefits.
“We need to put working trees back on the farm,” said Gene Garrett, University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry. “They’re there for a purpose. Trees are crops, just like hogs and cattle, and farmers should be thinking of them as having value.”
Garrett, along with other local and internationally-recognized experts on agroforestry practices, spoke on the subject at a two-day workshop in Topeka on May 20-21. The workshop was sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union, the Kansas Forest Service and other partners.
At the time of Kansas’ statehood in 1861, trees were a scarce commodity. Settlement depended on wood for building settlements, bridges, railroads—infrastructure for an expanding civilization—but with only 4.5 million acres of forest available, demand far outstripped supply. One solution was to enact bounties rewarding farmers to plant trees. The first bounty, fifty cents per acre for planting and cultivating trees, was offered in 1865, and increased three years later to two dollars per acre, as well as additional bounties for creating windbreaks along public roads. In 1873 the legislature upped the ante by offering 160 acres of land in return for planting 40 acres of trees.
“Kansans like trees,” said Larry Biles, State Forester with the Kansas Forest Service. “We have a long history of trying to promote and grow trees across the state.”
Unfortunately, Kansans also have a long history of forgetting. Windbreaks and hedgerows planted in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl are being eradicated to provide more cropland, and trees, once so critical to frontier settlements, are often regarded as a type of weed.
“I’ve seen a lot of trees going out, but the decisions we make are driven by short-term policies or economic decisions,” said Rich Straight, Forest Service Lead Agroforester for the USDA’s National Agroforestry Center. “Not everyone is in favor of trees.”
Garrett’s definition—the manipulation and utilization of biological and physical interactions among components to yield multiple harvestable products while providing numerous conservation and ecological benefits to the farm—is based on five fundamental practices: alley-cropping, silvopasture, riparian buffers, windbreaks and forest farming, what he called “the newest kid on the block.”
The practice is intensive rather than passive, the deliberate and intentional combination of elements working together. Proper site location, proper species, proper climate and proper maintenance are necessary for elements to work in conjunction with one another, Garrett said. Above all, proper planning is essential.
“When you talk about putting trees with crops, it sounds simple,” he said. “It isn’t, not at all. You have to understand the fundamental relationships between them.” The amount of shade falling on the understory, tree spacing, alley width, types of forage, surface root depth, and other factors play important roles in harmonic integration.
While Kansans are familiar with windbreaks and riparian buffer zones, alley-cropping, silvopasture and forest farming are relatively new terms, though they’ve been around since the early 1970s.
Alley-cropping is the production of an annual or perennial crop planted between rows of high-value trees chosen for the value of their lumber or their nuts. Desirable species include various species of oaks—bur, red, white—loblolly pine, slash pine, longleaf pine, pecan, and, above all, black walnut, but only under precise conditions.
“Not only do you have the option of nut production with black walnut, you also have wood production,” Garrett said. “It’s a very valuable tree, but you have to plant it in the right place and you have to take care of it.”
An example of successful working trees is the Missouri pine straw industry. Pine straw, or needles, fall in prodigious numbers every two years on some long-leaf pines, and is used for ornamental mulch. A one-acre test plot produced almost 200 35-pound bales of pine straw within seven years of planting, with a retail selling price of six to nine dollars per bale. That averaged to between $100 and $350 net per acre, Garrett said, and that’s before factoring in timber sales.
Potential companion crops are row cereal crops, forage crops, woody florals, specialty crops—“anything that has market value and that will grow on that site,” he said.
Silvopasture builds on the concept by integrating livestock with forage and trees into a single system. The term derives from the root “silvo,” or the art and science of tending and producing a forest, said Dusty Walter, Director of the Natural Resource Management MOAES. “It’s the most efficient system to satisfy the changing demands of human society within the natural environment,” he said.
Silvopasture, which integrates three components—tree-shade management, livestock husbandry and forage management—can be facilitated by putting pastures into forests or trees into pastures. If the former, the highest-quality and most valuable trees should be spared while creating paddocks, and remaining trees thinned around the crown to allow in more light. How much light depends on the type of forage and companion crops in the understory. If the latter, trees should be protected by hot-wires to prevent damage from animals and clean water should be available every 800 feet.
Silvopasture is not, he insisted, one or two trees in a pasture where cows congregate for shade. “That causes problems with overgrazing, soil compaction and high concentrations of nutrients,” he said. “We don’t want cows to concentrate in certain areas for long periods of time.”
Integrating silvopasture differs from forest grazing by a number of factors, many of which pose challenges to landowners, said Carol Williams, University of Missouri Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “It can be complex, and these challenges aren’t trivial,” she said. Besides needing specialized equipment to thin forest canopies, the practice requires knowledge of forest management, water resource development, fertilizer management and control, animal husbandry, and pasture management.
“But,” she added, “although it seems daunting, a few fundamentals can keep one to the path.”
Garrett agreed. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. “You have to be thinking ahead for this; you have to be creative. And don’t be afraid of it. Anything is possible when you’re out there working with plants. You have to dream a little. You can replace trees pretty easily. Go out there and have fun with the trees.”
For more information on agroforestry, contact your nearest USDA NRCS office, county extension office, soil & water conservation district, Kansas Forest Service at 785-532-3310, or the USDA National Agroforestry Center at 402-437-5178.
Amazing Grazing is a collaboration of the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Graziers Association. Funding for this project was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. For more information on upcoming workshops sponsored by Amazing Grazing, visit AmazingGrazingKansas.com.