Coming Soon to Shelterbelt: The Power of Trees

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? I’ll give you a hint: it involves livestock, pasture, and trees.

Our sheep grazing in the orchard in 2017. Now our trees are large enough that we don’t fence the sheep out of the planted rows.

But wait, aren’t livestock one of the big contributors to climate change? That’s a whole separate article, but the short answer is that it’s silly to lump all livestock into one category and label it as bad for the planet. The world is so much more beautifully complex than that! Ruminants like cows and sheep eating green plants–especially in marginal areas where other crops wouldn’t grow well–have an entirely different climate impact than animals packed into feedlots and fed grain, and generally speaking, it’s a positive one.

Back to my question about what agricultural strategy is at the top of the list for minimizing climate change: #1 (as ranked by Project Drawdown) is Silvopasture. Trees + pasture = silvopasture. It’s so powerful that Project Drawdown ranked it 9th overall on the list of strategies to reduce global warming across all industries.

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.

Since colonization, agriculture in the US has moved away from trees (unless you are a producer of tree fruit, wood products, nuts, Christmas trees, or maple syrup). Farmers with woodlots have generally viewed them as separate from their “farmed acreage,” and have focused on clearing forested land to make new fields and pastures. In recent years, we have begun to rediscover agroforestry as a viable option. Agroforestry is the name for a collection of practices that integrate agriculture and woody plants, and silvopasture is one practice under this broader umbrella.

Here at Shelterbelt, we too have spent the last decade clearing woody plants from the farm. From the groves of white pine to the rampant buckthorn and honeysuckle, we have cut down enough trees to fill a dozen dump trucks with wood chips.

We have also planted hundreds of trees – primarily fruit trees and bushes at this point – in our first experiment with silvopasture, pictured above. In this approximately 2-acre experiment, we planted rows of fruit trees in 2015, with berry bushes in the understory, and designed the system for grazing animals to manage the vegetation between rows. We’ve learned some important lessons over the past 6 years: 1) fruit trees require a LOT of work and constant attention to do well, 2) we didn’t think big enough, and the size of our flock outgrew the alleyways we had planned for them in just a few years, and 3) while planting a diverse understory in the orchard rows sounded like a great idea, it conflicted with our vision of being able to allow the sheep full access to the orchard rows once the trees were big enough (the sheep ate those berry bushes nearly out of existence once they were allowed access to the plants), and 4) our system wasn’t designed for cows, but we now have cows, and they wreak havoc on tree limbs and trunks.

From this experiment, we’ve dreamed up many other ideas of tree species we’d like to plant. We want to grow trees that don’t require pruning and spraying, but still produce crops we can use. We also saw the importance of trees and shrubs for a food source for our flock in drought years when the pasture dries up. So we want to plant woody perennials the animals can eat. Our friend and neighbor Jonathan Bates has done some experimenting with palatability, and we know the animals like black locust, willow and poplar. Summers here are predicted to get hotter, and we want trees that will improve our animals’ welfare by providing shade. Our friend Steve Gabriel’s book Silvopasture provided inspiration and guidance and further fueled our interest.

But we always feel stymied by all the design complications, and the labor and financial cost. How do we plant trees in such a way that it doesn’t make fencing the animals out for the first few years take many hours of extra work? How do we decide where to put them? How do we prep the ground when we don’t own the equipment to do it, and how do we protect the trees from deer? (who do still get into our pasture, despite the presence of our very vicious guard dog Luke). And how do we pay for all of this, when it’s not likely to have any immediate financial return, but would be a significant outlay of labor and cash?

Enter Meghan Giroux from Interlace Agroforestry Commons. Meghan has traveled the world learning about agroforestry practices, and particularly silvopasture. This year, we were lucky enough to be accepted into her Silvopasture Field Consultancy. Through this program Meghan has come to our farm several times, and will come again before the end of the year. Together we’ve walked the fields, discussed the variables, envisioned functions of various plantings, and made lists of potential species and where we could source them. Meghan has helped connect us with other professionals to answer our questions and provide inspiration. In the next two months we will lay out all our ideas in a design, and then share it with you, our community.

And after that, hopefully we will begin planting as soon as Fall 2022!

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

― Chinese proverb

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