Senator Bennett and the Alliance get a crash course on Black Currants and Agroforestry at Saturn Farm

State Senator Scott Bennett, Kaitie Adams, Agroforester and Farm Manager at the Savanna Institute, and Liz Rupel

We’re back with another fun legislator farm tour to report out. 

Remember back in April when we hosted our first virtual Food and Farm Week of Action? Well, Kaitie Adams (Farm Manager for the Savanna Institute and Soil Health Caucus Member) led the Zoom group for Senator Bennett’s District meeting. During that meeting she invited Senator Bennett to come learn about agroforestry. Last week Liz Rupel and Piero Taico headed over to Saturn Farm in Ogden Illinois, which is right outside of Champaign to turn that invitation into a reality!

Our favorit agroforester’s Kaitie Adams and Kevin Wolz (Co-Executive Director of the Savanna Institute), hosted the Alliance and their State Senator Scott Bennett of the 52nd District and Max Umansky the District Outreach Specialist for State Senate Democratic Caucus, on a tour of the largest black currant farm in Illinois. 

Kaitie Adams and Kevin Wolz

Kevin Wolz leases the 25 acre farm — which is under a 30 year lease — long-term leases because trees need at least a 20-30 year lease to see the fruit of the labor. Midwest Agroforestry Solutions and the Savanna Institute have turned Saturn Farm into the first commercial-scale farm. That means that this farm is establishing profitable agroforestry-focused solutions using a few main crops, currants, paw paws, black locust, rhubarb, and asparagus instead of, or in addition to the traditional corn and soybean rotations we see throughout Illinois. A agroforestry centered farm system or one that integrates agroforestry (like with livestock or row crops) helps to “restore ecological function and enhance productivity”.

Midwest Agroforestry Solutions lays out what some of those benefits look like: 

  • The deep tree roots in agroforestry can provide a “safety-net” by catching fertilizer that leaches beyond the crop rooting depth or growing season.
  • The perennial habitat can foster robust ecologies on par with protected natural areas.
  • The stacking of crops can lead to “overyielding”, higher profits, and increased land-use efficiency.
  • The diversity of harvest and management activities in agroforestry can expand year-round employment opportunities at multiple skill levels, helping stabilize rural communities.

Black currants were the main attraction for the tour. Black currants are perennial fruit-bearing shrubs that produce berries that resemble a blueberry. Kaitie and the team have also planted white and red currants, but black seem to be doing the best in the Central Illinois Climate. 

Black currants do have quite the history. Kevin tells us that Illinois used to be the third largest black currant producing state in the country. In the early 1900’s black currants became a vector for the white pine blister, which is a plant disease that is deadly to pine. Back in the 1900’s this disease was wreaking havoc on the timber industry. The USDA had no choice but to ban black currants and “burn every black currant farm to the ground” , says Kevin. The ban was lifted in the 60’s and thanks to disease resistant varieties, black currants are making quite the comeback in the states. Now it is legal to grow black currants! Since they were gone for a generation, says Kevin, everyone forgot about them. That’s why this work is so important; it’s bringing back a forgotten specialty crop and continuing to revitalize the local food system. 

Thanks to many fresh samples during the tour, we learned the currants are a little on the tart side, but are a literal superfood! Black currants pack more vitamin C than an orange, have more antioxidants than blueberries, and these crops are ripe for the picking! Seriously, tomorrow the team will be bringing in a mechanical harvester to shake the rows of shrubs of their berries for their annual harvest. Harvested berries will then be turned into value-added products by buyers such as sour beers, wines, jams and jellies, puree, and more.

To protect the currants, rhubarb, asparagus and other crops in the heart of Saturn Farm, the team has planted a windbreak system.8 rows of windbreaks ranging from rows of Willow, Poplar Trees, and Paw Paw Trees, to edible Serviceberries, surround the perimeter of Saturn Farm. Windbreaks are strips of trees and shrubs designed to enhance crop or livestock production while providing conservation benefits (Savanna Institute). 

Source: Midwest Agroforestry Solutions

Kevin and Kaitie turned us into superfans of windbreaks. They spoke of the potential for yield increase when using windbreaks — 10-40% increase! Wow! If that didn’t peak your interest, the NRCS Cost-share funding opportunities might. Kaitie explains it’s a “win-win” for soil health and agroeconomics.

Standing in windbreak rows at Saturn Farm

Kevin explains the breakdown in presidential terms. The windbreak was planted pre-Trump, at about 100% cost-share. During his presidency it went down to 50% or less, and now USDA NRCS re-upped to better than before. 100% cost-share and they pay rent every year. In addition to a $100 per acre sign-up bonus and you get rent every year for the next 10 or so years just to keep the trees alive. The windbreaks are drawing down carbin, helping to keep the soil in place, protecting the crops from pesticide drift, and once the term of the cost-share is up, Kevin can harvest and sell the fruit and nuts that the trees produce. 

Agricultural Cost-Share Programs

Agricultural cost-share programs provide federal and state funding that defray farmers’ costs for installing conservation practices. While each program is different, they typically support practices such as planting windbreaks, cover crops, planting forested buffers along stream corridors to trap pollution, rotationally grazing livestock on grass pastures. It’s important to note that these conservation practices don’t only improve soil health, and combat climate change, they usually increase farm productivity too!

We walked away from this tour with samples of fresh berries and a wealth of knowledge, but we also left with a possible policy priority to work on with the Savanna Institute and the Alliance’s Soil Health Caucus and Local Food Caucus! (Stay tuned for more details on that!) That is one of many benefits of these farm tours. Not only are we witnessing relationships being built between our members and their legislators, but we are discussing real issues and thinking of solutions. 

We are grateful to Senator Bennett and Max taking the time out of their day to spend the day at Saturn. And to Kaitie, Kevin, and their team. Harvest is tomorrow and there are a million and one things to do to get ready, but you still welcomed us and for that we are so thankful!

If you want to see this farm or other Savanna Institute Demonstration Farms, check out their upcoming events