Going Nuts on the Prairie

Squirrel

Squirrel on Mud Prairie Farm

By: Woody Woodruff

Life at Mud Prairie Farm is always nuts this time of year. Not your normal nuts from the corn and bean harvest. No, this is the end of the growing season tree nuts. I have always enjoyed eating a wide variety of tree nuts.  In the timber it has always been a competition between me and the hundreds of ambitious squirrels to see who ends up with the most hickory nuts and black walnuts.  It is easy to see that in the timber the squirrels have the advantage of living in and on the source of the food. This was part of my motivation to invest in some different forms of agroforestry at Mud Prairie.

Let me just explain a little about agroforestry before describing what tree activities I am benefiting from on the farm. Agroforestry is a system of growing trees and shrubs with other crops on the same piece of ground. Those of you who attended the recent PrairiErth Farm Workshop in Atlanta Illinois learned about some research being conducted on the multitude of benefits in having crops, shrubs, and trees growing together in close proximity.  There are five main practices in agroforestry that take advantage of this symbiotic relationship between plants. One of these practices we discussed in an earlier newsletter:  windbreaks. Another agroforestry practice is silvopasture, the practice of adding trees to livestock pastures which improves the function of the pasture for the livestock that graze its undergrowth.  The shade and shelter that the trees provide add to the health of the animals as well as the economic benefit of nut crops or lumber. Another type of agroforestry practice that seems to be growing in popularity is forest farming. Forest farming is where high value crops like mushrooms or ginseng are grown under the canopy of the forest. This also helps with the management of the timber. Riparian buffers, or vegetated areas planted near streams, are our fourth agroforestry activity. Riparian buffers have a huge impact on filtering the water that flows through the buffer. The combination of trees, shrubs and forbs in a riparian buffer improve water quality, soil health, and wildlife habitat. Our final agroforestry activity is alley cropping. Alley cropping is the practice of planting wide spaced rows of trees and shrubs with a wide range of companion crops like wheat, dry beans, flowers or hay grown between the rows. The leaf fodder will add nutrients to the soil which benefits the plants that grow below.

Riparian buffer

Riparian buffer on Mud Prairie Farm

Alley crop2

Alley crop systems on Mud Prairie Farm

I use many of these agroforestry practices at Mud Prairie. In addition to the windbreaks, Mud Prairie Farm uses riparian buffers and alley cropping activities in different situations around the farm. In the bottom fields and along upland streams I have riparian buffers enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, (CREP). These buffers have been in place for the past 25 to 30 years and have captured tons of soil and nutrients flowing down stream. My upland riparian buffers have a combination of river birch, hazelnut and silky dogwood. In the bottom lands I use black walnut, pecan, river birch and hazelnut. The trees grow a lot thicker together in the bottom field riparian buffer than any other agroforestry activity.  Those squirrels that I compete with use the bottom riparian buffer as a winter storage field of assorted nuts so just about any type of tree is now growing in those buffers. This thick growth of trees is very productive at filtering a major flood event.  The alley cropping activities that I have in place have been used for different crop over the years. The first alley cropping activity that I planted used only rows of thorn-less honey locust. The honey locust is a nitrogen fixing tree which captures nitrogen from deep roots or from its leaves. When the leaves fall back to the ground it deposits the nitrogen to the soil so that the different crops can use as they grow between the rows of trees. The next alley copping I established had more food in the plan. Pecans, English walnuts and chestnuts where used to make up the rows of trees. For years I planted forbs and harvested prairie/ savanna seeds that benefited from some shading. Now I’m using the middle to grow different dry beans. I have one 4 acre silvopasture agroforestry planting of only black walnuts that is no longer being grazed and the stand of timber is still being pruned over the years to produce high quality veneer trunks.

Even though this area of land was historically known as Mud Prairie, the truth is the farm was once an oak savanna which today is even less of a remnant than prairies. An oak savanna is for the most part a prairie with a tree component added to the species list. In the distant past, Mud Prairie was inhabited by a small tribe of woodland Native Americans who burnt this prairie/savanna on an annual basis. This practice of burning the savanna caused black, post, and jack oak trees to grow in the form of oak bushes, never getting taller than the normal bush, which made it easier for the Indians to compete for harvest against those pesky squirrels. The oak nuts were a key source of protein for the Native Americans that lived at Mud Prairie. Like the woodland Native Americans, nuts are a native aspect of this ecosystem.

If you’d like to take advantage of agroforestry on your farm, there is a Conservation Stewardship Program, CSP activity that you can enroll in to receive assistance from NRCS. This activity is: Plant Enhancement Activity – PLT18 – Increasing on-farm food production with edible woody buffer landscapes enhancement.  The Description is:  This enhancement is for the enhancing of windbreaks, alley cropping, silvopasture, or riparian forest buffer systems with trees and shrubs that produce edible products for human or wildlife consumption. To qualify your Land Use Applicability should either be:  crops, or pasture. The Benefits are: An edible landscape is special in that it is planted with trees and shrubs that produce foods that we can eat/sell or that are beneficial for wildlife. Trees and shrubs can be used to provide shade, to improve microenvironments or to protect crops, or to mitigate challenging environmental issues. In an edible landscape they provide more than just a protective structure, they become sources of food that produce home grown and nutritious fruits and nuts, increase household food security, and create sites that provide critical habitat for pollinators and wildlife. This information comes from the list of the NRCS 2014 CSP enhancement activities job sheet.

There are a lot of ways to use trees, shrubs, and other crops in an agroforestry system. The more diverse the cropping system the more you can hedge against total crop failure. What trees and shrubs also do for the environment is just as important. I tend to agree with the saying, “Save a planet, plant a tree.”