Agroforestry Movement Takes Root

Joe Pizzo and Mike Ortiz, who serve on the Board of Directors for White Lion Farms, an organization the provides agricultural opportunities for returning veterans, sit on the back of a planting tractor to plant hybrid nut tree seedlings on a ridge in Cambridge, New York.


Last May a crew gathered at Kevin Maher’s farm in Cambridge, New York, with an ambitious goal for the weekend: to plant 10,000 hazelnut trees in open fields on the hilly, largely wooded 240-acre property.

The project was the first to be undertaken by Agroforestry Management LLC, a new company Maher founded with Jared Woodcock, a native of the neighboring town of White Creek. Their business is dedicated to spreading the practice of “forest agriculture” — in which tree crops like nuts are planted in widely spaced rows that allow space for complementary farming activities — in New York’s Washington County and beyond.

The effort is part of a broader movement, inspired by the well-known Wisconsin farmer and author Mark Shepard, that aims to get thousands of acres in the region planted with chestnuts, hazelnuts and Korean pine nuts. If it succeeds, supporters say the agroforestry movement has the potential to radically transform large-scale agriculture both locally and nationally.

In this region, where New York and New England meet, the idea of growing nut trees commercially marks a significant break with convention. The local agricultural landscape is dominated by corn and forages like hay, that are mainly destined to feed dairy cows. The only tree crops commonly harvested locally are maple syrup and apples.

The thought of planting rows of nut trees on cropland and hilly fields probably would strike many farmers in the region as a cockamamie scheme unlikely to ever take hold. Maher and Woodcock aim to disprove that by scaling up their vision for regenerative farming.

The concept is to put nut trees at the center of their farming operations while encouraging complementary agricultural enterprises — from pastured livestock to fruit-bearing shrubs or vegetable production — in the ample alleyways between rows of nut trees.

Supporters say this system offers both financial and environmental benefits by developing diverse, high-value crops and by reducing soil erosion, improving soil health and fostering biological diversity. And the trees planted for agroforestry would absorb the atmospheric carbon that contributes to climate change and put it back into the soil.

Maher and Woodcock say success depends on pursuing the concept on a large scale. A critical mass of nut producers will be needed to justify the processing and marketing infrastructure that would give growers outlets beyond U-pick operations, farmers’ markets and online sales. While they work with local farmers and landowners, their primary focus is partnering with investors to purchase farms on which to establish these large agroforestry systems. Combining these methods, Maher and Woodcock aim to get 4,000 acres of nut trees in the ground within a decade.

Seeking a bigger impact

Several other farmers and landowners are putting the concept of agroforestry into practice independently around the region, including two with nut tree plantings in an adjacent county.

But the project started by Maher and Woodcock stands out for its ambitious scale. The two partners say they began with a vision, inspired by Shepard, and created their limited liability company as a means to realize that vision. They decided to partner with accredited investors — wealthy or high-income individuals who meet federal rules that allow them to participate in riskier, and potentially more lucrative, investments.

“We could go to banks and other conventional lenders, or we could work with humans who have the same belief system and can contribute money,” Woodcock explained. “That is why we prefer to work with equity partners.”

Maher, who previously worked in the world of finance and first became interested in farming because of a family health issue, says the nut trees are the sort of investment that requires patience.

“Essentially what we are doing is building a biological factory, so there are start-up costs and labor costs,” Maher said. “Then you have a consistent yield that can last for generations and sequester carbon and increase biodiversity.”

Their company is using investor funds to acquire land, buy and plant seedlings and sustain the trees during the early years. The investors will share in the proceeds from crop sales when the trees mature. At this stage in the development of their business, they are working hard to “prove out” their model, Maher explained.

Over time, Agroforestry Management aims to help other farmers join the movement. Once the processing infrastructure is established, other farmers will have the opportunity to use these perennial crops to diversify their operations with less risk. “We will be working with farmers wherever possible, but we are not raising capital for them,” Maher clarified.

“No one farmer can afford to create that critical mass alone,” Woodcock said. “And groups of farmers can’t risk everything to plant it all at once.”

Maher said they are focusing first on establishing parcels to demonstrate that the model can work. And those parcels will be larger ones. Getting 400 acres established will allow them to put a small-scale processing facility in place, and achieving that milestone will make planting nut trees a more viable option.

“There are two sides to it,” Maher explained. “If we’re working with investors and they see the progress, they may be comfortable before we reach full maturity. As people see it go from theory to implementation, I think we’ll be able to move faster.”

Woodcock said their company is unusual in several ways, especially because farmers and land stewards will make all the land management decisions. He and Maher see that ground rule as a safeguard allowing farmers to use their best judgment to sustain the enterprise and the integrity of the agricultural ecosystem.

“What’s so progressive about our model is that we’re the only for-profit organization that has a pathway for farmers to earn equity in the land and business with their labor and commitment,” Woodcock explained.

Photos by Joan Lentini

A tree-planting adventure

At Maher’s farm, the planting crew was tasked with getting thousands of bare-rooted hybrid hazelnut seedlings into the ground. The crew consisted of a core group of five or six people, with others showing up to help for a few hours here and there. At any one time, eight or ten people were contributing their labor.

Shepard, the author and a national leader in the agroforestry movement, traveled to upstate New York from Wisconsin to lead the first planting of nut trees for the business he’d inspired Maher and Woodcock to start. For years, he has been helping to guide similar installations around the country.

As a nurseryman, Shepard had selected and grown the tree seedlings that were being planted. Shepard also came to offer his expertise in water management and to teach the growers how to lay out the orchard rows to more evenly distribute water and prevent erosion.

“The task is to spread water out by the way you plant, rather than by draining the land,” he explained. His strategy is to keep the water on the land for the benefit of the plants, while managing it so that it isn’t a destructive force, whether through erosion or by oversaturated soil, which can cause plant disease.

Over the course of that one weekend in 2019, the crew was able to plant 10,000 hazelnut trees in long rows that curve and meander with the contours of the topography. On Saturday they labored for 14 hours to plant 5,700 hazelnuts. The next day their performance was much improved. That Sunday they were able to plant 4,000 hazelnuts on a lower, flatter field in just five hours.

On Monday, Maher jubilantly announced, “We cranked out a 10-acre planting in a day and a half.”

Just a week and a half later, thanks to warm weather and plentiful rain, some of the vigorous seedlings were already starting to leaf out.

Yet another reason that Maher is excited about the prospect of growing hazelnuts in upstate New York is that they can be grown as part of natural ecosystem, rather than in a sterile monoculture. In Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, the U.S. epicenter of hazelnut production, land is very expensive at $20,000 to $50,000 an acre and growers employ harsh practices to produce a hazelnut crop. “They nuke the land [fumigate it] and laser plane it,” Maher said.

Lessons of forestry and life

Meeting the ambitious goal of planting thousands of nut trees in a couple days hadn’t been a sure thing. The tree planters were working with borrowed equipment that malfunctioned. A local nursery dropped off a tree planter, and a generous neighbor lent them a tractor.

But the pull-behind tree planter had come with a broken coulter. That essential piece of iron cuts the sod into which the trees are to be planted. Having grown up on a farm, around practical trades, Woodcock was able to take apart the coulter on the spot and repair and sharpen it. A grateful Maher marveled at his skill.

Woodcock traces his interest in forest agriculture back to his father, who had a passion for the American chestnut. One day in his boyhood, when he was working with his dad in the woods, they happened upon a large chestnut tree.

American chestnuts had been all but wiped out by a fungal disease in the early 20th century. Woodcock remembers the intensity of his father’s excitement at discovering a survivor.

“We planted out its nuts in the yard,” he said. The nuts that grew into trees produced chestnuts, though all of them eventually fell ill from the blight.

Woodcock, 37, brings crucial agricultural skills to the project of planting trees and managing the land. “I took these life lessons for granted until I went to college and realized most people weren’t as lucky as me to grow up in a way that allowed me to learn how to use tools and get things done,” he said.

“My mother always says, ‘Necessity breeds invention.’ That’s her way of saying, ‘I’m not going to buy it for you. Go and figure it out.’”

Woodcock currently makes his living as a private forest manager and grows food for his family on their homestead. With his workhorses he does woods work year round for private landowners. Previously, for several years, he helped get the agriculture program off the ground at the State University of New York’s regional campus (SUNY Adirondack), inspiring students to work with new paradigms for ecological agriculture. Before that, he managed the farm at Merck Forest in Vermont for a couple years.

He compares working a homestead to having a big garden. “It’s based on beauty and poetry,” he said.

In his opinion, full-time farming is “not as fun.” But he recognizes its necessity — and its benefits.

“We know that tree crops have a positive effect on the ecosystem services that we humans depend on,” he said. “And they also produce a long-term food crop, so it’s win-win.”

Cal O’Connell, a landscaper from Cambridge New York, hand-checks the newly planted nut tree seedlings on a planed ridge. The seedlings are a hybrid of American and European nut trees developed to be hardy and to promote a naturally functioning ecosystem of self-sustainable growth.

Finance to farming

Maher came to the partnership from an altogether different background: He moved up to his rural upstate New York county from suburban New Jersey, where he’d been a commodity trader.

“We chose to move up here because my ex-wife was from the region,” he explained. “In 2011, I had stepped back from my trading career and was home with my kids.”

A family health issue with food intolerances first prompted his shift in priorities in the early 2000s. Looking into the source and quality of their food, the Mahers educated themselves about the food system. This exploration led them to join the community supported agriculture project at Farm in Blairstown, N.J. Started by visionary Catholic nun Sr. Miriam MacGillis and run under the sponsorship of Dominican sisters, Genesis Farm was one of the first farms in the country to follow the CSA concept, in which a farm’s customers pay in advance to buy shares of each year’s harvest. Maher wound up serving on the farm’s board of directors for a time.

“I was being made aware of issues in agriculture and how we grow our food and the impacts it has had on ecosystems,” he recalled.

On his suburban house lot of one-third of an acre, Maher and his family had a forest garden – a landscape of edible perennials – installed as a Genesis Farm workshop.

“We had pear and plum trees in the upper story,” he recalled. “Below these fruit trees were other edibles, like goumi, a relative of the autumn olive; bush cherry trees; raspberry canes; and tuber-producing Chinese artichokes, as well as all sorts of medicinal and culinary herbs.”

Even before he moved to this area, Maher was familiar with the work Shepard had been doing in Wisconsin. And he had just this type of project in mind when he decided to buy his semi-mountainous property in Cambridge, though he lacked the requisite practical know-how to realize his dream.

Soon after moving to the area, he met Woodcock at the Cambridge farmers market. The two men were inspired by Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture, which came out in 2012. Two years later, they both met Shepard when he did a weekend workshop just down the road in Stephentown, New York.

Shepard told them he thought this region was perfectly suited for his agroforestry model, and they began discussing how to overcome the initial hurdles to implementing that model – especially the cost and delayed payback of planting tree crops.

Maher has used his financial skills to guide the limited liability company he and Woodcock formed. In 2018 they brought in Jisoo Noh, a lawyer in the Philadelphia area who Maher said had been a close friend since high school.

“We’ve been looking for a diversity of skills and background to build our woody crop company,” he said.

Keeping farming viable

As the architect of agroforestry, Shepard’s work has drawn interest around the country. While he was in the area working with Maher and Woodcock last spring, he led a two-hour workshop on “restoration agriculture” hosted by the Agricultural Stewardship Association, a regional farmland conservation group. Despite minimal advance notice, the workshop attracted more than 50 people, some from a couple hours away.

Teri Ptacek, the executive director of the Agricultural Stewardship Association, said Shepard’s work offers an intriguing model for helping to sustain working farms in the region, where dairy has been dominant.

“Farm viability has always been a part of our mission.” Ptacek said. “We’re particularly concerned about what kinds of effects climate change is having on agriculture. That’s why we’re interested in hosting programs that orient farmers toward adopting practices that sequester carbon and build soil health so their land is more resilient.”

Promoters of agroforestry say that its benefits flow from the creation of perennial polycultures – in other words, growing multiple perennial plant species together rather than a typical monoculture of corn or other annuals.

Trees transpire as a matter of course, providing natural cooling during the growing season and helping to prevent drought. Tree plantings are better able to withstand the weather extremes associated with climate change than annual crops with smaller root systems.

Forest agriculture reduces farmers’ workload as well as their costs, such as those for chemical inputs, like the fertilizers and biocides normally used for corn and other row crops. And the concept offers the potential for better economic sustainability due to the potential high value of tree nuts and the fact that multiple enterprises can coexist on the same acreage.

Another advantage of mixed plantings or polycultures is their greater productivity compared to monocultures, Shepard told his audience. When plantings contain more than a single species, he said, they capture more sunlight and produce more biomass.

Shepard started with the premise that trees are superior to annual crops in their resilience and their capacity to heal the land.

More than 20 years ago, he founded Forest Agriculture Enterprises, a nursery where he’s been breeding productive, cold-hardy chestnut and hazelnut hybrids for use as perennial alternatives to corn and soybeans. His 105-acre New Forest Farm in southwestern Wisconsin has offered a demonstration of how agricultural soils degraded by row cropping in corn can be restored through conversion into a perennial agricultural system.

Shepard has long wanted to see his vision implemented on a larger scale. Most of those who’ve tried it so far have done small plantings that are too widely dispersed geographically to create any kind of critical mass.

But now in several areas of the Midwest, and in the Ithaca area of New York, nut growers are scaling up their orchards and banding together to form co-operatives to support needed processing facilities. Shepard believes that 4,000 acres of nut trees would be an appropriate target to create the level of crop production needed to support processing and marketing. And that’s the goal that Maher and Woodcock are seeking to reach.

Attracting new nut growers

Lawrie Nickerson owns Hay Berry Farm LLC in Hoosick Falls, a property with a lot of hilly land. She grows perennial crops on the limited level portion of the farm but until recently hadn’t been able to figure out what to do with the slopes.

Last spring, Nickerson went to hear Mark Shepard speak at the Agricultural Stewardship Association event. While that evening almost immediately changed the future of her farm, allowing her to finally begin to fulfill her aspirations for the land, it was only “by a fluke” that she attended.

“I wanted to do this for so long, but I didn’t have the sense that anyone had the scope or the vision or the experience,” she said.

Shepard had come to the area to consult with Maher and Woodcock for Agroforestry LLC. He would be laying out swales to manage water in future nut tree plantings. (His new water management book, Water for Any Farm, gives very specific guidance on how to plant on hills.)

After his talk, a crowd of people surrounded him so Nickerson made a beeline to Maher to tell him that she had land and was interested in joining the agroforestry project.

“Two weeks later I had 6,000 hazelnuts. They had plants that someone else had ordered but had decided not to plant,” Nickerson said. Her response: “Wait a minute! It had all happened so fast!” But she was also elated to find her dream becoming a reality.

Since she had purchased her farm in 2007, Nickerson had been trying to find a way to make use of its hills that made ecological sense. Unwilling to plow up these hills, she had refrained from planting them.

Instead she took the path of least resistance and left the hilly lands on her farm in grass. For a while, she grazed sheep in an effort to diversify and stabilize the farm income. Now all the grass is mowed for hay.

“My main hay customers are goat breeders. Goats do really well on these hays,” she said, explaining that they really like the brushy weeds. But to her, it always seemed like a waste to just sell hay.

“I’ve been teased by the idea of permaculture in the hills for years. I’ve approached several people, but all were dead ends,” she reported.

Nickerson was raised to respect the natural world. She describes her mother, who practiced law, as “a renaissance woman,” who “exuded an understanding of the environment.” When her family moved to a little hamlet on Long Island, her mother persuaded all of their neighbors to stop spraying for gypsy moth so that the birds would return.

In the early 1980s, Nickerson joined the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, not long after the organization formed. She found her niche as a landscaper, preferring to work with trees and shrubs.

“I was 60-something when I found this farm,” she said. The farm has allowed her to pursue her dream of growing perennials. She put in three acres of no-spray blueberries, which she runs as a U-pick operation. This solved the problem of marketing since Hay Berry Farm is located in “a perfect spot” on a state route between the small cities of Troy, New York, and Bennington, Vermont. Besides the blueberries, she also grows other U-pick perennials, including lavender, rhubarb, and asparagus, and she raises shitake mushrooms in the woods. They attend a nearby farmers’ market across the border in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

The U-pick crops make use of the farm’s flat terrain, which is on gravel deposited by the glaciers. Since it’s very well drained, it has to be irrigated. This flat land is also the lowest area and thus in somewhat of a frost pocket.

Financially, Hay Berry Farm is in the black. Nickerson doesn’t subsidize it, nor does she draw income from her operation. Farm expenses include payroll. She has one full-time employee over most of the year as well as summer workers.

Nickerson finds the agroforestry project to be very exciting for several other reasons. “I tuned into it as a farm project. The effort is to be on a bigger scale, not just a backyard project,” she said.

Not only is it “doable for farmers,” but it also fits the needs of their underutilized resource base, namely their untillable hills. In the northeast, she said, many of these deforested hills are going to scrub because people keep their cows in barns.

She is also pleased that, as a member of the project, she is not alone, but a participant with other like-minded farmers in the region.
Installing a nut orchard

Last spring, shortly after he made that local presentation, Mark Shepard came out to Hay Berry Farm. “He surveyed it with Jared [Woodcock] and laid out the lines for cuts to manage the water and indicating where to plant. Gravity is a blessing for these hills,” she added.

“My cuts are 90 feet apart. We are planning very large alleyways to be hayed or grazed,” she explained. That’s also the initial row spacing for the chestnuts to be planted this spring, as soon as the plant material arrives.

A year ago, when it was time to plant the hazelnuts, a local nurseryman loaned them a planter. With Woodcock driving the tractor and two people on the planter – Hay Berry Farm manager Zeb Ferguson and Cal O’Connell, who’s interested in doing the nursery for Agroforestry LLC – they were able to install 6,000 hazelnuts in a single day.

Then in the fall, Nickerson hired Eric Berg, an engineer who has worked with Mark Shepard for years. He came with a bulldozer to make the cuts for water management and he dug ponds in the field. Six months later, all the ponds that Berg created were loaded with frog eggs!

Another farm embraces nuts

In early May this year, Maher and Woodcock came with an Agroforestry LLC crew to plant thousands of chestnuts and hazelnuts on Allie’s Farm in the hamlet of Copake, two hours south of Cambridge, New York. When farm owner Dominik Eckenstein’s tractor died with a couple hours of work remaining, his neighbor jumped in to complete the job.

Like Nickerson, Eckenstein owns hilly land on which hay is made. He, too, has long been interested in growing trees but felt stymied by his limited knowledge about how to turn nut trees into a viable agricultural enterprise. Last summer, after reading a story about Agroforestry LLC, he decided to join the project.

Eckenstein already had experience with Mark Shepard, having traveled to Ithaca, New York, a few years ago when Shepard was leading a weekend nut tree installation at Eco-Village, a pioneering co-housing community that had set aside land for agricultural enterprises.

His experience with Shepard motivated him to apply what he had learned at Allie’s Farm. “We started experimenting on our own,” he said. They put in 200 chestnut trees to make an orchard in a field behind the farmhouse.

Joining Agroforestry LLC last summer immediately opened up new opportunities for Allie’s Farm. “Last fall Mark Shepard and his people installed three miles of swales on my farm,” he said, noting that he was “squeezed in on short notice.” However they had to skip some portions of the farm, as they were too steep and overgrown.

With two weeks of tractor work, they completely changed the farm’s layout. Rather than being divided into separate fields, the farm is now organized along contour lines. Where nut trees have been planted, there is 80 feet open between the rows. The swales are doing what they intended, keeping the water on the hill rather than allowing it to flow off.

For Eckenstein, the agroforestry project feels like the culmination of a lifetime of interest in horticulture. Raised in Switzerland, he grew up fascinated by his grandmother’s impressive vegetable garden. As a teenager, he imagined “doing something agricultural” for his lifework. In his youth he worked on a cherry orchard and at a winery, but his career took him in other directions.

In recent years, Eckenstein, who lives in Brooklyn, has made his living renovating historic buildings in Baltimore and Brooklyn, work that dovetails with his real estate investments. Up until the early 2000s, he worked in hotel management. He said he tends to shift his professional focus approximately every fifteen years.

Three years ago, Eckenstein bought the 70-acre property that would become Allie’s Farm. He envisioned it as a place to explore his desire to farm. The land came with a relationship with Camphill Village U.S.A., an intentional community that supports people with special needs and practices agriculture and artisanal crafts. Every year Camphill harvests the farm’s hayfields for its cattle.

The same group that sold him his farm also owns a level parcel of good agricultural land across the street. On this land, four farmers produce high-value specialty crops as tenants holding long-term leases. Some years ago, that land had been a cornfield, belonging to a now defunct, investor-owned thousand-cow dairy farm. Then, in the 2000s, a non-profit organization acquired the 122-acre parcel in order to build 138 units of mixed income housing, but the proposal ran into snags.

For Eckenstein, the presence of the small, diverse tenant farmers in the neighborhood presents potential opportunities. He said they are looking at informal ways to cooperate and find synergy. This could involve anything from sharing equipment, resources, or labor to marketing together or marketing one another’s farm products.

Last summer Eckenstein hired a full-time farm manager, who lives with his family in the farmhouse. Last year he grazed 45 sheep. In 2020 the flock has grown with 55 lambs, and the farm census also includes 25 turkeys and 40 laying hens as well as 60 chicks. Over the summer he also grazes some cattle from Camphill Village. The livestock are run on an unplanted part of the land, while the area planted in the hybrid chestnut trees gets hayed. A new orchard of a mix of fruit trees, planted in 2019, also requires care.

“Every year we add something,” Eckenstein said.

Testing other approaches

Around the region, other farmers and landowners have becoming interested in this agroforestry model and are working out their own ways of getting nut orchards planted locally.

Nearly two hours to the south of Maher’s farm, in the small city of Hudson, a business run by millennials called Propagate Ventures works with investors to finance the planting and management of nut trees in exchange for a no-cost partnership lease with farmer-landowners. In this model, the trees are managed as investor assets, while profits from the nut crops are shared with each farmer. Farmers do not earn equity in the nut orchards, though they do have the option of buying out the investors and gaining ownership of the trees and the infrastructure that supports them.

Closer to Cambridge, New York, in Pittstown, former dairy farmer Brad Wiley has leased 7 or 8 acres to Russell Wallack, a beginning farmer who planted the field in chestnut trees. That arrangement came about after Wiley’s partner, Elizabeth Collins, stumbled upon Wallack’s entry on the Hudson Valley Farmland Finder. She had been scrolling through the online matching service, looking for a vegetable farmer to lease their tenant house and some of their tillable land.

Wallack, who lives in Amherst, Mass., calls his business Breadtree Farms. The name refers to the chestnut, which in various ethnic cuisines has been traditionally used to make a type of gluten-free flour. Wallack entered into a 30-year lease with Wiley.

“I’m a 30-year-old beginning farmer,” Wallack said in 2019. “So for me, it’s a great opportunity. I can’t afford to buy land.”

Wallack was able to self-finance his tree planting partially through his day job with the consulting firm Terragenesis International, which assists brands in understanding the impacts of their sourcing decisions. He said he used his credit cards to obtain the rest of the needed funds, though he stressed that he’s conservative in his spending habits.

His agreement with Wiley follows a revenue-sharing model. Because Wallack is fronting the cost of establishing the nut orchard, he explained that under their contract, “Brad [Wiley] won’t receive any cash until I’m making money.”

Wallack expects to begin harvesting chestnuts within three or four years. At first he will sell fresh whole nuts, which can go for $10 a pound. They will be husked but unshelled. But by the time his chestnut trees achieve full production after eight or ten years, Wallack said he would like to have access to a drying and milling facility.

Like other current and future chestnut orchardists, Wallack said he sees a market that’s wide open. Currently, 90 percent of fresh chestnuts consumed in the United States are imported.

But that might not be indicative of future trends. Domestic almond production has quadrupled in the past 20 years, he noted.

A model for the future?

Ben Hart and his wife bought land and built their home in Stephentown in 2014. In the spring three years later, he invited Shepard to the region to give a weekend workshop on forest agriculture. The workshop attracted 35 people, including Maher and Woodcock.

On the weekend of that workshop, Hart planted most of his land — nearly 9 acres — in 1,000 chestnut and 2,000 hazelnut trees. He had done little to prepare the land in advance, but it doesn’t seem to have mattered.

“So far the results have been fine,” Hart said, adding that the well-drained soil, although it had been heavily farmed in the past, had lain fallow for two or three years before the tree planting.

Before moving to Rensselaer County, Hart lived in St. Louis, where he was finishing his doctorate in philosophy. While writing his dissertation, he said he realized he wanted to do something more impactful than writing papers that only would only be read by a handful of other academics.

As he pondered his next move, he read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and considered its implications. He became interested in the permaculture movement.

“But permaculture is not going to feed people at scale in a regenerative way,” Hart said. “I felt like permaculture is great for one acre. It’s gorgeous and productive.”

When he attended a talk by Shepard, he got excited by his vision of an agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems, based on “what wants to grow” in a particular region. He liked the fact that Shepard, trained in permaculture, had taken its principles and developed a model that can be scaled, combining perennials, such as nut trees, with animals.

Within three or four years, Hart expects to be harvesting a lot of nuts, because the trees, which came from Shepard’s nursery, were selected for early bearing.

“I think of it as a long-term investment,” Hart said.

An earlier version of this story appeared in Hill Country Observer, June 2019. Published with permission in Acres U.S.A. Tracy Frisch is a writer with extensive experience working with farmers and eaters to develop more equitable, nutritious and resilient food systems. She is keenly interested in tapping into the wisdom of the earth and realizing the potential of ecological agriculture to heal the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nutrient cycle. She homesteads and organizes for environmental justice and social change in rural upstate New York.

Learn Agroforestry Techniques from an Expert

Mark Shepard’s intensive course “Practical Permaculture and Agroforestry for Farmers” is now available on Eco-Ag U Online. Agroforestry combines agriculture and forestry to create integrated and sustainable land-use systems and takes advantage of the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs and/or livestock. In this detailed, instructional online workshop, you will learn from Wisconsin agroforestry master Mark Shepard about how to build real agroforestry systems that build multiple revenue streams into your operation. View course details and free preview here.

Keyline Design Transforms Farm Water Management

What you will read in this article is an excerpt from my book, Water for Any Farm. It is an introduction to my more than 25 years of on-the-ground experience working with and deviating from the Yeomans’ keyline plan. From the backyard of my parents’ house in the suburbs of Massachusetts to 10,000-acre ranches, from permafrost mountainsides just shy of the Arctic Circle to equatorial boulder fields of East Africa, from areas with three hundred inches of rain per year to those with less than three, in all of these places I have personally installed systems based on the keyline design methodology and its modified forms.

What you will read in this is tried and true. It is intended to give a sufficient background to any landowner so that they can optimize their water resource for higher site productivity and greater drought resistance, and, just as importantly, so they can know deep in their heart that they have helped to make one little piece of earth a little more life-filled, livable, and green.

The Basic Keyline Design

This is not intended to be a replacement for all of the available information on the keyline design system. It is merely intended to be a description of the various farm and ranch-scale water management systems at our disposal in the United States, including the basics of keyline design. For those interested in learning more about any of the systems we discuss, that information can be sought out in-depth elsewhere.

Arguably P. A. Yeomans’ most significant discovery with the development of the keyline design system was the magic of landscape geometry. By knowing the locations of the keypoints and keylines on a piece of land, you can employ some ridiculously simple techniques to synchronize with the basic geometric shape of the land and radically change how that land interacts with water. It all starts with what Yeomans referred to as Keyline Pattern Cultivation. In his own words:

The objective of the pattern in Keyline pattern cultivation is to direct the shallow overland flow, which results from rainfall run off, to remain evenly spread and not follow its natural flow path to concentrate in the valley shapes. The same technique also provides the means for evenly spreading the water in the system of “hillside” irrigation named “Keyline Pattern irrigation.” It is the Keyline pattern cultivation that can convert what is commonly called “wild flooding” into fully controlled irrigation.

Yeomans, Water for Every Farm

The Primary Valley Cultivation Pattern

“Keyline pattern cultivation of a primary valley is done parallel to and on the lower side of the Keyline or any other approximately contour guide line in the valley area below the Keyline”(WFEF, 47).

Figure 6.1
Figure 6.2a

Simple! Simple, but brilliant. In order to keep things as simple as possible, let’s look at a relatively simple (for the United States) landform on a topographical map. Figure 6.1 is a topographical map with the keypoint in each of two primary valleys marked with an asterisk. Beginning at the keypoint, the keyline of each primary valley is marked in bold. The keyline is the reference line from which the valley cultivation pattern is derived. All fieldwork in the valley is done parallel to and downward from the keyline. The dotted lines in Figure 6.2a represent the path that one’s equipment would take in that primary valley whether it be a plow, a mower, or hay baler. Notice, though, that this pattern only goes as far as where the side walls of the primary valleys become steeper and the mouth of the valley opens outward (the turning outward of your wrists in the breadbowl demonstration). This is the extent of the primary valley cultivation. Be sure to look closely at the contour lines in the valley in relation to the cultivation lines. As cultivation proceeds in parallel below the keyline, the tractor begins to make lines that start at a higher elevation in the valley center then gradually drop in elevation as they go toward the ridge. When cultivating a valley below and parallel to the keyline, the tool marks, furrows, and wheel-tracks all cause the valley water to drift toward the ridge instead of following their former path directly downslope to the valley floor. Later on in a grazing system, the pathway of animals moving through the paddocks follows and reinforces this pattern as well.

From now into the future, all activity on the land helps to cause water to drift from the valleys to the ridges. This is the way we divide up any overland water flow in the primary valley and get it to spread out toward the ridge. As it drifts toward the ridge, it is soaking into the ground and distributing water to areas whose shapes have already caused water to migrate to the valleys. Keyline pattern cultivation has just reversed the general trend of water in the landscape. Instead of water flowing downhill off the ridges and moving into the valleys, keyline patterning brings water from the valleys back out onto the ridges. Well, at least that’s what Yeoman’s says they’re supposed to do.

As one can see in Figure 6.2a, the Keyline cultivation pattern doesn’t really work for the primary valley on the right. The left (western) leg of the uppermost parallel below the keyline actually pitches toward the center of the primary valley and not toward the ridge like Yeoman’s said it would. I know of hundreds of people attempting to set up the keyline cultivation pattern on their property who have encountered situations like this, and one of the first things people think to themselves is, “Have I done something wrong?”

Hmm . . . maybe we have! Maybe what we thought was the keypoint was actually the wrong spot. What if we “adjusted” things by choosing another location as the possible keypoint?

Figure 6.2b

In order to see what such a change might do, in Figure 6.2b we deliberately moved both originally marked keypoints, generated a new keyline and then drew some parallels below the keyline to see what this would do (remember . . . whether you’re sketching on a paper map or a computer, changing the location of a line at this stage is quite affordable. Once you start to lay out new field cultivation patterns, install terraces or move fences, things get more expensive). When we began to make parallel passes with equipment below the new keyline in each primary valley, surface water will indeed follow the cultivation pattern and move from higher in the primary valley out toward the ridges just like Yeoman’s said. Choosing a slightly different location for the “keypoint” (understanding that this location might be some place other than an actual geographic keypoint) is one of the simplest adjustments that one Figure 6.2b can do to help adjust a system where the landform does not actually behave according to “keyline geometry.” Primary Valley cultivation isn’t the be-all and end-all of keyline pattern cultivation, however. There are also primary ridges to consider.

The Primary Ridge Cultivation Pattern

“The general pattern of primary ridge cultivation is parallel upwards from a selected contour…” (WFEF, 49).

Once again, simple and brilliant. Let’s turn now to Figure 6.3 and leave out the valley cultivation pattern for now.

Figure 6.3

When selecting a contour line as the reference line for ridge cultivation, according to Yeomans, one can pick any contour line as the reference line. In order to have the cultivation pattern cover as much of the landscape as possible, though, one can choose the lowest practical elevation contour line on any given property.

Figure 6.3a

In Figure 6.3a, this reference contour is marked in bold. The dotted lines in Figure 6.3a represent the tractor path for keyline pattern cultivation of a ridge. Upon examination of the relationship between the contour lines and the cultivation path, one can now see that by cultivating parallel and upward from the reference contour, any water striking the ridge will encounter rip lines, furrows, wheel tracks, etc., and that will cause the water to drift toward the ridge.

However, anyone who can read a contour map can clearly see that there’s a problem. Although the pattern on the westernmost primary ridge of fig 6.3a looks as if it will work just fine, the same is not true for the other two primary ridges. On the primary ridge in the middle and most noticeably on the primary ridge on the right (east), the parallel lines clearly show that any water following the Keyline ridge cultivation pattern would travel at such a steep slope that it would likely cause erosion on those ridges.

One of the reasons for following the Figure 6.3a keyline cultivation pattern is to prevent valley erosion. “Wild flooding,” Yeoman’s called it. Replacing wild flooding in a valley in order to create it on the ridge is pointless. Figure 6.3a plainly shows us that not any old contour line on a ridge can be used as the reference line. We will have to “adjust.”

Figure 6.3b

Figure 6.3b is just one such adjustment. On the middle primary ridge, the “ridge reference contour” (solid, bold) was moved up one contour line. On the right hand ridge we moved up two contour lines. As once can see, this appears to have corrected the problem on the middle ridge, but it has not solved the problem on the right hand ridge at all.

As a matter of fact, none of the contour lines on the right hand ridge will serve as a “ridge reference contour” for the keyline cultivation pattern. That ridge simply does not obey keyline geometry. Yeoman’s repeatedly reminds us that keeling geometry is universally applicable. Other authors note that when a landform doesn’t obey keyline geometry these “landscape anomalies” can be ignored and the system “adjusted.” Without being judgmental or self-righteous, I would like to point out that most of the problems that landowners have had with Keyline Design has everything to do with the fact that in the majority of situations, the “simple” Keyline cultivation pattern does not work on a complex landscape. It needs adjustment. The adjustments are what this book is all about.

When we do have a simple enough land-form that it does obey Keyline geometry, we can then combine primary valley cultivation with primary ridge cultivation.

The combination of the primary valley cultivation pattern with the primary ridge cultivation pattern shows a complete system in which the use of the land itself causes water to spread to the ridges rather than drift to the valleys. This is shown in Figure 6.4.

Figure 6.4

We can see a couple of things in the combined diagram. For one, as one proceeds upward and parallel to the ridge guide contour, eventually equipment turns on the ridge become too tight. (red asterisk in upper middle ridge) At this point, either the equipment operator needs to move uphill back to a wider turning radius, or a new ridge reference contour line is chosen from which to cultivate parallel lines farther up.

We can see a couple of things in the combined diagram. For one, as one proceeds upward and parallel to the ridge guide contour, eventually equipment turns on the ridge become too tight. At this point, either the equipment operator moves uphill back to a wider turn radius, or a new uphill contour guideline is chosen from which to cultivate parallel lines farther up.

The same is true in the valleys. As the equipment works parallel to the keyline and lower in elevation, the turns become tighter and tighter. This can proceed until the operator makes a smoother curve in the valley bottom, or until a new reference contour is chosen from which to parallel downward (see red asterisks in both primary valleys).

What can be seen in both ridge and valley cultivation is that crescent-shaped spots of uncultivated land “appear.” In Water for Every Farm, Yeomans shows this pattern in diagrams but fails to suggest what to do with these “odd spots.” (Are these perhaps more landscape anomalies?) Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Designers’ Manual uses the same graphics as Water for Every Farm and also fails to address how to approach these areas. These irregular shapes on crests of primary ridges and in the bottoms of primary valleys were significant influences in the development of the Master Line System.

One of the main objectives of keyline pattern cultivation is to influence the shallow overland flow of runoff water so that it remains evenly spread across the landscape instead of following its natural path straight down the slope to the valley floor. Remember, of course, that before any human patterning, water will flow from the high spots to the low spots. Water striking the ridges will flow downhill to concentrate in the valleys. Ridges functionally receive less than the actual rainfall amount because the water flows away to the valleys, and valleys receive more than the actual rainfall amount since they receive some of the water that originally fell on the ridges but flowed down the slopes to lower elevations. This flow is not all in the form of channeled flow. In areas with light rains and on more gentle slopes, the majority of the water movement in the landscape may be by sheet flow.

Water falls evenly on the land and soaks into the top layers of soil. Gravity, constantly at work, suggests that this water move to lower elevations. The incessant pull of gravity is part of what brings water deeper into the soil. If the pore space between soil particles is large (sand and gravel), most of the rain will be pulled straight down toward the center of the earth, especially on flatter landscapes. No sheet flow occurs.

Rills and runoff streams won’t happen. With smaller pore spaces in the soil, water is not pulled toward the center of the earth fast enough to counter the effects of slope and the entire sheet of water, oftentimes just barely below the surface of the ground, is pulled downhill toward the center of the valley. Slowly, this body of water migrates away from the ridges toward the valleys.

This principal can be illustrated with a simple experiment. Take a kitchen sponge and saturate it with water. Wring it out a little so that it doesn’t drip. Next, place it on a tilted surface such as a cutting board or cookie-baking sheet with one side propped up. At first no water will trickle out of the sponge, but, eventually, gravity will begin to pull the water from the sponge. The water will begin to flow out from the lower side of the sponge and travel down the board.

The flow of water moving within the sponge itself is sheet flow. It is this shallow surface and subsurface flow that the keyline cultivation pattern is masterful at directing. When all farming activities follow the basic keyline patterning, all wheel tracks, cultivating furrows, and subsoiler lines follow the keyline cultivation pattern, all sheet flow is nudged toward the ridges. In flatter landscapes with sandier soil, in regions where the rainfall comes in smaller, gentler rains, the keyline pattern cultivation may be all that is needed to effectively keep all rainwater on the ridges long enough to allow it to soak in deeply and remain as a resource for increased crop yields.

In places where larger rain events are the norm, such as areas that receive their rain via thunderstorms of various sizes, simple keyline cultivation may not be enough to significantly influence sheet flow. In areas with heavier, clay soils, even in flat country, keyline patterning alone may also not be enough. The patterning will still have an effect, but rainwater will pile up on the soil surface faster than it can soak into the soil. The surplus water not soaked into the soil will eventually overwhelm the cultivation ridges and resume its surface flow overland directly to the valley floor. Some water still drifts toward the ridges, induced by the keyline cultivation patterning, but much will be lost as it overwhelms the system that is undersized for that particular rainfall type, soil type, and slope.

Some other circumstances that were not addressed by Yeomans at all, which are extremely important in the United States and Canada, are rainfall on frozen ground, rapid snowmelt, and rain on snow events. When these occur, subsoiler rip lines and tiny surface furrows are totally inadequate to capture all of the available water, if they’re even able to capture any. In many places (this has happened at New Forest Farm in Wisconsin several times, on multiple occasions some years!) this water may be the only water a site gets for the entire season. The loss of this precious resource is entirely preventable with the introduction of a simple yet powerful tool.

Mark Shepard is a Wisconsin-based permaculture designer, agroforester and ecological farming consultant. He and his family have transformed a typical 140-acre row-crop dairy farm into a permaculture-based perennial-agricultural ecosystem using oak savannah, successional brushland and Eastern woodlands as ecological models. The result is one of the first and finest farm-scale models of permaculture in the United States. He is the author of Restoration Agriculture and his new book for Acres U.S.A. on water management, Water for Any Farm, is now available. A technical manual to accompany Water for Any Farm is scheduled for release later this year.

Mark Shepard Teaches Permaculture

Mark Shepard’s intensive course “Practical Permaculture and Agroforestry for Farmers” is now available on Eco-Ag U Online. Join Mark Shepard as he shares real permaculture knowledge he’s gained over a lifetime of study and through the implementation of these systems on his own family’s farm. Not just a theory class, you’ll hear real-world advice and tips on these innovative farming systems. Whether you “go all the way,” as Mark is doing, or simply introduce some new crops and diversity into your traditional farm or small acreage, this online workshop is certain to provide the roadmap you’ll need. View course details and free preview here.

Windbreak Benefits on the Farm

By Andrea Watts

Windbreak benefits extend beyond reducing wind erosion. Research reveals windbreaks can also be customized to meet your farm management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

A “national menace” is what Congress called wind erosion during the Dust Bowl. This menace caused an estimated loss of 850,000,000 tons of topsoil and spurred President Roosevelt’s large-scale Shelterbelt Project of planting tree windbreaks across the Great Plains to reduce future wind erosion.

Research shows that reducing wind erosion isn’t the only benefit provided by these windbreaks, and they can be customized to meet your farm’s management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

In a field adjacent to a windbreak, there is an area where a crop yield of 110 percent isn’t uncommon; it’s the area which Charles Barden, professor of forestry with Kansas State University and principal investigator of the Great Plains Crop Yield Study, dubs the “sweet spot in the field.” In this sweet spot, usually found in an area about two times the height of the trees and extending out 12-15 times the height of the windbreak trees, research has found an increase in yield of 23 percent for winter wheat, 15 percent for soybeans and 12 percent for corn.

The reason for this increase is likely due to less evapotranspiration stress on the crops, explains Barden.

Windbreak benefits extend beyond controlling wind to include soil moisture retention and additional wildlife habitat options on the farm.

“When the wind blows on a hot, dry day, for people it feels good to have the wind blow when it’s hot, but plants don’t mind humidity. Humidity and calm air helps them use less water or use water more efficiently.”

This calm air also benefits specialty crops, such as melons and vegetables that are susceptible to wind damage. Bruce Wight, a former National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) national forester and agroforester, says that growing these types of crops in the protection of a windbreak results in a “positive benefit to crop quality and crop yield in many cases.” This crop yield increase may also be a direct result of the increase in visiting pollinators which also prefer protected areas, as studies conducted on vegetable crops found an increase in pollination activity in protected areas with reduced wind speed.

In their role of reducing wind velocity, windbreaks can also serve as a buffer against the particulates being carried by the wind. Organic farms, which are adjacent to non-organic producers, are required to have a buffer in place, and windbreaks can function as a buffer to reduce the influx of pesticides.

“Windbreaks can help intercept spray drift and strain other air pollutants that may be coming off that non-organic farm toward the organic producers,” said Wight.

Even ranchers can benefit from the addition of windbreaks to their pastureland. During the summer, cattle want the cooling wind, just as we do. Yet during the winter they seek the shelter found in the windbreak, and this shelter translates into tangible savings in feed cost and calf survival.

Barden says that studies have shown, “windbreaks will reduce the amount of feed they have to consume just to get through the winter and increase their calving efficiency.”

Evolving Design, Value

Through the NRCS financial assistance programs and the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, Wight estimates that over the past 10-12 years there was an average of 1,500-2,000 miles of windbreaks planted nationally each year, resulting in a total of 15,000-20,000 miles.

Yet those numbers reflect only what is being planted. Across the Great Plains states Barden sees a disconcerting overall trend of decreasing windbreak mileage: a combination of aging trees that aren’t being replaced and land conversion during times of high commodity prices. This prompts the question of, why would a landscape addition that can create a 110 percent yield and serve as habitat for pollinators, be removed?

“The reason why it can be so hard to see, to commit to the positive effects of the windbreaks is because the first few rows right next to the windbreaks are always very stunted, very pale. … and trees are drawing the moisture from the crop,” Barden explains, adding that farmers don’t necessarily connect the crop increase in the sweet spot of the field to the windbreaks. And there is no denying that the 1940s windbreaks consume acres of potential growing space, as they often contain 10-12 rows of trees.

Yet, there are ways to incorporate windbreaks onto a farm’s landscape so that overall productivity is not affected. Research has found that windbreaks can be narrower, needing only to be three to four trees deep, thereby increasing acreage available for cultivation. Recognizing that rows adjacent to the windbreak will be affected by the shade, it would be advantageous to plant a crop that is compatible with growing in shady conditions.

And windbreaks don’t necessarily have to be towering trees. Barden says that even an 8 to 10-foot-tall windbreak can provide protection for a small field. “The area being protected is in direct relationship with the height of the tree and the density in the windbreak,” said Wight. “Anywhere from 10-15 times the height of the windbreak is the area where you’ll see the most benefit, so if you’re growing in a small field, it won’t take a very large tree to protect it.”

In recognition of the increasing value of pollinators, windbreak designs are now incorporating pollinator-friendly shrubs. Edible plants, such as fruit-producing trees, are also being included, as they provide the “two-fold practice of providing both protecting value and product,” says Wight. With organic farmers striving to enhance the habitat value of their farm, he sees windbreaks as increasingly valued for their non-traditional benefits.

Establishing Windbreaks

If you are considering enhancing or planting a brand-new tree windbreak, Wight recommends familiarizing yourself with the resources found on the USDA National Agroforestry center website as a starting point.

Having a sense of the prevailing winds and which times of the year your crops need protection is useful information to have in hand when visiting your local NRCS field office for assistance. Technical staff will work with you to design a windbreak to meet your management goals, whether it is growing edible plants for revenue or growing a windbreak that requires little upkeep.

The trees and shrubs selected will be those that are adapted to the soil types and grow well in the area, Wight explains. Though the composition of the tree and shrub species will vary depending upon the state and the purpose of the windbreak, the trees will generally be a mixture of deciduous trees, conifers and shrubs to protect the crops, livestock or buildings. Cost share programs are also available and the NRCS staff can assist you when applying for these programs.

Working Windbreaks

On the Crosby Mint Farm in St. Johns, Michigan, fourth-generation mint farmer James Crosby was able to connect the sweet spot in the field to the adjacent windbreak. In the area of the field where the naturally occurring windbreak was being lost due to the county removing trees or development, during the spring the soil dried out, resulting not only in a crop loss but wind erosion too.

“It was one massive black cloud [300-400 feet tall and 1,000 feet across] created from the wind, and it would just travel through the valley … we would just sit and stare at it,” Crosby recalls. He knew they had to re-establish the tree line, but he also wanted the trees to provide protection immediately.

Working with Joan Benjamin, the farmer rancher grant program coordinator and associate regional coordinator with North Central Region-Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, Crosby secured a grant through SARE in 2005. The grant process was self-explanatory and relatively easy, he says. He was awarded $6,000 through a cost-share grant, which covered the cost of purchasing trees, as he already had the heavy equipment needed to plant the trees.

He selected blue spruce, as they are fast-growing and require little maintenance.

A local Christmas tree farm gave him a discount on the 19-foot tall trees, and he planted 40 trees to reestablish the windbreak.

Now 10 years later following the planting Crosby says he has not seen a dust storm kick up, nor a decrease in crop yield. “In fact, there’s been a higher crop yield closer to the trees,” he says.

For farmers installing a windbreak adjacent to a road, Crosby recommends conducting a survey to identify the county and state easements before planting. And while there are other grant programs out there, he would recommend SARE.

“I’ve met people that are behind the organization, and they sold me on why they are top-notch. They set the benchmark for agriculture and helping local, small ranchers and farmers, so that’s why I’m so adamant and supportive of their programs.”

Red Fern Farm: Windbreak Benefits 

A windbreak showcasing edible trees is what draws visitors to Red Fern Farm, an 86-acre farm in Wapello, Iowa. For nearly 30 years, husband and wife owners Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice have sold a variety of fruit and nut trees, such as pawpaw, chestnuts, persimmon and hazelnuts, across the United States.

These species feature prominently in the farm’s L-shaped 50-foot by 75-foot demonstration windbreak. Wahl is a proponent of incorporating edible trees into windbreaks as a revenue source; there is not one non-producing tree species that could not be swapped out with a crop-producing tree, he says.

In 1999 Wahl partnered with a number of local farmers to create the SARE-funded Farms Forever project to “promote and cost share crop-bearing windbreaks, shelterbreaks and riparian buffer strips as a more profitable and environmentally sustainable alternative to conventional agriculture.”

As a result of Wahl’s efforts to spread the word about the value of chestnuts, not only as a windbreak tree but also as a revenue source, many of the local farmers incorporated chestnuts into their windbreaks.

Over 10 years later and the trees having reached maturity, Iowa now has a commercial chestnut industry, with a growers’ cooperative of nearly 60 different farms. Under good management, chestnuts can generate a revenue of $8,000-$9,000 per acre per year, Wahl says, adding “you could have an entire windbreak of nothing but crop-producing trees, and on farms where the windbreak is taking up multiple acres, that could be a significant source of income that would considerably beat the row crops on an income-per- acre basis by a wide margin.”

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Learn Agroforestry Techniques from an Expert

Mark Shepard’s intensive course “Practical Permaculture and Agroforestry for Farmers” is now available on Eco-Ag U Online. Agroforestry combines agriculture and forestry to create integrated and sustainable land-use systems and takes advantage of the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs and/or livestock. In this detailed, instructional online workshop, you will learn from Wisconsin agroforestry master Mark Shepard about how to build real agroforestry systems that build multiple revenue streams into your operation. View course details and free preview here.

Forest-to-Table: A Permaculture Experiment Thrives

A bounty, straight from the forest.
A forest-to-table bounty.

Forest-to-table products are growing in popularity, not only for consumers, but for farmers as well.

A little more than 15 miles from the nation’s capital, a 10-acre experi­ment is under way. There, with wheat as a benchmark, landscape designer and permaculture practitioner Lin­coln Smith is aiming to show that forest-based agriculture can produce a quantity of food-per-acre comparable to major crops.

The five-year-old experiment, how­ever loosely defined, is beginning to bear fruit in the form of food as well as people learning about permaculture. Last year was the first for a commu­nity supported agriculture program as well as a forest-to-table supper in September prepared by Chef Michael Costa from D.C.’s Zaytinya, a Medi­terranean restaurant. More than 1,000 people have been exposed to forest gardening through classes and tours at Forested.


Principles of Permanent Agriculture

By Jeff Poppen

When we look at the great soils of the world, we can see these principles of permanent agriculture in action. The prairies have the grasses and clovers that together structure the soil and incorporate nitrogen. The grass roots finely divide the soil particles and then decay after the tops are grazed. The mobs of bison on small acreages of the Great Plains, for short periods of time ate a small percentage of the growth and trampled the major­ity of the carbon back into the soil. The heavy animal impact included manure, urine and tillage from their split hooves. It is fascinating to watch a bovine’s hoof split apart and literally plow the soil sideways, as the weight of the animal comes down on it.

Afterward, the land rested with no animals, and grew back up better than ever. This cycle produced phenom­enal soil humus.

This same thing happened in Northern Europe with wolves chasing reindeer and in the African savan­na, with lions chasing water buffalo. Everywhere you find great soils in nature, you’ll find mobs of grazing herbivores moved by predators. This is how humans will reverse climate change — by sequestering carbon with the use of grass, legumes and large herds of herbivores on small acreages for short periods of time.

Permanent agriculture example - corn growing
Corn growing at Long Hungry Creek Farm in Tennessee. Photo by Kristina Rossi

An Introduction to the Organic No-Till Farming Method

By Jeff Moyer

It is the hope and dream of many organic farmers to limit tillage, increase soil organic matter, save money, and improve soil structure on their farms. Organic no-till can fulfill all these goals.

Many organic farmers are accused of overtilling the soil. Tillage is used for pre-plant soil preparation, as a means of managing weeds, and as a method of incorporating fertilizers, crop residue, and soil amendments. Now, armed with new technologies and tools based on sound biological principles, organic producers can begin to reduce or even eliminate tillage from their system.

Organic no-till is both a technique and a tool to achieve farmer’s objectives of reducing tillage and improving soil organic matter. It is also a whole farm system. While there are many ways the system can be implemented, in its simplest form organic no-till includes the following elements:

  • annual or winter annual cover crops that are planted in the fall,
  • overwintered until mature in the spring, and then
  • killed with a special tool called a roller/crimper.
Jeff Moyer, Transitioning to Organic, from the 2015 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (1 hour, 3 minutes). Listen in as Moyer, the executive director of Rodale Institute, teaches a class on important details to know before you transition your operation to organic.

After the death of the cover crop, cash crops can be planted into the residue with a no-till planter, drill or transplanter. Whether you grow agronomic or horticultural crops, this system can work on your farm, and we’ll show you how to get started with this exciting new technology.

Farmer organic no-till farm
Organic no-till is a rotational tillage system that combines the best aspects of no-till while satisfying the requirements of the USDA organic regulations.

These techniques and tools can work equally well on both conventional (farms based on chemically based practices) and organic farms (farms that follow the USDA’s definition of organic).

Organic no-till is a rotational tillage system that combines the best aspects of no-till while satisfying the requirements of the USDA organic regulations. It is not necessarily a continuous no-till system but one that may include some tillage in rotation, especially to establish the cover crops. After cash crops are planted, no further tillage or cultivation is generally needed, and this greatly reduces the required field operations.

While organic farmers typically work the field several times just to get the crop in the ground, organic no-till farmers can get by with as few as two field operations: rolling the cover crop and planting the cash crop in one pass, and then harvesting the cash crop. By reducing the number of field operations, farmers can save on fuel and time — all the while building up their soil.

Cover crops are the cornerstone of weed management and soil building — so much so that they become as important as the cash crop.

Most organic farmers know something about cover cropping, but with organic no-till you’ll get a chance to sharpen your skills. If you are managing a chemically based operation you can still take advantage of these tools and use cover cropping on your farm. Winter annuals like rye and hairy vetch are common examples, but summer planted buckwheat, field peas, many small grains, and annual legumes are also a possibility. A later chapter on cover crops will tell you more about which cover crops can be killed by rolling and when.

Our rule of thumb is simple: if you can step on the plant and it dies, then you can kill it with a roller/crimper. This means that plants like alfalfa or perennial weeds are not good candidates for rolling.

Farmer no-till cover crop mulch
The author pulling back the killed cover crop to show no-till mulch in action with corn seedlings.

When seeded at the correct time during the fall, these cover crops will get started by developing an extensive root system and growing a small amount of vegetative matter. During the winter, the cover crops will either continue to grow slowly (in warmer climates) or essentially remain dormant (in the north).

There are several benefits to a winter cover crop, including erosion control, nutrient cycling, and microbial habitat in the root zone.

During spring, the cover crops jump to life and really put on biomass. Then they can be killed with the roller/crimper as they reach the peak of their life cycle.

With the winter annuals commonly used in the system, this corresponds to the period when they are entering their reproductive phase. For example, with winter rye, the correct time to roll the cover crop is when the rye is in “anthesis” or producing pollen. With hairy vetch, the vetch should be at least 75 percent in bloom, but 100 percent bloom is even better.

An annual crop typically allocates 20 to 30 percent of its resources toward the process of flowering and seed production. In addition, enzymatic changes at this time cause the plant to begin to senesce, or start the process of aging and breakdown prior to death. During this phase of the plant’s life cycle, it is much more vulnerable, and can be effectively killed by the roller/crimper.

No-till farm roller crimper
The Rodale Institute roller/crimper in action.

The roller/crimper is a specialized tool designed by John Brubaker and myself and tested at the Rodale Institute. It works by rolling the cover crop plants in one direction, crushing them, and crimping their stems.

The roller/crimper can be front mounted on a tractor, while a no-till planter, drill or transplanter brings up the rear, planting directly into the rolled cover crop. Or the roller can be pulled in a separate pass.

Since the system is based on biology and mechanics, it is scale neutral — suitable for use on either small or large farms. The roller/crimper can be pulled behind a tractor, a horse, or even by hand depending on the scale of the operation. While other tools, such as a stalk chopper, rolling harrows, and mowers have been used for this purpose; the roller/crimper has several advantages over other tools. It has been specially designed for organic no-till, and performs its function exceptionally well.

Provided that the cover crop is thick enough, the field will take care of itself for the rest of the season.

The mashed cover crops provide a mulch layer for the cash crop, both preventing the growth of weeds, but also breaking down gradually during the season to provide a long-term slow release of nutrients.

To achieve adequate weed control, the cover crop should be planted at a high rate and produce approximately 2.5 tons of dry matter per acre. For this reason, only certain kinds of cover crops, ones that yield a high amount of biomass, work well for the no-till system. It’s also important to select cover crops with a carbon to nitrogen ratio higher than 20:1. The higher the ratio, the more carbon, and the more slowly the crop will break down.

This will provide a consistent weed management barrier through the season. These topics will be explained in more detail further in this book.

After harvest, the killed cover crops can be disked under and the next round of cover crops is planted for the following season. Thus, the crop year begins in the fall with planning for the following year. For this reason, organic no-till requires considerable long-term planning.

Principles of Organic No-Till

Organic no-till rests on three fundamental principles:

  • soil biology powers the system;
  • cover crops are a source of fertility and weed management; and
  • tillage is limited, and best described as rotational tillage.

In both the goals and ideology, organic no-till is very similar to other kinds of organic farming.

These include soil building with organic matter and soil biology, managing weeds, insects and diseases through diverse and non-chemical means, and achieving general plant health through soil health and good management practices. However, organic no-till uses different methods to achieve those goals. Much more emphasis is placed on cover cropping, which replaces tillage and cultivation as a means of soil building and managing weeds.

Maximize Natural Soil Biology

In organic no-till, as with all types of organic agriculture, biology replaces chemistry. This means that organic farmers let the soil organisms do the work of facilitating nitrogen fixation, improving nutrient cycling, as well as enhancing soil structure and texture.

These soil organisms include macroorganisms like earthworms and as well as microorganisms like soil bacteria and fungi. Organic no-till goes one step further than the current technology offered in organic systems.

By providing nearly year-round cover and limiting tillage, the soil biology is given a chance to thrive and power the system that is the organic farm.

Chemistry, as used by conventional agriculture, has some fundamental problems. When we say chemistry we mean synthetic products such as man-made fertilizers and pesticides.

Conventional no-till is closely tied to herbicide use, since this is the primary means of weed control. Typically, as tillage is reduced herbicide management is increased in an attempt to control weeds. Although some surface residues are generated from no-till, they are not enough to provide consistent weed control.

This dependence on herbicides generates a host of problems, from resistant weeds to the destruction of beneficial insects.

Genetically modified crops (GMOs) are also commonly used in a conventional no-till system since the marriage of herbicide resistant crops and ag chemicals has been a consistent theme.

There are a number of concerns about GMOs — they may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, they can cross pollinate with non-GMO crops, and there is an increased dependence on chemical herbicides and pesticides. GMOs also prevent farmers from saving their own seed since these technologies are all patented. None of these technologies are currently allowed under the USDA organic standards.

About the Author

Author Jeff Moyer
Jeff Moyer

Jeff Moyer has been working in the field of organic agriculture all of his adult life. Over the past 28 years he has been the farm manager/director for the prestigious Rodale Institute located in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Moyer’s interest in agriculture began while growing up on a small farm in Pennsylvania where his family grew and produced much of the food they consumed. Eventually, his desire to participate in the organic movement of the ’70s led him to the Rodale Institute, where he worked for 20 years on designing equipment specifically for the management of cover crops. He currently chairs the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board and serves as an advisor on organic issues to the Secretary of Agriculture. Jeff is also a founding board member of Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a private non-profit certification agency. He serves (and has served) as a member of several other committees and boards as well. He is also a past president and current member of the Northeast Society of Agricultural Research Managers. Moyer also manages Sky Hollow Farm, a small farm of his own where he and his family have lived for over 30 years.

SOURCE: Organic No-Till Farming