A Case for Agroforestry, Payments for Ecosystem Services

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly      3-23-22

By Graham Savio

It’s heartening to see common threads in recent Signs of Sustainability articles highlighting the triple bottom line of economics, environment and equity in our local agricultural system.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-Tompkins) is engaging with these challenges in a number of ways, one of which is through a new project that aims to support nut production in agroforestry systems on farms throughout New York state. The project will focus on silvopasture and alley cropping systems that incorporate chestnuts and hazelnuts.

Silvopasture is defined by the USDA as “the deliberate integration of trees and grazing livestock operations on the same land,” while alley cropping is “the planting of rows of trees and/or shrubs to create alleys within which agricultural or horticultural crops are produced.”

These systems enhance biodiversity both below and above ground, sequester carbon in woody biomass and, by virtue of maintaining undisturbed soil beneath a productive canopy, can improve soil water-holding capacity, mitigate erosive runoff, improve downstream water quality, and maintain and build soil organic matter and soil carbon stocks.

Freshly harvested hazelnuts. Photo provided.

Carbon sequestration rates vary widely and depend on tree age, species, planting density and understory management. According to Project Drawdown, silvopasture can sequester 2,200 pounds C/acre/year (assuming managed rotational grazing of integrated livestock, which itself has potential to sequester carbon), while alley cropping can fix 1,400 to 2,700 pounds C/acre/year (with much of the variation dependent on the selection and management of the crops within the alleyways).

Silvopasture in our region takes the form of either a pasture in which orchard or timber trees have been planted at a reduced density or a forested space that has been thinned to ensure sufficient light penetration to the forest floor to support good grass growth. Silvopasture systems can be implemented using an array of crop/livestock combinations.

In the southeastern U.S., loblolly pine and cattle or goats are a common combination, whereas in our region, geese graze between apple trees at Redbyrd Orchard; sheep graze among black locust at Wellspring Forest Farm; chestnuts are planted in pastures and along laneways at Twin Oaks Dairy; a “flerd” of sheep and cattle graze among apples and stone fruits at Shelterbelt Farm; and beef cattle graze in thinned woodlots of walnut and black locust and shelter among coniferous “living barns” in the winter at Angus Glen Farm.

Alley cropping shows a similar range of applications, from planting chestnuts in widely spaced rows in a hay field to facilitate equipment passage to peach trees planted with sweet corn while the trees mature. In Tompkins County, the White Hawk Ecovillage Farm in Danby is growing beans in alleys between hazelnuts, and Hemlock Grove Farm grew vegetables and berries for years among maturing chestnut trees.

With this project, we intend to explore further the viability of incorporating chestnuts and hazelnuts in grazing, row crop and vegetable production systems. Challenges abound, from the old saying that “your worst harvest pass is the one along the hedgerow” to the fact that cattle will happily chomp and trample a young chestnut tree without substantial farmer investment in protecting it, as well as food safety considerations arising from integrating livestock (and so fresh animal manure) into crop fields. However, promising research and effective precedent exists to start addressing these and other concerns.

The broader goal of this work is to establish a viable nut growing and processing industry in the Finger Lakes that we believe will allow for a significant expansion of agroforestry acreage, opening the door to new revenue streams for farmers and offering a replicable economic and environmentally sound production model for the Northeast.

Partners on the project are CCE-Tompkins, the New York Tree Crops Alliance (NYTCA), Cornell AgriTech, and Khuba International, and funding is provided through a generous grant from the Edwards Mother Earth Foundation (EMEF).

To expand and sustain tree nut production in the region, the project must ensure that agroforestry systems are financially viable and markets are developed at a scale with which farmers can engage and prosper.

These conditions will be met by 1) providing education and technical support around integrating tree crops with livestock and other cropping operations, 2) developing new value-added nut products and processing options that create market outlets for producers and 3) developing financial tools for producers during the period while the trees are maturing.

CCE-Tompkins will lead education and outreach efforts, leveraging funds from EMEF to augment a two-year USDA Specialty Crops Block Grant — also starting in 2022 — for a survey of chestnut and hazelnut plantings across New York state.

In close collaboration with NYTCA, the survey aims to identify cultivars that are productive and healthy in order to expand nursery selections and availability, in addition to developing outreach and educational materials and holding farmer field days. The EMEF funding will expand the capacity of extension staff so that they can incorporate agroforestry content and technical support into nut cropping programming.

The New York Tree Crops Alliance cooperative will advise on outreach and farmer education and collaborate with Cornell AgriTech on supply chain development. Value-added nut products can yield greater initial returns for cooperative nut growers than bulk sales, and experts at the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC) Pilot Plant in Geneva will consult on product formulations, production methods, food safety and packaging.

EMEF funding will also support the expansion of NYTCA processing capacity, and guidance and lessons learned will be shared with other nut co-ops to inform their planning and facilitate more rapid expansion of capacity across New York state.

CCE-Tompkins will lead the third component of this project: the development of a pilot Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) program that will incorporate agroforestry practices. By compensating farmers for services like carbon sequestration, enhanced water holding capacity, erosion mitigation and pollination services, PES programs can serve to maintain existing farm revenue on land taken out of annual production for planting to tree nut crops and assist new farmers in bridging the gap between planting and harvesting crops that require six or more years before they yield meaningful financial returns.

This effort builds upon work underway at CCE-Tompkins that has been supported with invaluable initial funding from the Park Foundation and guided by an engaged and talented group of community stakeholders.

For more information about agroforestry work at CCE Tompkins, contact Samantha Bosco, agroforestry and nut cropping program specialist, at sfb42@cornell.edu. For information about the Payment for Ecosystem Services pilot or associated education program, contact Jenna DeRario at jd965@cornell.edu.

For information about other programs that can support agroforestry and ecosystem service provisioning farming systems, take a look at the February SoS article “Resource Programs Promote Conservation” discussing valuable programs run through the excellent folks at our local NRCS office. The Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) also runs important programs with similar goals, with the Climate Resilient Farming grant program being of particular relevance to innovative practices like agroforestry.

Finally, the September 2021 SoS article “NY Potential in Perennial Nut Crops” delved into the history and potential around nut cropping in our region, including parallel and ongoing work by Samantha Bosco as well as folks at the Cornell Small Farms agroforestry program.

Graham Savio is the agriculture and horticulture issue leader at CCE-Tompkins. He oversees a talented staff working on issues including home gardening, Farm to School procurement, subsidized CSA shares, food system planning and general farm production and marketing support.

Savio works to support programming that engages the intersection of food production, climate change and equity in the food system, with a close eye toward the challenges of farm economics in our complicated world. Savio lives in Willet, New York, with his wife and young son, where they raise sheep in an apple-chestnut silvopasture system.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles