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Source: Savanna Institute

New demonstration farms in Illinois to showcase commercial-scale agroforestry

By Jacob Grace, Savanna Institute

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” the saying goes. “The next best time to plant a tree is right now.” The Savanna Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to laying the groundwork for widespread agroforestry in the Midwest, is planning to do just that. Last year, the organization helped establish Wisconsin’s first public agroforestry demonstration farm at Silverwood Park in Dane County, and plans to set up additional demonstration sites in Wisconsin in the coming years. This year, the institute is establishing three demonstration farms across Illinois to show how agroforestry can be managed on a commercial scale.

Agroforestry, or growing trees for agricultural purposes, has been practiced by cultures around the world for centuries. In the Midwest, common agroforestry practices include the use of windbreaks, riparian corridors, and forest farming, as well as silvopasture, or integrating trees into pastured livestock production, and alley cropping, or planting rows of trees into fields with other crops. The dual-purpose nature of these agroforestry practices can make them a win-win for farmers, allowing them to harvest multiple products from the same land area and access new sources of income. Ultimately, agroforestry has the potential to be a low-tech, scalable farming practice that enhances farm profitability, ecological resilience, carbon storage, water quality, and rural job creation.

Although agroforestry practices can improve the financial stability of any farm, farmers in the Midwest have been slow to adopt practices they have not seen demonstrated on the scale of a commercial farm. The Savanna Institute’s three new Illinois demonstration farms are designed to address this gap by showing farmers in the region what agroforestry looks like on a commercial scale. Similar demonstrations in Europe and Canada by universities and NGOs have greatly increased agroforestry adoption. 

Demo Farm Locations

The Savanna Institute has been working on a two-acre agroforestry pilot project since 2014 at Allerton Park, a 1,500-acre park owned by the University of Illinois in Monticello near Champaign-Urbana. The new demonstration farm at the park will feature rows of hardwood timber with alleys of annual row-crop rotation, as well as a pawpaw, persimmon, and northern pecan planting to expand genetic diversity. The site will also feature a groundcover management experiment to explore best practices for working with understory grasses, forbes, and flowers in agroforestry systems.  

Savanna Institute’s Kevin Wolz, left, and Bill Davison think through plans for renovating goldenrod-covered fields at Sun Dappled Farm near Peoria, Illinois.

Sun Dappled Farm near Peoria is a privately owned 17-acre farm that had 5 acres of alley cropping. Located off a busy state highway, Sun Dappled is posed to become an agroforestry destination. This site will focus on growing systems that combine ecological restoration of depleted farmland with perennial fruit and nut production. In its first year as a demonstration farm, Sun Dappled Farm faces many challenges: site-wide goldenrod colonization, nutrient deficiencies, and years of low maintenance. Savanna Institute’s work will focus on designs for revitalization that include soil regeneration, water management, and how the landscape informs design and farming decisions.

Fields Restored is a privately owned 166-acre row-crop farm near Oregon, Illinois, which is about an hour south of the Wisconsin-Illinois border. The Williams family first worked with the Savanna Institute to transition 20 acres to alley cropping in 2015. After seeing the rapid revitalization of this parcel, they are now committed to converting more of their farm into the prime agroforestry demonstration farm of Northern Illinois. The diverse topography and ecology of their land are ideal for demonstrating a range of agroforestry practices.

In 2020, our work at Fields Restored will focus on 5 acres of actively grazed pasture, where we will be establishing a silvopasture experiment and riparian buffer to stabilize an eroded waterway. The silvopasture experiment will feature islands of fodder trees (black locust, mulberry, persimmon, and oak) planted directly into pasture and fenced off from livestock. The riparian buffer design includes trees and shrubs for restoration, beauty, and profit. 

To plant, manage, educate, and build community, Savanna Institute has hired four seasonal interns to work at the three demonstration farms. The first of these interns started work (after an on-farm quarantine period) last month. The Champaign-Urbana-based demonstration farm team plans to travel throughout the state planting trees, assisting agroforestry farms, managing Savanna Institute plantings, and connecting with farmers, landowners, researchers, industry builders, and the public. 

The Illinois Demo Farm Program had planned to host a series of field days this season to explore design choices and options, opportunities and challenges, and connect attendees with resources. In response to COVID-19, these in-person field days now will be converted to a series of livestreamed farm tours and more interactive webinars for the 2020 growing season. These events will give attendees an opportunity to see the process of agroforestry establishment at three unique sites, ask questions of the farm manager, and offer feedback on site design and implementation. Details about these events will be posted at savannainstitute.org/events.

For more information about the demonstration farms or to support Savanna Institute’s work, email Illinois Demonstration Farm Manager Kaitie Adams at kaitie@savannainstitute.org. This program is made possible by generous support from the Lumpkin Family Foundation and North Central SARE. 

Jacob Grace is the Outreach Coordinator for theSavanna Institute. 

 

From the May| June 2020 Issue

 

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