SPRING GREEN - ‘Agriculture as a Climate Solution: Just Add Trees’ was the subject of a talk recently by Savanna Institute’s Keefe Keeley and Barbara Decre. The talk was part of a ‘Climate and Energy Series’ put on by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters.
Savanna Institute’s co-executive director Keefe Keeley, a North Crawford alumni, said that since 1960, carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere have increased dramatically. Carbon dioxide has reached the highest levels in the atmosphere seen in 800,000 years.
While reducing the amount of carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere is of critical importance in slowing and reversing the impacts of climate change, agriculture offers many solutions that can help significantly. Of all the agricultural practices or land uses that have potential to store carbon, agroforestry, according to Keeley, stands out in the crowd.
Other strong contenders for agricultural solutions are pastureland restoration, and methods to store more carbon in agricultural fields, through alley cropping or by planting cover crops.
Agroforestry can combine with these kinds of practices to store exponentially more carbon, while being integrated either with pasture-based livestock production or on croplands. It is simply a farming system that integrates trees, crops and livestock, and is considered a ‘top 10’ climate solution according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Project Drawdown.
“I like to call Agrofoestry planting trees on purpose,” Keeley said. “Among the many benefits of agroforestry, in addition to diversification of farm economies, are that it is a natural climate solution, helps to purify the water, promotes sustainable communities, increases biodiversity on working lands, produces healthy, local food, and can increase livestock comfort.”
Agrofestry can be broken down into five distinct practices:
• Alleycropping – the cultivation of crops in the alleys between regularly spaced rows of trees or shrubs
• Silvopasture – the intentional integration of trees, pasture and livestock, managed as a single system
• Riparian buffers – mixed vegetation at the edges of streams
• Windbreaks – strips of trees and shrubs designed to enhance crop or livestock production while providing conservation benefits
• Forest Farming – raising crops in the shaded understory of the forest, for instance shitake mushrooms or ginseng.
Keeley told the group that the Savanna Institute offers a broad variety of services to support wider adoption of agroforestry. Those include:
• education and outreach
• landholder engagement and planning to support agroforestry adoption
• a demonstration farm network
• commercialization of different agroforestry crops and market development
• new business: Canopy Farm Management
The group has long operated demonstration farms in ‘corn belt’ areas in Illinois, and has recently expanded their operations to the Spring Green area. In addition to the farm added last summer east of Spring Green, they have acquired two additional farms in Sauk and Iowa counties. The Sauk County property is in rural Spring Green, near Jones Road. The Iowa County property is in the Lowery Creek watershed.
In 2022, the Savanna Institute launched their new business, Canopy Farm Management. Canopy provides tree planting and management services to farmers and landowners in the Midwest. They help to establish perennial crops, timber plantings, conservation practices, and integrated agroforestry systems. They combine expert staff, thoughtful design, and a mobile fleet of state-of-the-art farm equipment to cost-effectively establish and manage profitable, diverse, and resilient agroecological systems.
In an effort to overcome the major bottleneck in the supply of high quality plant material, Canopy also operates a plant nursery out of their Spring Green hub. The nursery produces a wide range of perennial plants, with an emphasis on productive tree crops such as chestnut, walnut, pecan, hazelnut, heartnut, persimmon, pawpaw, black currant, and elderberry.
According to Keeley, the work on the first farm acquired by the Savanna Institute in the summer of 2021 will be to demonstrate how agroforestry can be integrated with large-scale conventional agricultural production.
Another property near Jones Road in rural Spring Green, has very uniform soils and is similar to the kinds of agricultural landscapes found in central Illinois. This farm will be used for side-by-side trials of different agroforestry production techniques and trials of different perennial crops.
The third property acquired in 2021 on Lowery Creek in Iowa County will be used for education and events.
Barbara Decre is the Savanna Institute’s Wisconsin community agro-forester. In her role, Decre meets with landowners to discuss the benefits of agroforestry, and how best to consider integrating them into their farm operations for a variety of benefits.
“When I meet with landowners, I tell them about the ‘new green revolution’ in progress as the planet struggles to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Decre said. “In a visit, we discuss new and better economic options for farmers and landowners, practices that will attract and sustain the next generation to stay on, or return to, the farm, and how farmers and landowners have great potential to be climate heroes.”
Decre said the Savanna Institute provides free, one-on-one support for landowners and farmers in Southern Wisconsin, the Fox and Sheboygan river watersheds, and Northern and Central Illinois.
At least two new local projects are or may soon be in the works. Already approved and on the calendar for 2022, Organic Valley grass-fed milk producers Tucker and Becky Gretebek will work with the Savanna Institute, Wisconsin Land + Water, The Nature Conservancy, and the Monroe County Climate Change Task Force on an agroforestry installation on their pasturelands.
“I’ve seen pictures of our farm from back in the day, and you could see all kinds of trees that provided shade for the cows,” Tucker observed. “When the farm was rented out before we bought it for row crop production, the trees were the first thing that went.”
Gretebek says he is hoping to increase his farm operation sustainability through using trees to sequester more carbon, while also using trees to increase the comfort of his dairy cows in the hot summer months.
In all, Gretebek says he plans to plant about 1,000 trees, following the contours in his pastures, and using the trees as breaks in his paddocks. His tree mix will include Black Walnut, and Honey Locust, interspersed with Aspen and Popple.
Matt Wilson, technical service provider with the Savanna Institute, is consulting with the Gretebeks on the project.
“Matt came out and walked the land with us, and helped us design the tree plantings,” Gretebek said. “He told us about the research the Savanna Institute is doing into different tree crops – I’m super excited about the Chestnut research they’re doing.”
Christina Anderson of Wisconsin Land + Water met Gretebek at the kickoff the Monroe County ‘Climate Readiness and Rural Economic Opportunity’ study. Anderson chaired the climate and agricultural subcommittee of the study.
“We are looking to use funding from The Nature Conservancy to put agricultural and forestry demonstration projects on the landscape starting in the summer of 2022,” Anderson said. “What we hope to gain from these projects is measuring the carbon sequestration that is appreciated from the practices, and to show other producers what is possible. We want to better understand how to get the biggest climate mitigation bang for our buck.”
Anderson said that Wisconsin Land + Water is looking to develop capacity in local conservation districts for climate mitigation projects. She said her department welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with Monroe County and Organic Valley, and wants to ensure that the process works for all of the stakeholders in the project.
Gretebek said he is also working with Organic Valley’s (OV) Lexi Leum on the project. Leum works in OV’s sustainability department. The cooperative is interested in pursuing their climate neutral goals through on-farm projects, and is interested in the results of the project on the Gretebek farm.
“It seems like so many exciting things are all happening at once, and they’re all coming together in this project on my farm,” Gretebek said. “From Organic Valley’s climate neutrality work, to the Monroe County Climate Change Task Force, to the Savanna Institute’s new Spring Green campus, to the new Coon Creek Community Watershed Council, it’s an exciting time to live where I live.”
The Savanna Institute also reports that an exciting silvopasture project may be in the works for the Josh Kozelka farm in Marietta Township, in Crawford County, if the funding is secured. That project would convert a 25-acre farm into contoured strips of various fruiting trees and shrubs, in between grassed pastures used to raise cattle, and possibly sheep.
Species the landowner hopes to plant on the property, if funded, are very diverse, and include Red Oak, Honey Locust, Juneberries, Red Mulberries, Chestnuts, Raspberries, Pawpaws, Elderberries and Aronia Berries.
“When I bought my farm, it was all in hay, and I immediately started to envision a silvopasture project combining fruiting trees and shrubs, and livestock,” Kozelka said. “I think the way to go is to observe natural systems, see what works and why, and then try to mimic those as applicable in a farm system for our own benefit.”
Kozelka said that a major motivation for adopting a silvopasture project on his land is to provide his animals with greater shelter in the winter months. He also plans to use some of the species such as Honey Locust and Red Mulberries as part of his cattle’s forage mix. Apparently cattle love to eat the Honey Locust pods in the fall when they drop.
“From this land use, I will be able to harvest fruit and firewood from my trees, and beef from my pastures,” Kozelka explained. “Meanwhile my cattle will be out there, spreading their manure and urine, and helping my tree species to grow better, and I will realize a greater harvest from the same amount of space, and all the species integrated in the system will work together and benefit each other.”
According to USDA-NRCS District Conservationist for Crawford County, Karyl Fritsche, funding for projects like this is available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as part of their grazing and silvopasture program.
“The conservation goal to be pursued through funding a project like this would overall be improvement of soil health,” Fritsche said. “What this means is greater capacity of the soil to hold water, better soil structure and fertility, and increased carbon sequestration.”
Agroforestry practices prioritized by USDA-NRCS for 2022 include silvopasture, alley cropping, and riparian forest buffers. In 2022, there are new payment scenarios, practices standards and guidance documents. The agricultural practice allows for harvest of fruits, nuts, ornamentals and timber. The Savanna Institute is listed as one of USDA-NRCS’ technical service providers, and can work with NRCS staff and landowners on the planning of projects.