Trees, Glorious Trees: Ancient Solutions Coupled with Modern Innovations Make for a Climate Resilient Practice Worth Spreading

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Tompkins Weekly, 2-21-24

By Erika Frenay

Of all the strategies farmers could employ to both sequester carbon AND shield their farms from climate-changed-induced weather chaos, what do you think is at the top of the list? Silvopasture! Livestock + trees + pasture = silvopasture, and it’s ranked by Project Drawdown as the #1 agricultural strategy to sequester carbon. It’s so powerful that Project Drawdown ranked it 9th overall to reduce climate chaos across all industries, not just farming.

And it’s so versatile that it can look hundreds of different ways. Skillfully thinning a forest to create pasture in the understory is silvopasture. Planting shrubby willows to feed sheep is another form of silvopasture. Planting massive nut trees into an existing pasture to shade the animals during increasingly hot summers is silvopasture. As in so much of farming, it is both art and ancient science that we in the United States are only just beginning to tap.

Farmers learn about silvopasture practices at Shelterbelt Farm. Photo by Erica Frenay.

Planting trees into pasture has potential to produce myriad benefits for the livestock, the farmer, the soil, the wildlife, and the planet. For the animals, the trees are an important source of shade in increasingly hot Summers. Multiple studies have quantified the positive impact on weight gain and animal health from livestock having access to shade. Trees can also produce feed for the livestock, in the form of seeds, fruit, or leaves (think mulberries, persimmons, honey locust seed pods, willow leaves, just as a few examples). Trees can also produce new income streams for farmers, including fruits, nuts, lumber, or artisan craft supplies. Add to that the wildlife habitat, pollinator foods, enhanced soil biology, and carbon sequestration offered by trees, and one may start to wonder why farmers aren’t rushing out to plant trees all over their farms!

The barriers are nearly as numerous as the benefits, that’s why. Planting trees across many acres requires labor, money, fencing, the right tree genetics, and knowledge of how to design these systems. Getting the trees in the ground is hard enough, but keeping them alive through the first few years (especially with the multi-vector threats of deer browsing, livestock browsing, voles, weed pressure, and drought) is a near-herculean feat. The right genetics for the purposes that would best serve farmers–like reliably thornless high-producing honey locusts—are not widely available. And if you plant a quality tree and adequately account for all the costs of keeping it alive into maturity, the price tag is not one many farmers can afford, especially when they have to wait years to experience the benefits.

An increasingly savvy organization in Lancaster County, PA, called Trees for Graziers, has been systematically eliminating these barriers and having tremendous success working with farmers there. The Trees for Graziers team, led by founder Austin Unruh, provides all the labor needed to design, plant, protect, and provide aftercare to the trees for 3-4 years. They also seek out and apply for funding, so that all the farmers have to say is “yes, I want trees in my pastures, and here are my goals,” and Trees for Graziers takes care of the rest. We don’t yet have an equivalent organization here in NY, but I hope in the next 5 years that we’ll begin to see much more momentum building around silvopasture implementation in our fair state.

At my farm in Brooktondale, we raise 100% grass-fed sheep. We’ve been experimenting with different types of silvopasture since 2015. We’ve planted an orchard where the animals graze between the rows of trees, a “fodder block” of willows and poplars that we’ll chop down each year so that it continually produces leaves at sheep height for grazing once or twice a year, and a row of elderberry and hazelnuts for sheep shade and additional products for the farm. After attending a 3-day training with Austin and Trees for Graziers this past Fall, we’re now also planning a 1-acre demonstration planting of honey locust, willow, poplar, persimmon, and mulberry in 2024, using a simple system of electrified tree guards so that the new planting won’t require extra labor or fencing when grazing our flock through there several times a year.

My hope for 2024 is that the word silvopasture will become a household word, not just for farmers, but for all people who care about food, land stewardship, and carbon sequestration. I’m working with a motivated team of collaborators around the state who share this interest, and who are strategizing about getting new plantings in the ground and new educational opportunities about silvopasture offered in their communities in the coming years.

If you want to learn more about silvopasture, my two favorite resources are the book Silvopasture by local farmer Steve Gabriel (published by Chelsea Green), and the Trees for Graziers blog at

Erica Frenay is the owner/operator of Shelterbelt Farm in Brooktondale, She is also a Project Manager at the Cornell Small Farms Program,

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