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A Forest(er) Farmer’s Journey with Silvopasturing

Over the years, I’ve had many enjoyable opportunities to talk about silvopasturing – mostly in an “official” capacity as an Extension educator. But I’ve never had the chance to share much on how I came to be enamored with this “grazing in Nature’s image” agroforestry system that has become the core of our family’s farms.

The story begins with a young forester (me) who shipped off to Argentina with the Peace Corps in 1992. There I was tasked with sharing my knowledge of forestry and timber harvesting with local ranchers and gauchos who had spent the previous twenty years creating large forests from scratch via planting. The Argentines liked to quip that “God gave them great soils, climate and rainfall, but forgot to add the trees”, so they saw it as their mission to complete the work. They were very successful in their endeavors, and the next step was turning trees into cash.

Interestingly, at the time of my arrival the Province of Cordoba (central Argentina) was importing ~ 90% of the lumber it used from outside the region – most from neighboring countries like Chile and Brazil. Thirty years later, the same region is now self-sufficient and exports 90% of the timber products they grow. That in itself seems like a real success story, but what I gradually came to appreciate from these tree-covered ranching operations was how well the forestry and grazing complimented each other. It was an eye-opening evolution for an idealistic young forester who was taught since forestry school infancy that: “Thou shall not graze livestock in forests!”

silvopasture

“Woods silvopasture”. A commercial harvest in 2015 removed the overcrowded and poor-quality trees to reallocate sunlight to the ground level. Now, Angus Glen Farm grow forages instead of firewood in this silvopasture, plus a full stocking of vigorous, high-quality trees. Photo provided by Brett Chedzoy.

Near the end of my Peace Corps service, I married the love of my life – Maria – and we bought our own little piece of Paradise to ranch near her family’s farm. In hindsight, I wonder if this purchase wasn’t to console her parents that I wouldn’t take their daughter too far from home. But years later, I guess the truth was that I just love grazing and forests (and Maria) – and when I could mix them together, even better!

I don’t even remember the first time that I heard the word “silvopasturing”, but I gradually came to recognize this as something cool and special that made sense on every level. For the Argentines, it was more of a “why not?” vs. “why?” attitude to expand this natural fit of grazing and beneficial trees to have healthier landscapes, livestock and ranching operations. When we moved back to the family farm in New York in the early 2000s with a young family in tow, I found that on our end of the world the foresters, farmers and all the experts in between were still very much stuck on the “why?”. Fortunately, around the same time, there was a novel project at Cornell University’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest called “Goats in the Woods” that sought to look at the effectiveness and economics of using goats to control problematic plants in woodland settings. Although it wasn’t thought of as “silvopasturing”, the project served to show that grazing could be done in a positive way to promote healthier woodlands.

Soon after that project ended, there were two big new changes in my life: I had started working for Cornell Cooperative Extension in the same county where Goats in the Woods had taken place; and, we had started to resurrect the old family dairy farm with the goals of doing something profitable and enjoyable for our family. Since the very start of the new job, I found myself continually being asked about the Goats project and if I thought the same approach could work in other situations. I also started to take a hard look at our farm and realized that we had far more woods and brush than pasture. This was the moment where past experiences collided with the present, and I realized that it was time to start openly talking about silvopasturing.

At first, I wasn’t sure how my forester and farmer friends would react to the heresy of putting woods into pastures, or pasture into woods. To my pleasant surprise, I didn’t find much resistance – but looking back I attribute that mostly to no one having much idea what I was talking about. One talk led to another, however, and before long we were hosting the Northeast Silvopasture Conference over a decade ago that drew 130 folks from a dozen states and provinces. Since then, there have been many more educational efforts around silvopasturing and numerous new faces sharing their experiences and expertise.

So back to the farm…
Initially, we simply wanted to raise some animals for fun with the kids and to put some home-raised meat in the freezer. After all, my family was at least half Argentine, and Argentines like their meat! Sheep, goats and beef cattle were in the early mix, along with some pigs, horses and even Simon the llama. As the number of sheep and goats grew, it was starting to look like a full-time job, so we shifted more to beef cattle to keep things simple(r).

Grazing in BrushThe small livestock liked to munch on the brush, but we just had too much of it for them to keep the jungle in check. The cattle liked to focus on grassy stuff, but would opportunistically browse on the woodies when available. Gradually, we learned how to increase herd density at key times in the grazing season to put a beat down on the brush. The winter bale grazing months proved golden to drop “bale bombs” (an expression that I’ve adopted from friend and silvopasture expert Joe Orefice) into patches of soft brush to smash, trample, fertilize and reseed – all with a labor force that will work for food. When needed, some judicious “mulching” with heavy-duty forest mowing machines would jump-start the process by knocking the woody plants down to size for the livestock to then take over.

This gradual clearing of invasive shrubs and beech brush thickets in the understory was just part of the process that helped create productive silvopasture in our farm woodlots and plantations. The other key step was to remove the many dozens of poorer trees per acre that were taking up space and sunlight with little potential for future returns. Much like weeding a garden, we reduced the competition around our best trees by harvesting the lower-quality and less vigorous ones around them – a forest management practice known as “thinning”.

“Bale bombs” before and after. These situations allow a
sustained grazing density of over one million pounds per acre.
Repeated periodically over time, the forages will gradually
replace the brush in these locations.

The last major thinning in our silvopasture took place in 2015 which netted us about $300 per acre in timber revenue – only about ten percent of the total timber value per acre, but closer to 40% of the total stocking of trees. By harvesting the firewood-quality trees, we were able to reallocate the sunlight to ground level where we could instead grow forages. More importantly, it allowed us to use the whole farm instead of just the half that wasn’t already covered by trees.

After nearly twenty years of efforts to establish, expand and improve silvopasture on our farm, we’re seeing gradual increases to our grazing capacity, healthier and more productive conditions in the wooded areas, and happy and comfortable animals – especially on hot, sunny days. What’s not to like about silvopasture?

I hope to share more in the future about the nitty-gritty of silvopasture, but there is already plenty of good information available. The www.silvopasture.ning.com forum has many archived webinars, articles and conversations. The “Guide to Silvopasturing in the Northeast” and other resources are available on Cornell’s www.forestconnect.info forestry extension site.

Brett Chedzoy is an extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County and Forest Manager of Cornell’s Arnot Forest.  Brett and his family own and operate Angus Glen Farms, LLC in Watkins Glen, NY – a 500-acre regenerative grazing operation, and Estancia Rincon Grande in the Sierra Mountains of central Argentina.




Seeing the Forest for the Bees

INTRODUCTION

There have been many wonderful pieces about pollinators in The Natural Farmer, including a comprehensive Summer 2017 issue that I encourage you to return to. Today, I hope to add an unexpected corner of wild bee biology: the role of forest trees. I will combine woods and a smidgen of tree climbing with pollinator conservation to explore the often-overlooked role of trees for bees, especially on farms. For now, let’s start on the ground (pun intended!) with a review of who our wild bees are.

HONEY BEES

Until very recently, a conversation about “the bees” usually meant only Apis mellifera, or European honey bees. Beekeeping connects many of us to the magic of insect communication, sociality, and pollination habits. The European honey bee has captured the public imagination—and mine!

These highly social, hive-dwelling insects arrived with Europeans in the 1620s and rapidly colonized westward. As with all livestock, people have historical and meaningful relationships with honey bees and honey, similar to how we value cows and chickens and milk and eggs. These agricultural priorities mediate the trade-offs we make as we allocate land use and resources. For example, responsible pasture management avoids the environmental degradation of overgrazing and overstocking, and riparian buffers minimize water pollution. Similarly, honey bee management decisions should take into account the surrounding wildlife and local ecology.

For example, in the high densities often reached by commercial beekeepers, there is some evidence that honey bee hives can compete for and deplete floral resources, outcompeting wild bees. Luckily, this competition exclusion is unlikely at the scale of a backyard beekeeper. However, research by Laura Figueroa, Kaitlin Deutsch, and Samantha Alger has been showing that multiple bee diseases including deformed wing virus which is vectored by Varroa mite, can be spread to wild bees at flowers. So, low hive densities and careful Varroa management may be crucial for “saving the bees” – even at the backyard scale. Finally, eastern forests in fact harbor many thriving colonies of feral honeybees. The term feral indicates that they were domesticated and then escaped, rather than were wild and free-living originally. Tom Seeley follows these bees in the Arnot Forest of NY, and Margarita Lopez-Uribe in PA found that feral honeybees in PA had higher immunocompetence than managed honeybees. Today, however, we’re going to focus on native, wild species.

Although outside the scope of this piece, I encourage interested beekeepers to look into the great research and recommendations from the Pollinator Network @ Cornell.

WILD BEES

So, who should those conversations about “the bees” also include, if not just Apis mellifera? Which bees were here in the US before the honey bees arrived with European colonists, and are they here now?

To the best of our knowledge, at least four thousand wild bee species lived on the land currently called the United States. In New York State, where I live, there are at least 420 species. To extend our livestock analogy from the prior paragraph: the wild bees are the eagles, wrens, cormorants, chickadees, and herons to livestock’s chicken, or the moose, fox, groundhog, and prairie dog to livestock’s cow. Some researchers guess there may be an average of 50,000 wild bees/hectare in the mid-Atlantic region. Wow!

Much like the suite of wild mammals and birds I listed, each wild bee species has a unique ecology, diet, and habitat requirement. Wild bees have thousands of years of relationships to the local plants, soils, and other nesting habitats. Some bees fly in the springtime, some in midsummer, and some only in the fall. I’m particularly curious about the habitat that is overlooked — which brings us to the woods and its tall, tall trees.

WHY LOOK IN THE WOODS

From an agricultural perspective, there is consistent evidence that agricultural fields near forests, hedgerows, and woodlots have higher bee abundance and diversity. Some research in orchards and strawberries has found this same effect in orchard rows themselves—the more meters away you are from the woods, the fewer wild bees. Earlier work from our lab found that the negative effects on bee diversity metrics of higher pesticide loads were mitigated by higher amounts of nearby natural habitat, including forests.

This northeastern region, of course, used to be heavily forested, although with regular disturbances – gaps and patches of varying sizes were created by beavers dams, windstorms, tip-ups, and fire, often through intentional indigenous management. The story of settler-colonial deforestation and reforestation is not news to most readers. However, the implications for bees have left some interesting biogeographic and natural history legacies. Collecting in a Connecticut wetland, I once caught a bee named “Calliopsis nebraskensis.” Is that nebraskensis… like, Nebraska, I wondered? I asked Sam Droege at the USGS, who suggested a cool hypothesis: when settlers cleared the northeast for agriculture, some bees adapted to prairies and mid-western open areas were able to spread east. Pockets of those populations have remained even after more forest has regrown.

But those “plains bees” probably weren’t the dominant groups in the historically forested northeast. Colleen Smith and colleagues at Rutgers have found that up to a third of common northeastern bees could even be classified as “forest-associated.” So today, we can move to the woods and ask: what were the strategies and resources of bees who evolved near and in the forest?

WHERE & HOW TO LOOK FOR WOODSY BEES

male mining bee

A male mining bee resting on a flower petal. Males of the genus are very commonly encountered in forests in early spring, while many females are fruit pollinators later in spring. Photo by C. Kitchen.

I’ve already warned you that I’m going to end up looking sky-high to the canopy, but let’s climb our way up to it, and start with our feet firmly planted.

Among the best-known marvelous ankle-height interactions are the bees who love our spring ephemerals. One famous forest floor forager is the solitary mining bee named Spring Beauty Bee, Andrena erigeniae. Like other solitary species, each female is in sole charge of her own nest. For each baby bee, she creates a small bee-sized chamber off of an underground tunnel. She fills it with a gigantic pile of spring beauty pollen before laying an egg on it—enough pollen to feed it all the way to adulthood! No other pollen will do, and in fact, Spring Beauty Bee has specialized leg hairs just the right size and shape for gathering up large volumes of spring beauty pollen, and she is so efficient that barely any pollen gets brushed onto other flowers. As a result, messier less specialized bees like bumblebee queens actually do a better job pollinating the flower.

It’s always good to remember that bees are pollen eaters. They are happy herbivorous, and only incidentally pollinate. In that sense, “mutualisms” aren’t always simple (or even mutual!). And Spring Beauty Bee isn’t the only one: there are specialist bees who collect pollen from plants such as bellwort, geranium, and trout lily. Many specialists are only active for a few weeks while “their flower” is blooming. Otherwise, they slowly develop and wait out most of the year in their underground nests as prepupae, waiting for the spring weather cues to signal them just the right week to emerge.

Now, if we look away from the ephemerals and onto the leaf litter, bumblebee queens diligently represent their bumbling namesakes. They mated in the fall, hibernated all winter, and now need to establish a nest. Bumblebees then live in active colonies for many months. Unlike the spring ephemeral specialists, they can’t live on just trout lily or just spring beauty—they’d be so hungry all summer! Instead, they need to be able to switch between multiple types of flowers. Bee biologists call this being a “generalist” rather than a “specialist.” A 2020 study by Genevieve Pugesek and colleagues found more successful bumblebee nests in forests than in fields. In my own observation, bumblebees nest-searching in the woods seem to favor well-drained, sloping hillsides with some leaf litter.

Another bee you’re likely to see weaving across the forest floor in early spring is a master of disguise. Bees in the genus Nomada are cleptoparasites, meaning they don’t build nests of their own. Instead of gathering pollen, Nomada usurp Mining Bee nests by sneaking inside and laying an egg on the pollen ball. The egg hatches and the parasitoid larva t

parasitoid bees

Easily mistaken for wasps, parasitoid bees in the genus Nomada have hardened exoskeletons. This makes sense: they may need to fight their way out if they are discovered by a mining bee female while parasitizing her nest. Photo by C. Kitchen.

akes over, killing the host bee. Nomada have a wasp-like aesthetic with a thickened red and yellow exoskeleton. Why? They don’t need fuzzy pollen-collecting hairs, but do need to be tough if the host bee realizes what they’re up to! It’s easy to imagine someone casting parasitoids as the villain in our story, weaving slowly across the forest flower, searching for a nest, up to no good. But researchers believe that seeing them year after year is actually a good sign—abundant parasitoids are a clue that suggests an abundant host population. Parasitism rates have been estimated at around 4-5% of a host population, so if we imagine 95 mining bees for each Nomada we see, that’s an exciting number of fabulous orchard pollinators, likely nesting somewhere in these woods! If you follow a Nomada, you might even find one….

Continuing our journey upwards, we’re finally ready to look above knee height. At this stage of the journey, one of my favorite tips is: look for shiny sparkling jewels. If it’s green and glinting, go look at it! Many forest insects are iridescent. Ecologists think that this might be a predator-avoidance strategy – as iridescent insects move between dappled sun and shade, it throws off birds and others who would eat them. And lucky for forest ecologists, it makes them beautiful. So who are our iridescent forest bees? Two of my favorites are both shiny sweat bees: Augochlora pura and Lasioglossum coeruleum. They’re small and gentle forest-associated bees that nest in rotting logs, stumps, and snags. They’re active all summer, and often prefer logs that are quite “punky” or spongy, and will usually initiate their burrows in abandoned beetle holes of 3-8mm across. Also at mid-level heights are the stem and cavity nesters, who use hollow pithy stems of plants like Rubus and Sumac for overwintering, or cracks and pre-existing holes in trees.

CANOP-BEES (Canopy Bees!)

And finally, we get up to the sky. My research has us look up, and ask, have we overlooked these resources, because they physically overlook us? Do bees collect canopy pollen? What else do they do in the canopy?

Besides being just plain out of reach, the main reason forest trees have been broadly ignored as possible bee sources is that many of them are wind-pollinated. This makes sense: it is windy, cold, and often rainy in spring. So if you’re a tall tree, it’s a grand idea to take advantage of that windiness and spread your pollen in the breeze, rather than worry about whether or not a small hungry insect will make the journey to your flowers on a cold April day. So, many spring-blooming species – poplar, ash, birch, alder, hickory, oak – aren’t trying to attract bees: their pollen is optimized for flight and the statistical hope that it lands on a receptive conspecific. But if it’s edible, that same statistical hope means that these trees make a TON of it, and it often still has lots of protein, lipids, and essential amino acids…so in our project, we were curious if bees sometimes eat it anyway. After all, remember that bees are primarily pollen eaters, but only incidentally pollinators—maybe they don’t care if the tree is wind-pollinated!

I began by following some clues left by Professor Laura Russo, who had identified lots of pollen carried by bees caught in NY apple orchards. These were all bees who were busily gathering delicious apple pollen, and yet, she found they also carried some maple, willow, ash, and birch pollen. If that was happening in May, we thought, maybe they use even more of those trees in the weeks before the orchards bloom!  Although not widely studied, clues in the literature suggested that orchard pollinating mason bees and mining bees also love oak pollen, and our lovely shiny green sweat bees visit walnut. A 2018 review found 200 pollen collection records for over 100 genera of wind-pollinated plants. This is especially important when we think about restrictions on pesticide sprays. Hemp, and corn, and other grasses are wind-pollinated, but since bees collect their pollen (and they take a lot of it!), then insecticide applications should take that into account.

The first step to figuring out these canopy dynamics was just to see if bees are even up in the canopy. After three years of canopy sampling with special bee traps in eleven forests and woodlots adjacent to orchards in the Finger Lakes in New York, we found over 90 species of wild bees were actively flying the forest canopy between March and the end of May—the time period prior to apple bloom, when many forest trees are blooming). But what were they doing? First, we did some tree climbing and found that those same log-nesting iridescent green bees were also nesting in canopy branches, and I observed lots of bees foraging on wind-pollinated tree catkins.

Since then, my team and I have dissected over a thousand bees that we caught from different forest strata and orchards and found that tree pollen makes up between a quarter and 100% of individual bees’ digestive tract pollen. Oak and maple made up the vast proportion of tree pollens that bees ate, while beech, walnut, and birch were also well represented. Although we’ve known from work by Suzanne Batra and others that willow and red maple, one of the biggest surprises in our work was the enormous volume of sugar maple that many species of bees had eaten. Future research is needed to understand how healthy these pollens are for bees.

Finally, our research strongly suggests that bees active in the forests are “spilling over” into apple orchards and other crop fields later in the spring. In the mining bee family, male bees emerge first. These males were active in the woods, and then the females of the same species were active in apple trees a few weeks later. The males never left the woods in high numbers — so in order for these female orchard pollinators to reproduce, we guess that they need forests nearby in order to mate! A hidden link between habitats. Overall, we calculated the highest bee abundances in the understory a week before they peaked in the canopy and finally spiked in the orchards two weeks after that. Most of the bee species had eaten pollen from all habitats, suggesting lots of cross-habitat reliance.

MANAGEMENT

Although research is increasing, so far we’re really just scratching the surface when it comes to forest bees. Over half of forest ownership in the northeast is private, so taking action on your back woodlot and private property can have huge implications. Based on the natural history we know so far, and general principles of managing for diversity, the following recommendations are worth it to help wild bees thrive:

  1. Try uneven-aged management. Maximize niches. Light-filled gaps created by single-tree, patch selection, or shelterwood harvests will fill to the brim with flowers. Bee foraging activity is often high in forest openings; common growth at this stage of succession include plants like raspberries, whose nests, in turn, are nest habitat for stem-nesting species. Slash can create nesting habitat and protection. Niche diversity in multi-aged stands generates homes for rodents whose burrows can later be bumble bee homes, and (non-pest) beetles whose tunnels support tunnel-nesting bees.
  2. Keep coarse woody debris & standing deadwood. Coarse woody debris and standing deadwood provide habitat. In a recent paper, researchers reminded us “[s]aproxylic bees and wasps are endangered due to the loss of old trees, as well as due to the removal of deadwood”. Some cool work at the Arnot Forest in NY created a “slash wall” to exclude deer–deer browse is a major threat to the regeneration of plants on which bees rely–and Kristi Sullivan and I saw huge numbers shiny green bees nesting in all of that slash!
  3. Manage for plant diversity. This again may require protection from deer. Tree species diversity overlaps with the above management goals, but I emphasize it again now for bee health and nutrition. Bees collect saps and resins to help waterproof their nests, and as anti-microbials, and even as self-medication when challenged by parasites (e.g. from Populus). Different compounds may be needed from different species, and a diversity of species means more consistently available saps and resins.
  4. Manage for vertical diversity. Bees are small, so small habitat changes can mean big changes in niche availability. Multi-age and -size trees generate a matrix of environments. These include species that provide contrasting light levels, various leaf types and textures, nearby shrubs or understory communities, different bark textures, and beetle communities that leave behind different sizes and shapes of abandoned burrows.
  5. Consider bees in any pesticide applications. As described, bees visit forest tree blooms for food. For targeted sprays or trunk injections, consider if it’s possible to wait until bloom is over. The concentration of the pesticide expressed in pollen or nectar should be much lower by the time the tree blooms again the next year (although the risk may not be gone). Bees also visit understory shrubs and spring ephemerals, which could be impacted by soil drenches of insecticides able to translocate and taken up by nearby roots.
  6. Start by supporting the bee diversity you have! Generally, adding new managed bees is not the best way to encourage wild bee health. Sometimes they compete with wild species and can even carry pests and pathogens. Instead, prioritize keeping your yard messy with habitat, your flowers abundant for nutrition, and reach out to a certified forest to add bees to your ecological, wildlife-focused forest management.

 

Resources :




The Game of Logging – A Women’s Workshop

women Logging

Game of Logging for Women attendees, listening to instruction. Photo credit, Elizabeth Gabriel

Game? It’s ironic because the last word I would use to describe anything to do with a chainsaw is “game”. While I am the kind of person who puts together new furniture or a new gadget without reading the instructions, I’m not the kind of person who uses a deadly tool without guidance and confidence. And certainly, I don’t want to play any type of game with this tool.

A few years ago I was given a Stihl chainsaw and chaps for Christmas. My partner, a forester, has taught me to use it at least four times. Each time I feel oriented to the machine, comfortable enough using it with him nearby and pleased with myself. But, each time a few months go by that I don’t use the saw and again, I am fearful to use it.

These machines can be deadly. The extremely sharp chain, with 50-100 tiny cutting teeth, is running at nearly 60mph around the bar. It’s designed to cut through wood. Our bones are much less dense than wood and our brain’s reaction time to feel the pain if the saw were to cut us is far too slow compared to the power of this machine.

I first witnessed the result of this combination – man vs. saw – when I was eight. At the annual ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day,’ I met one of my dad’s patients, Mr. Jacobson. Mr. Jacobson, a professional arborist, was in a tree when his saw kicked back and sliced his face and neck. (Did you know, what appears to be a guard on chainsaw helmets is just there to block sawdust? It provides absolutely no protection from the saw.) To this day, I vividly remember the wound my dad had stitched on this man, that both saved his life and ran from just under his eye, down his nose, across his chin and down part of his neck. It’s a miracle Mr. Jacobson didn’t decapitate himself, and my dad has always been in disbelief that Mr. Jacobson was able to speak at all – albeit impaired – because of the damage done to his vocal cords.

Just this past summer a neighbor of mine, a somewhat overly confident 32-year-old DIYer, experienced a similar sort of miracle. (I had seen Duncan use an electric chainsaw a year earlier, and was dismayed by his lackadaisical approach. It actually turns out that electric chainsaws can be more dangerous than gas ones because they don’t bind up in Kevlar, or an equivalent material used in chainsaw chaps, and people think they’re safer because they are light and quiet). Duncan has been clearing a house site on newly acquired land for a few months and this day was no different. While his eight-and-a-half-month pregnant wife was off in the distance moving brush, Duncan was bucking up a tree in his usual way – without any safety gear other than ear protection – when his gas-powered saw kicked back. In an instant, the saw had sliced through his thigh deep enough to see the femur bone, but incredibly, did not cut through it. His wife raced him to the hospital where 49 stitches put his muscle and skin back together. (For those who don’t know, breaking, or cutting, a femur bone can be considered life-threatening and damage to this region is concerning because of its proximity to the femoral artery).

Needless to say, I hold so much respect for this dangerous tool, it impaired me from getting to know it well enough to fall in love with its usefulness – and for years I wanted to know and to love it.

But, I digress. The point of this essay is not to scare you into wearing safety gear (though I hope it did and I hope you do). Rather, it’s to tell you about the Game of Logging – a hands-on chainsaw safety and productivity training which I had the opportunity to take Level 1 and Level 2 of in October when it was offered just for women by CCE-Greene County.

A member of the Cornell Maple Program,
Catherine Belisle, sharpening a chain.
Photo credit, Elizabeth Gabriel

Certainly, I could have enrolled in the Game of Logging – open to all genders – anytime over the last few years since owning my chainsaw, but we all know the logging industry is very male-dominated, plus, I know from both my partner and some friends who had taken the training, that there are generally no women in it and the instructor, while extremely knowledgeable, can be a bit of an a*s so I wasn’t really jumping on the opportunity. While it might be possible for a woman to learn in a group of all men, the fact is that this setting is not usually the most comfortable or conducive to my learning style. I could only imagine the machoness (and grunts) that would exude from a group of men gathered around their saws, and I anticipated not being able to ask questions or being supported if I wasn’t quick to catch on. When it came to chainsawing, I knew learning with other women would be ideal.

It turns out many other women and gender-nonconforming people feel the same way I do. Within a day of registration opening, the 2-day workshop was filled and 14 others joined me on the cold, wet October weekend at the Siuslaw Model Forest in Acra, NY. Every single person said they would not have enrolled if it wasn’t a workshop for women, because “I was afraid of it [the chainsaw] and felt like I couldn’t do it, but knowing I’d be with other women made me think, ‘I can do it!’”.

Each person was required to bring their own saw and safety gear – chaps, helmet and ear protection. While some of us had used a saw as often as a dozen times, most of the participants had never used a saw before. A few had never even turned their saw on – or tried to but couldn’t (admittedly, it’s not always easy to get them on!).

The Game of Logging was initially developed for loggers to play a competitive “game” that would improve their chainsaw techniques and tree-felling methods to be safer and more successful (i.e. fewer snags). Once trained, loggers (or the companies they work for) also experience a discounted price on their required insurance policies. The course, as I took it, for the home-owner, left the competition aspect aside, for which I am grateful.

The Level 1 and 2 trainings focus on safety, saw maintenance, tree felling including spring poles and wedges, and bucking. Levels 3 and 4 delve into more nuanced techniques and situations that loggers or experienced foresters might encounter. The course as a whole is designed to be hands-on, repetitive (practice makes habit), offer a variety of circumstances (different tree, density of woods, varying slopes, etc.), and drill in the safety checks. It successfully did all those things – and more.

Cutting tree diagram

Fig. 1. Source: Glen C. Rains, Ph.D., P.E.
University of Georgia Cooperative Extension

In two days, I learned far more than I can share here – everything from the 5 Major Safety Checks, to adjusting the carburetor, replacing the drawcord, and lowering a snag – so I will just share a few of the biggest takeaways.

The first is that helmets expire even if nothing ever hits them (this is also true for bike helmets). The plastic weakens and should a limb actually fall on you, it will not protect your head if it’s more than ~5 years old. A helmet should have some shine to it and the plastic should have flexibility. If you look under the visor of the helmet, there’s actually an emblem with a month and year – this is the date it was made. (Turns out mine is from 2008!)

The second thing I learned is that Agway (and most places) does a terrible job of sharpening chains. I brought two chains to the workshop that I had just picked up from being sharpened and both were not only done incorrectly but were dangerous – the raker was far lower than the tooth causing it to catch and bounce. ‘Bouncing’ is definitely not a descriptor you ever want to use for a chainsaw! I learned that for not a lot of money, with a few simple tools including a round file, a depth gauge, and a sharpening gauge, I can and should set myself up to sharpen my own chains.

The third thing I learned is the methodology and approach that made this course well-known, and that is to use a bore core on every tree with a D.B.H. (diameter at breast height) greater than 6-8”.

To back up for a minute: simply put, the standard or commonly used approach to tree felling involves two cuts, the face cut and the felling cut. The face cut creates a notch on the side of the tree in the direction you want it to fall. The felling cut is then made from the back of the tree toward the notch, leaving a thin section of the trunk to act as a hinge, guiding the tree as it falls (see image).

This common method doesn’t take into account felling a tree with any kind of lean (forward, back, side) and it doesn’t reduce the risk of stump-jump – when the hinge breaks and the tree “jumps” toward you as it’s falling (terrifying, right?!).

The alternative is to use a bore cut, which involves three cuts. The first is again the face cut to create a notch. The width of the deepest part of the notch (which is the width of the hinge as well) should be 80% of the tree’s D.B.H. In the second cut, hold the saw so the bar is parallel to the ground, at the same level as the bottom of the notch, and behind the hinge which you will create, and then bore (plunge) your saw into the tree just behind the notch using the bottom half of the bar tip, leaving a hinge and working your way toward the back of the tree, stopping short to leave a “strap” of wood. Your hinge should be about 10% of the tree’s D.B.H. You now have a strap of wood at the back of the tree and a hinge that holds the tree safely on its stump until you’re ready. This is when you would place wedges if needed. Finally, the third cut cuts the strap, and the tree falls. When you use a bore cut, not only can you precisely control the direction the tree falls, but the strap holds it safely and securely, allowing you all the time you need to make the hinge exactly the way you want it and leave the zone safely. (See image)

Women cutting trees

Eye on the prize – Tree felling stance. Photo credit: Elizabeth Gabriel

There’s apparently some fear of the bore cut because of the risk of kickback, but if done properly, using a sharp chain and the bottom corner of the bar – staying clear of the kickback zone in the top corner of the bar – the bore cut is significantly safer than other methods. (A great way to practice the bore cut is to use some stumps either you create or have in your woods).

I was surprised we’d be felling trees in a Level 1 training, and I assumed we would practice on a single tree in an open field. Given that that scenario is pretty rare, I was foolish to think that would be our training ground. Instead, we each were paired with a poplar in a pretty dense forest to practice on. Once paired with our tree, we took turns assessing and sharing the HELP steps aloud (Hazards, Escape Path, Lean, Plan) before making our cuts. My tree smacked down on a tall stump just as I had planned. The group clapped. Another squeezed in between two other trees just as she planned. The group clapped again. One by one, each of the 14 women landed their tree exactly where it was intended – followed by cheers and claps. We confirmed with the instructor, who has taught Game of Logging for a few decades, that clapping and cheering only happens at the women-only courses.

If you use a chainsaw, I highly recommend taking the Game of Logging. Not only did I learn an exceptional amount about the saw and cutting safely, but taking the workshop with only women created an environment where all of us were comfortable asking questions and helping each other. While I do hope that one day there is a woman teaching the Game of Logging, the instructor was just a little bit crass, but mostly patient, helpful and a great teacher. Being part of the group, even just for 2 days, elicited a camaraderie in knowing that all of us were going to head home with our newly found confidence and skill. Perhaps that sense of connection will also lead to being part of a network of women working with the woods.

Two of the participants, Elisha and Catherine, run the maple program at Cornell University’s student farm and plan to use their new skill to help manage the maple woods. Another, Aysha, is a mushroom grower in Orange County and will now be able to harvest and buck up some of her own mushroom logs. As for me, while I don’t feel confident tree felling by myself yet and continue to do so with my partner nearby, I was able to cut up a tree that fell in our driveway the other day and have been bucking up firewood for our home and mushroom logs for our farm all on my own – and that’s all quite satisfying and useful!

Resources:
Game of Logging, http://www.gameoflogging.com/
Women Owning Woodlots, https://www.womenowningwoodlands.net/




Agroforestry for Resilience

After more than a decade of designing regenerative landscapes, one thing is clear: interest in land-based resiliency continues to grow. What resiliency looks like depends on the client and context, but the definition remains the same. Resiliency is the ability of a person(s) or system to handle and quickly recover from adverse conditions. For the farmers we work with, resiliency increasingly means diversifying their operations with agroforestry.

Agroforestry systems vary across culture and climate, but all involve the integration of tree crops with other perennial crops, annual crops, and/or livestock. Diversifying in such a way contributes to economic resilience by not relying on a single crop or type of crop, and builds ecological resilience through the myriad benefits of trees – soil building, carbon sequestration and storage, flood control, cooling, and habitat.

FINDING CROPS THAT WORK
Farmers understand what practices benefit or degrade the ecology of their farms. Regenerative agriculture practices – like agroforestry – make sense from an ecological standpoint. When making a living from farming is already so challenging, though, it’s often safer to stay with what works, even if those practices make a farm vulnerable over time. For a farmer accustomed to annual cropping, the prospect of transitioning cropland into an agroforestry system can seem a risky prospect. For farmers already managing perennial crops, new systems like alley cropping can also feel like a risk.

Increasingly, our farm planning work includes thorough agroforestry crop assessments for our clients. These assessments, tailored to the farm’s operations, climate, and local and regional markets, create a framework for decision-making. They include high potential crops – reliable growers with established or emerging markets for fresh and value-added products, and moderate potential crops – or those that are more variable in cultivation and market reliability but show good promise.

Download the Complete Agroforestry Crops for the Northeast PDF




Why Thinning Matters

 range of red pine

Figure 1. The natural range of red pine (Pinus resinosa) in the northeastern US; Source: commons.wikimedia.org.

In general, in northeastern forests, tree regeneration occurs naturally. While the regeneration may not be of desired or high-value species due to intense selective browsing by deer, under normal circumstances, an open field with nearby seed trees could result in up to 50,000 seedlings per acre, which is more than enough if we want to end up with 50 to 100 high-quality trees per acre in a mature forest 80 to 100 years later.

But what are the consequences of not being able to carry out the timely thinning and reduction of stand density that foresters would like to achieve? How does thinning—or the lack of thinning—affect the quality of the sawlogs produced, and what are the effects on the value of the products that are able to be made from those logs? Let’s examine an example from my woodlot that demonstrates the long-term benefits of thinning.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=10eGkyikT4fh6XJ0L2Z60P2EI6zyGY79N

White pine (Pinus strobus) is found throughout New York State, while red pine (Pinus resinosa) has a much more limited range in New York (Figure 1). As part of the reforestation efforts that took place in the first half of the 20th century, large numbers of conifers were planted in abandoned agricultural fields. Recognizing that open-field plantings of white pine would result in the white pine weevil (Pissodes strobi) infesting the terminal leaders of many of these young trees destroying their future lumber value, many fields were instead planted with red pines. This resulted in stands of red pine being planted far outside of its native range and preferred soils in many areas of New York.

We are fortunate in having two areas planted in red pine by two different owners on our current property. One small area of one acre was planted with very close spacing of the trees and was never managed in any way thereafter. The second area of five acres was planted in 1927 and was heavily thinned in the 1940s when the trees were about 6 inches in diameter. You can still see the evidence of this thinning from the hundreds of partially decayed stumps that are still visible on the plot. I was fortunate to be able to obtain the history of this plot from my neighbor, who was born in 1906, and who planted and thinned these trees with his father. They also trimmed the remaining trees with pole saws, removing branches and branch stubs on the lower stems, resulting in butt logs with clear lumber.

My wife, who is both younger and smarter than me, works from a home office. After I retired in 2012, she decided that the best way to get me out of the house so she could have a peaceful and quiet work environment was to encourage me to buy a tractor and sawmill. I was going to buy a small manual sawmill, but one of my more knowledgeable and practical friends identified the challenges of a manual mill, so I ended up getting the smallest hydraulic mill that Wood-Mizer makes, the LT-35. Sometimes it is a wonderful thing to have a spouse who wants to get rid of you and friends who realize your limitations.

The acquisition of the tractor and sawmill has resulted in my sawing lots of red pine to build a heated wood-working shop which was strongly encouraged by my wife to get rid of me in cold weather. So I have ended up sawing many thousands of board feet of red pine, which led me to begin to understand how the size of a log influences the value of the product obtained from that log.

Width Comparison of Thinned vs Unthinned Trees

Width Comparison of Thinned vs Unthinned Trees. Photo credit Edward Neuhauser.

When sawing logs, it is the diameter of the small end of the log that will determine the size and amount of lumber that you can obtain from that log. The larger end of the log will all be sawn off in the 4 slab cuts that ideally also cut off all of the bark. When I saw for boards that are 10-feet long, I cut an 11-foot log to make sure I have 6 inches of trim on both ends of the lumber. So if I cut a 15-inch DBH (diameter at breast height) red pine, assuming a 1-foot stump, it is the diameter of that log at 12 feet that determines the dimensions of the lumber that I will be able to obtain from that log. A 15-inch DBH red pine log would result in the diameter of that log at 12 feet that would range from 11 to 13 inches.

In designing my shop, I decided that I wanted to use board and batten siding that was 1 inch thick. Then the question became: what size boards and battens could I obtain from the available red pine logs? The battens were easy to figure out; I decided that I would use battens 3 inches wide. These were readily obtainable from the first board cut in a log after the slab cut.

If you take into account the amount of wood that you have to take off in the slab cuts, a 10 to 12-inch diameter log on the small end will allow you to cut 8 inch wide boards. The red pines were about 70 to 75 feet tall, allowing me to obtain up to five 11 foot logs per tree, as it is characteristic of closely planted red pine to have long straight stems (of little taper) topped by short crowns. If the diameter of the small end of the 5th log on the tree was at least 6 inches, I could saw two 2” x 4”s from that log, for a total of 13.4 board feet (one board foot equals 144 cubic inches of wood; to calculate, take length x width x thickness, all in inches, and divide by 144 to determine total board feet).

I found that I could obtain some 10 inch wide boards from some of the larger diameter butt logs, but not very many. One problem with wide boards is that they can have a tendency to warp if they are not correctly placed on a wall. One way to minimize this problem is to follow the suggestion from barn builders of old: “Place the bark to the barn.” This means placing the outside of the tree towards the inside of the building. This way if the board warps, as some will, the cupping will not result in a split board.
So I ended up cutting primarily 8-inch boards, mostly from the butt logs, and some of the 2nd logs, and 1” x 3”s, 1” x 6”s, 2” x 4”s and 2” x 6 ”s from the rest of the logs from higher on the stems.

So how does this relate to the usefulness of the logs from plots of thinned and unthinned red pine? The red pine grown on the thinned plots had many trees that reached 15” DBH, with clear stems, while the red pines on the unthinned plot limited the DBH to 6 to 8 inches, and as these trees were never pruned, they were riddled with dead branch stubs, which further reduced their utility and value.

To demonstrate the value of thinning, I compared the amount of lumber obtained from the butt logs of 2 red pines of the same age, but the larger tree had more space (and its crown more access to sunlight) to grow. From the 10 foot log whose narrow end diameter was 10”, I obtained 2- 1”x 6”, 3- 1”x 8” and 2- 2”x 4”s, for a total of 44 board feet of lumber. From the log whose narrow end diameter was 12”, I obtained 3- 1”x 6”, 7- 1”x 8”s and 2- 2”x 4”s, for a total of 75 board feet of lumber. So I obtained 70% more lumber from a log that was only 2” larger in diameter (see figure 2). I also obtained 4 additional boards of the more valuable lumber, the 1”x 8”s. So the thinning that took place in the 1940’s really paid off when the stand was harvested and the logs sawn for lumber.

I would be lucky to get a couple of 2” x 4”s from the butt log of the trees on the unthinned plots, and probably would get little or nothing from the second log on these trees. While the red pine on the unthinned plots would be suitable for pulp, they really would not be suitable (or worth the effort) for lumber. So as my experience with these two stands demonstrates, thinning really does matter, as what happens early in the life cycle of a stand can have great consequences for the final value of its timber.
On a final note, one of the best benefits of New York Forest Owners Association (NYOFA) membership is the willingness of more experienced members to share their knowledge with others. Early in my sawing career, I was very fortunate to have a visit at my place from million board foot sawyer Dave Williams. Dave showed me in one afternoon how to get much more lumber from my logs, resulting in thousands of additional board feet of lumber since his visit, boards that would have previously ended up in the slab pile. It is NYFOA members like Dave that make NYFOA the wonderful organization that it is today.

Ed Neuhauser is a NYFOA board member who saws lumber in Groton, NY.




The High-Potential for Nut Crops

The nut trees in this young planting are in rows laid out on a 1 percent slope with the goal of moving excess water passively from where it is needed least to where it is needed most – wet to dry areas in the landscape.
Provided by Carl Alberts.

Nuts are incredibly nutritious and extremely high in protein and healthy fats. The growth of a regional market for organic nuts would fill a critical gap in our regional community food system – there are very few high-protein crops produced here (besides meat). Further, nut trees have tremendous potential as a multi-purpose crop here in the Northeast and should be both cared for and valued in existing landscapes and also planted and grown out. To learn more, I spoke with a few members of The New York Nut Growers Association (NYNGA), an all-volunteer, non-profit organization that is dedicated to finding and preserving existing nut trees and also to inspiring and promoting gardeners, landowners and farmers to plant more nut trees.

Long-time member, Carl Albers, is the Chair of the English walnut project, which started just 5 years ago, is trying to identify existing English walnut cultivars that are productive trees in New York State and that produce good-tasting nuts. The group collected nuts from a dozen trees and distributed them to members for a taste and crack test. While a light kernel is critical for an international market, here in the Northeast, Carl doesn’t anticipate competing in an international market, but there is potential for a niche regional market with these nuts. The challenge is to identify English walnut trees that are adequately disease resistant and well adapted to our NYS
Climate.

Juglans regia

Juglans regia w as English, Persian and Carpathian walnuts) self-husk and crack out well making them easy to home process.
Provided by CarlAlberts.

Carl further shares that butternut and black walnut trees are both desired for their nuts and lumber production. Chinese chestnuts – delicious, cold hardy and resistant to the chestnut blight – could provide a lucrative commercial market. Hazelnuts also offer high-potential for a commercial market, being extremely delicious and offering a relatively short years-to-yield ratio. English walnuts and heartnuts also offer the potential for a market for edible nuts that are still being explored. Meanwhile, bitternut hickory nut oil could serve as a regional replacement for olive oil!

Sara Tyler, another NYNGA member, and founder of Black Squirrel Farms is passionate about collecting and processing black walnuts. While black walnut trees are known for their timber, the nuts are edible and the shells can be used as a smoking chip and even in cleaning products. Her team coordinates a black walnut collection program, in which members get paid to drop off nuts. As they expand their processing infrastructure, Black Squirrel Farms has way more nuts than they can process at this moment, but, as Sara explains, “nuts are a forgiving crop to work with because they are relatively shelf-stable when kept frozen”.

As you might notice by the number of black walnut and hickory trees scattered in your backyards or forests, most nut trees are pretty adaptable to varying – and even disturbed – soil types. (In fact, there’s a correlation between where Native settlements were, and where black walnuts grow). Nonetheless, it is always recommended to avoid frost pockets when planting new species, and know the particulars of the species you’re working with. Some nut-growing resources in the State you can learn and purchase trees from are Z’s Nutty Ridge (znutty.com), NY Tree Crop Alliance (nytca.org), Twisted Tree Farm (twisted-tree.net), Edible Acres (edibleacres.org), Black Squirrel Farms (blacksquirrelfarms.net) and Perfect Circle Farm – in VT (perfectcircle.farm).

NYNGA holds three meetings per year and all are welcome! Visit nynga.org/ for more information.




Northeastern Charcoal in the 21st Century

Hundreds of years ago, much of the Northeast was a center for producing charcoal for smelting iron, and pits in our forests attest to that history.  These days, for farming and climate, biochar is often recommended as a solution to soil fertility and a way to sequester carbon. The principle is simple: when wood burns, first the heat releases volatile gases that burn, and then the carbon itself combines with the oxygen in the air at a much higher temperature to create carbon dioxide and ash. Making biochar or charcoal (mostly carbon, with some minerals present) requires excluding air once the volatile gas phase of the burn is complete. Unlike whole wood, char takes centuries or more to break down (yielding carbon dioxide) so it is a stable way to bring carbon dioxide levels down. It provides additional habitat for soil microbes compared to that provided by humus and soil particles, and the smaller the char pieces the more this happens. The reason it is advised to inoculate char with animal waste or composting material is that if it is added raw to the soil, it will take time for the char to fill with microbes and this takes them temporarily out of circulation in the soil food web which relies on them to help plants grow.  This is an overly-simplified picture of what actually goes on. The real-world result is that after initial treatment, the biochar improves productivity in the garden or farm.

Ring of Fire Biochar pit

Ring of Fire Biochar pit from Wilsonbiochar.com

While there are all kinds of gizmos to make biochar, I am gearing this article to those of you who make a burn pile and light it and burn to ash.  Before going there, though, I will give some background on these other systems, which are useful if going to various locations with a truck to transport them but do require more preparation of the feedstock (cutting up wood or chipping it), so the energy used doing the cutting or chipping may partly or totally cancel out the higher production of char per pound of wood.  Starting with the simplest, there is the choice between the Oregon Kiln or a metal ring type (“ring of fire” kiln).  Here is information from the Wilson Biochar Associates in Oregon (wilsonbiochar.com): “The Ring of Fire Biochar Kiln is a metal container for burning waste wood and brush for the purpose of making biochar. The kiln consists of an inner ring composed of three sheets of mild steel that are bolted together. An outer ring of lighter gauge steel bolts onto the brackets that hold the inner ring together. The purpose of the outer ring is to serve as a heat shield that holds in heat for better efficiency. The kiln is easily moved, as none of the individual pieces weighs more than 40 pounds.” The inverted trapezoidal-shaped, single-piece “Oregon Kiln” needs equipment to move.  Either kiln costs about $1,000 to purchase.  If you want to make your own kiln, this very long URL has plans:

https://www.kansasforests.org/forest_products/forest_product_docs/biochar_info/UBET Biochar Kiln Drawings.pdf

The most ecological modern burners or “retorts” are much more costly and elaborate than anything discussed so far; they capture the heat to use in nearby buildings and some even make electricity; for information on these and much more visit the Biochar International website or in our region, New England Biochar.

On the farm or homestead wanting a simple and accessible method, I recommend two ways I have guided the burn to produce much biochar and little ash for little to no extra cost.  The pit method takes more effort but does yield more and better quality char (easier to crush).

Our Experience Making Biochar

When in California, Jaye and I tried open pile burns.  By burning very dry similar-sized brush and raking aside still-burning pieces from where coals were plentiful in the burn pile and dowsing those coals with water, we were able to get a fair amount of biochar.  Mixed sizes and/or less dry brush yielded less char.  The advantage of this lowest-tech method is that it is not much more work and is actually less time than burning to ash (just raking off the still-burning parts of the pile to allow watering the char before it can get to ash).

Biochar Pit

Biochar Pit. Photo from the author.

A higher yield can be obtained with a pit similar to those used in charcoal production.  In our case, we do not cover it to starve it of oxygen and have it go for days, but instead, complete the burn in a few hours.  In early January 2021, I got a burn permit and dug a 5′ diameter circular pit which tapered to make a cone shape over 3 feet deep.  Piling the soil in a ring around the outside allowed a deeper and wider pit without actually going quite as deep.  Rocks found during digging armor the sloping sides near the top to reduce soil falling in and act as a buffer between coals and topsoil.  It is important to get roots out and make sure there are no large dead roots to help prevent the fire from creeping underground.  Burn season opened January 15th and that day started with a foggy morning, a bit of snow around, and a go-ahead when I called the town offices.  Jaye, our friend Roz Aranow, and I brought down a hose (thankfully it was above freezing) and cleared the immediate surroundings of brush, and packed the pit loosely to a level a few inches above the rim of the pit.  The starter fire needed to be above the rim and brush and with several pounds of very dry wood so it could get adequate air to start burning and light the less dry brush below.  Although dry wood is recommended, so is the occasional spraying of a raging fire to tamp it down a bit, so we combined these ideas by throwing in green parts of the brush with some snow stuck to it to slow the fire down.  I now think it’s better to add wood to the top only since many of the pieces we pushed into the coals did not char in the short time of our burn, although their being green did cool the sides and kept the burn more under control.  When smoke against the gray sky was brownish that meant there were unburned gases and particulates.  At other times there was almost no smoke and just a grayish-white color that indicated a cleaner burn. This was when we used more dead branches and fewer green ones.  As the flames decreased, we raked the still-flaming wood to one side and watered the other side.  Gradually the still-flaming pile got smaller and we could dowse more of the pit.  We then soaked it well once most of the flames were gone, and stirred with a shovel.  Over the next few days, I harvested about 120 or more gallons of char, crushed it, and mixed it with raw and partly composted dairy manure to inoculate it.  About 10% of the pit volume was uncharred wood which we set aside and charred it in an April 2021 burn.

Hardwood brush may need to be drier; evergreens have more volatile oils and gases that allow burning even when green and wet.  What we like about this burn method in addition to the biochar product is that it cuts the burn time in half compared with a burn-to-ashes above the ground burn.  However, the pit method requires active feeding rather than the more passive open pile, but still, you can get exercise while spending less time overall.  But if open piles with large-sized brush and wood are what you have, just the continuous raking aside of burning portions and dousing the coals beneath will still yield a good amount of biochar and also take less time than the burn-to-ash, time you can spend crushing and inoculating the char (that afternoon or another day) rather than watching and perhaps lamenting the carbon dioxide release.  I like to be done before lunch (thoroughly dousing and stirring the char) rather than guarding a fire until evening.

You Can Do This!

For your garden, our climate, and to have a streamlined burn day, making biochar is very rewarding, whether from a traditional burn pile you may already have, or in a pit you can dig next to it.  If you want to dig your pit right away, you may be surprised to find non-frozen ground under a wood or brush pile or snow or other insulating covering. (Although I did use a pickaxe to start the hole and pry out rocks).  Once the biochar is made, to inoculate, one can use urine, add char to a compost pile, or mix it into animal bedding or manure.  After a few months, it can then be mixed 10% more or less into a garden bed.  Or, if you do not plan to use it, you can give it to others who will, or sell it, and know you have sequestered some carbon.

Please contact us if you are interested in attending our next burn at Floodgate Farm.  It’s not possible to schedule it in advance but you may call 707-272-1688. We are in Sandisfield in the southern Berkshires.

 

Resources:

New England Biochar, newenglandbiochar.com/

Biochar International, biochar-international.org/




Hearing the Language of Trees

White Pine

The White Pine (Pinus strobus Linnaeus) (1899), image from wikimedia.org.

The intelligence of plants has long been a theme of literature, philosophy, and Indigenous narrative. Scientific research into the chemical interactions between plant species and other living things supports the idea. In The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence, writers and scientists add their personal perspectives in a rich collection of essays and poems, each dedicated to a different plant. In “White Pine,” excerpted here, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes Indigenous reverence for trees, which are “respected as unique, sovereign beings equal to or exceeding the power of humans.”

When I come beneath the pines, into that particular dappled light, time slows, and I fall under their spell. My science brain and my intuitive brain are both alight with knowing. Is it the spaciousness of the leafy vaulted ceiling? Maybe the terpenoids in pine vapors exert a psychological influence, producing an altered state of tranquil alertness. Perhaps it’s the quivering energy of electrical micro-discharge from the needles. Maybe we are humbled simply by their size. Is it the sound of boughs rising and falling, like slow breathing? There’s something there we sense, but cannot name, a feeling akin to sitting quietly in the presence of an elder. So it is, with pines. You want to slip into their circle and listen.

My favorite place to read on a summer day is leaning against the bole of a big old white pine. There’s almost always a hollow there, upholstered in a coppery brocade of pine needles with comfy armrests of the buttressed roots which hold up the pillar of pine rising two hundred feet above me. These piney points above the lake’s water are beloved in the north woods, for the sand and granite below, sun and wind above, and a view across the lake, which at this moment is dancing up white caps in the breeze. In this woodland library, I have one book on my lap and the other against my back. One written on cellulose, one written in cellulose. When I sit with white pines, I wordlessly come to know things that I didn’t know before.

White pine is revered across Indigenous cultures as a symbol of wisdom, longevity, and of peace. They are thanked for their material gifts of medicine, materials, fuel, and food and for their spiritual gifts. Pines are understood as among our oldest teachers; in fact, they are of an ancient lineage in the tree world and have seen much change across the earth. Among some people, white pine is regarded as the “ogema” of the forest, the seat of leadership. The pine, like all trees, is spoken of in my Anishinaabe language, not as an object, an “it” but as a “who,” a person of some standing, whose name is Zhingwak. Charismatic white pines are honored as elders. They are the esteemed companions of the visionary eagle who uses their emergent canopy as nest and watchtower. Zhingwak plays many roles in the canon of Native stories, as a protector of human people and the embodiment of highest virtues. Known as the Tree of Peace, white pine is the iconic symbol of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, who taught the people peace through unity, by its five soft needles, bound together as one. The tallest, strongest, most enduring being in the forest is the botanical representation of the oldest democracy on the planet.

Traditional cultures who sit beneath the white pines recognize that human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world. Other beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons, possessed of their own gifts, responsibilities, and intentions. This is not some kind of mistaken anthropomorphism. Trees are not misconstrued as leaf-wearing humans but respected as unique, sovereign beings equal to or exceeding the power of humans. Seneca scholar John Mohawk wrote that according to his culture, “an individual is not smart […] but merely lucky to be part of a system that has intelligence. Be humble about this. The real intelligence isn’t the property of an individual; the real intelligence is the property of the universe itself.”

The Indigenous story tradition speaks of a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species. But we have forgotten—or been made to forget—how to listen so that all we hear is sound, emptied of its meaning. The soft sibilance of pine needles in the wind is an acoustic signature of pines. But this well-known “whispering of pines” is just a sound, it is not their voice.

What if you were a great teacher, a holder of knowledge and vessel of stories, but had no audible voice with which to speak? What if your listeners presumed you to be mute, save for the passive whispering of your needles? How would you bring your truth into the world? Wouldn’t you dance your story in branch and root? Wouldn’t you write it in the eloquence of cellulose? In the lasting archive of wood? Plants tell their stories not by what they say but by what they do. They tell their story in their bodies, in an alphabet once as familiar as the song of every bird, which we have also forgotten, as we became afflicted not only with plant blindness but plant deafness as well.

If you know how to see, their storytelling goes deeper than the curve of a windward branch. Everything that affects the pine is expressed in its body. The tree is an integrator of all its experience and that of the surrounding community. When you have learned its lexicon, the story of the weevils, the drought, the fire, the blister rust, the wind, the canoe makers, and the maples are all plainly written. And more.

The book I brought in my backpack is an honest account of the life of a woman known for her intelligence and generosity. It chronicles her growth from an uncertain child to an advocate for justice whose voice resonates around the world. Her path of becoming was marked by times of poverty and of abundance. She tells the story of a house fire that took everything, raising children, losing her parents, finding her place in the world, growing into a strong protector of her community; it is the story of a life. One thing I find curious in this book, although scarcely unusual, is that in a world filled to bursting with two hundred million species, this book only mentions one, Homo sapiens. It is a hallmark of our time in human history that we think we are alone, perched at the top of the pyramid of life, in charge of it all. She writes of her girlhood in the church. Aided by religion that made God in the image of man, humans alone were perceived to have the capacity for reason, for sentience, for choice, for language. But long before that error was promulgated, people knew the trees were storytellers. But then we forgot. Or were made to forget by the ones who chased divinity out of the forest and forced it into the sky. The stories of trees were erased from our knowing. I doubt she ever imagined that her words would end up on a page, read by me, with Pinus strobus looking over my shoulder.

How remarkable, really, is this phenomenon of reading and writing. We literate folks take for granted that abstract little marks, in repeated patterns on a sheet of cellulose paper, a tree body, can be decoded to make meaning. Even if those black marks are arrayed in a form we don’t understand like Chinese characters, Anishinaabe pictographs, or cuneiform marks on a clay tablet, nonetheless we still recognize them as writing. The very fact of the patterned marks on the page, the systematic recording and interpretation of lived experience, is evidence of intelligence, whether we can read them or not. We don’t dismiss them as meaningless just because we don’t understand; we go looking for the Rosetta stone. Unless of course, those texts are written by a tree.
The story of intelligences other than our own is one of continual expansion. I am not aware of a single research study that demonstrates that other beings are dumber than we think. Octopi solve puzzles, chickadees create language, crows make tools, rats feel anxiety, elephants mourn, parrots do calculus, apes read symbols, nematodes navigate, and honeybees dance the results of cost-benefit analysis of sucrose rewards like an economic ballet. Even the slime mold can learn a maze, enduring toxic obstacles to obtain the richest reward. The blinders are coming off, and the definition of intelligence expands every time we ask the question.

The ability to efficiently sense, identify, locate, and capture resources needed in a complex and variable environment requires sophisticated information processing and decision making. Intelligence is today thought of as “adaptively variable behavior,” which changes in response to signals coming from the environment.

Where is intelligence situated? Our conceptions of intelligence are based on animal models and a kind of “brain chauvinism.” Every animal, from the flatworm to the black bear, has a brain, central meeting place of sensation, and coordinated response. Because animals are mobile autonomous beings who must pursue their food, the brain must itself be compact and portable.
But a centralized brain is not needed for plant intelligence. Rapid movement is not necessary when the food comes to you. For an autotrophic, sessile being, bathed in the needed resources, networked in intimate relationships with myriad others above and below ground, a very different system of sensation and response might well evolve, which looks nothing like the animal model.
If food becomes abundant, no animal can grow more legs to chase after it or a new mouth to eat more. In times of shortage, most cannot cast off a limb that it has no energy to sustain. The whole organism is static in form and flourishes or suffers within those constraints. Not so for plants, who can adaptively alter their circumstances by growing additional parts or losing unneeded ones. Decision-making at tree pace looks like passivity to us herky-jerky animals, accustomed to our own short lifespan. But pine behavior is a slow-motion pursuit of adaptive solutions. Plant intelligence or “adaptively flexible behavior” may be manifest in their extraordinary capacity to change form in real time by altering their allocation of carbon to different functions in response to changing needs.

This slow dance of parts emerging and disappearing is the tree-paced equivalent of movement. Branches expand into light-filled gaps and retreat from dense shade, adjusting their architecture to optimize light capture. Roots are deployed in new directions to follow changing gradients of water and minerals, not randomly but with purpose. They are hunting light and grazing for phosphorous by differential deployment of apical meristems.

Plasticity is possible because trees have myriad growing points, or meristems, a reservoir of adaptation poised to respond to changed circumstances. Tissues that animals never dreamed of, meristems—like totipotent stem cells—can be modified into the new tissues that best suit the conditions. Trees like white pine also have a lateral meristem, the vascular cambium, which gives rise to the cells that increase the diameter of the stem. It is an entire body stocking of meristematic tissue, perpetually embryonic. This nexus of nutrients and hormones and sensory chemicals, and creative cell making, is perhaps a fertile location to search for the decentralized seat of pine intelligence. It is the cambium, starting and stopping on an annual cycle that writes in the language of cellulose, of tree rings. Let us consider for the moment that the cambium is the author, that it is the pen that writes its own history.




Leaves of the Same Tree

It has been said by sages of ancient times that humans are leaves of the same tree or fingers of the same hand. We see each other as different beings, but we are all physically connected from the same source. This does not go far enough. It is not just humanity, but all of creation that is one. All of existence is constantly melting and mixing into itself. At the core, we can break things down into elements like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and many others. Everything in the world will become stardust. The Universe does not favor one side of itself more than another. When we learn of spinning galaxies filled with billions of stars, how can we believe that one country is more important than another? Why do we even have countries at all? We are riding a living planet through space, and we are all on the same ride together. We all come from the same place and we all are headed to the same place. All of us: trees, people, rocks, water, animals. Not so long ago in history, people thought slavery was okay. It took a while for the mainstream to accept that all people are equal. It will take a while longer for people to accept that all of life is equal.

All of life wants to live and is made of the same elements. Consciousness blows through all of the beings in the Universe, whether we recognize it or not. It is a prejudice to say that our way of perception is superior to another’s. It has been proven by scientists that plants have a sense of hearing and a memory. They do not have a brain like ours, but they clearly have some form of consciousness. Plants share this world with us. They strive to express themselves and they have life stories filled with joy and tragedies. These sentient beings are built to work with us. If we can just notice, we will see that our world is filled with powerful allies: The trees of power are just some of them.

Life is eating itself everywhere, devouring bodies of plants, animals, and entire worlds. Supernovas sing out in creation and still, people will say that God doesn’t exist. They will say, “But look at all the bad stuff.” So what? The Universe is not scared of pain or awkwardness or horror or anything. The Universe lives inside you and in everything you see. Cells, atoms, electrons, mitochondria are all dancing, making noise, being.

giant white oak

Giant white oak. Source: twisted-tree.net

You can draw lines on a map, but the Universe will erase them in time. Your country is not any more important than other places. We are all leaves of the same tree. Beings lost in a bewildered, living dream. We are the play of existence. The strange workings of a Universe that enjoys experience. Infinity is in all directions from where you sit, even down through your center. You are awake in a dream of incomprehensible immensity. I watch my two-year-old son build block towers only to knock them down a minute later. He enjoys the action. It is the same with our work here on Earth. It will all be knocked down. Every species will go extinct, every tree will die, every person will vanish, melting into the oblivion of existence. We are drops of water disappearing into the ocean. Our work is for beauty and experience. When we forget the totality of existence, we take ourselves seriously and believe strange things are important. I know some people will read this and think, What is the point? There does not have to be a point. Have you ever heard a song that touched you so deeply, you felt a longing for something that you could not describe? Have you ever danced without thought, or laughed so hard your stomach hurt? There was no point to any of those things, but you would certainly do them again. It is the same with working with trees. You will feel joy, frustration, inspiration, and wonder. Existence is beyond the scope of the human mind. It is for you to wonder about but never understand. If you could understand it, then it would not be so great. It would have to be made smaller to fit into your mind. Let it be great. Honor it, respect it, love it, laugh at it, spit on it, and rollover asleep with it. Life is for living. There are many traps for humans to fall into. Thought patterns that drive home feelings of despair and depression. See these traps for what they are—places that you don’t have to go. Your life force is precious. You are alive inside an infinite Universe. While you have awareness, embrace it. Don’t get bogged down with words of gloom or normalcy. There is nothing normal here. There are no dates or places. You are at the center of infinity.

Afterword

The present moment always offers something new. Every breath can bring a new thought. This dream is too beautiful to waste being miserable. The trees are here with us. They are our allies, but they are also fingers of the same hand. All of us creatures who live upon the surface of the Earth draw our power from the same connected elements. Water that passes through my body is the same water that is drunk and expelled by trees of ancient and future times. Carbon that builds my body is the same carbon that has always been on the Earth. Our cells are filled with the same mysterious energy that all of creation is. Offer gratitude and you will receive it. Offer complaints, and you will receive them. We participate in creation with every thought and action, every dream and word. There are choices available every second. Victims, conquerors, saints, and humble tree planters—you can do anything. The Universe is not limited in possibility, and so neither are you.

Reality is a relative term. It means nothing other than an agreement between people. Know that when air passes through your body, it is ancient and everlasting. That breath will exist forever as it passes from one being to the next and eventually out into space, where it will be for billions of trillions of years. It will transform into infinite forms, and a part of you will always be in its essence. The totality of the Universe is one. Manifested forms will rise and fall forever like my son’s block towers. It is the churning over and over of itself. Find peace in your breath and know that no matter what you do, say, or think, you cannot be separated. Your breath, water, carbon, and cells are leaves of the same tree, fingers of the same hand that holds existence together. Ride this wave, for you are one drop of water in an ocean of infinite immensity. You are held so safely in this dream of infinity that even if you go through hell and your body is ripped to a million shreds, you will still be part of infinity no matter what you do. You are a drop of water in the ocean. A voice among a chorus of a billion trillion singers. Listen to the song being sung by the world. We can only hear a little bit of this song, but it gives us a glimpse of the beauty and madness that infinity holds. Thank you for existence.

A Vision for Working with Trees

Civilization is our creation. We can make it anything. Right now we use a tremendous amount of our resources to kill people and numb our minds. I can imagine at least some of this energy being used for working with trees. Humans are so ambitious and creative. With a shift of awareness, the future has a way to crack and shell shagbark hickories efficiently; persimmons stand guard over doorways; elderberries line creek banks that are terraced with living willow walls; biomass crops fill the highway median strips; schoolyards are home to orchards, gardens, and berry patches big enough to feed all the kids that attend; parks are planted with pecans and chestnuts; barren fields are transformed into hazel thickets; mulberries are available in every backyard. Our soils are held secure by the roots of magnetic trees, while our bodies are cooled by their shade, our souls nourished by their generosity, our lives filled with the work of growing, harvesting, and preparing.

Trees offer partnership freely: no strings attached, no bill in Congress, no debate. They are here with branches extended in generosity. If we just notice and accept their gifts, what a different world we would have. But it is not just a dream. This reality is attainable and is happening. Billions of people care for the Earth and humanity. Many folks are already busy planting, grazing, processing, cooking, growing, learning endlessly. There is an entire subculture obsessed with working with nature. These people are ravenous for information. They listen constantly to the story the plants tell us about soil and biodiversity. They work hard and start businesses, write books, and produce volumes of healthy food. In some neighborhoods, it will seem you will be the only one who cares about trees. However, if you start planting or harvesting seriously, people will notice. You will find that you are not the only one. This movement builds exponentially. It is built upon inspiring action.

If you tell people to do something, they will not. If you shine your own light, people will be drawn into its warmth. Happy Planting.




Tapping Walnut Trees: Studies on Walnut Sap Flow

Tapping tree species other than sugar maple provides syrup producers the opportunity to apply their skills and use their equipment to expand into new and potentially lucrative markets. Just as bourbon barrel-aged syrup and various flavor-infused syrups are opening new markets for maple syrup, the unique tastes of alternative tree syrups, and their maple blends, are finding a place in today’s “foodie” economy.

In North America, Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) is the most tapped species besides sugar maple (Acer saccharum). When considering tapping, however, it is good to understand walnut trees are not just maples with compound leaves and big edible nuts. Walnuts have anatomical and physiological characteristics that affect both tapping and syrup making.

Walnut – A Different Tree

Wood anatomists classify maple as a diffuse-porous hardwood. In maple trees, small vessels, commonly called pores, carry water and nutrients up the tree in the summer and carry sweet sap to your tap during the sugaring season. These vessels are evenly distributed or diffused throughout the tree’s annual growth ring. Walnut trees, on the other hand, are classified as semi-ring porous species. They have small diffused pores like maple, but also large pores – similar to a true ring-porous species such as oak and hickory – that are more prominent in the early annual growth. As anyone who has ever looked at the end of a walnut log can tell you, walnut trees have a large, dark heartwood area, with a small band of white sapwood. A young healthy maple tree, on the other hand, can have mostly sapwood. Maple, and especially sugar maple, also called “hard maple” or “rock maple,” is a very hard wood, whereas walnut wood is comparatively soft.

Finally, walnut sap, with a brix of 1.0 to 1.5, also contains pectin. Pectin is a natural constituent of plant cell walls where it helps bind adjacent cell walls together. And, if you’ve made fruit preserves, you can attest, when boiled in an acid environment, pectin forms a gel. When present in high enough concentrations this pectin can gum up an RO (reverse osmosis system), inhibit filtering, and turn your walnut syrup into walnut jelly.

Tapping Walnut Trees:

People have been tapping trees and making maple syrup for a long time. Indigenous people living in northeastern North America were the first groups known to have produced maple syrup and maple sugar, long before European settlers. Today, there is an extensive body of research that has led to high efficient practices and increased production. The same is not true for walnut. With walnut trees, there are just a few studies out there all conducted within the past twenty years.

For the past three years, Future Generations University’s (FGU) Appalachian program has been studying various aspects of walnut sap flow and syrup production. This article presents a synopsis of the results of that work and relates those findings to the unique anatomical and physiological characteristics of walnut.

The 2019 Season: During the 2019 field season we put 107 taps into walnut trees, about half on sap bags and half on 3/16 tubing. This was our first year of tapping walnut and it was a season of trial, error, and observation; mostly error. The average sap collected per tap was 1.6 gallons. Certainly, nothing to write home about, especially for a sugar maple sap collector. Even though we had over 20 feet of elevation change on the 3/16 lines, we were never able to develop more than 9 inches Hg of natural vacuum. Theoretically, we should have been closer to 18 inches. We noted that the straight barreled polycarbonate spouts were seated deeply in the soft walnut wood, potentially cutting off sap flow (see Rechlin, 2019, mapleresearch.org). The deep spout seating combined with the thick walnut bark meant that many spouts were buried up to the shoulder. We also noticed that the 3/16 tubes were mostly filled with gases, whereas maple sap collection tubes are mostly filled with sap. By analyzing a series of photos, we determined that walnut tubes contained only 9% sap compared to 85% sap in maple. This lack of a continuous sap column was most likely why we failed to develop any appreciable vacuum.

7/16-inch spout

7/16-inch spout and a longer barreled walnut spout

The 2020 Season: In 2020, we worked with the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Manufacturing to develop a longer barreled, more highly tapered spout for walnut so it would sit at less of a depth, (Figure 1). Working with 4 walnut syrup producers collecting with buckets we found that the spouts they were using produced an average of 1.7 gallons of sap/tap whereas the new walnut spouts produced 2.6 gallons of sap/tap.

That same year we also reached back to the Ferrell and Mudge study from 2014 and tried our hand at applying artificial vacuum to our lines. We established 2 lines with 20 taps on each line on trees in a similar streamside environment. Without vacuum, the A line out produced the B line in 3 of the 5 collections, with both lines producing equal amounts of sap in the other two collections. A Shurflo DC diaphragm pump was then installed on the lower producing B line. With an average of 8 inches of vacuum the B line produced 0.74 qt/hr., double the sap production of the A line with 0.37 qt/ hr., (Figure 2).

This brings us to this past sap flow season, 2021. Having shown that a low level of vacuum significantly increases sap production, the next question is what could you achieve with higher levels of vacuum?

The 2021 Season: This past season we attempted to answer that question. The walnut syrup producer we were working with installed a vacuum pump allowing us to regulate the amount of vacuum on each of our research lines. Figure 3 shows the amount of sap collected in vacuum chambers with each line at 15 inches Hg vacuum. As in the previous season with gravity flow, when both lines received the same level of vacuum, the A line, producing 1.4 qt/hr., outproduced the B line which averaged 0.9 qt/hr. From this, we can gather that the A line trees are intrinsically more productive than the B line trees.

We then dropped the vacuum to zero (gravity flow only) on the A line and applied 22.5 inches of Hg vacuum, the maximum this system would provide, to the B line (Figure 4). The B line trees now produced 0.5 qt/hr., outproducing the A line at 0.3 qt/hr. As with the previous year, the application of vacuum increased sap flow.

Figure 4. Sap collected in qt/hr. without vacuum on the A line and 22.5 inches of vacuum on the B line.

Next, we raised the vacuum on the A line to 10 inches, which reduced the maximum achievable vacuum on the B line to only 17 inches. With maple, a higher vacuum positively correlates to greater sap flow. However, here the relatively lower vacuum level A line averaged 0.4 qt/hr., whereas the higher vacuum level B line produced only 0.2 qt/hr. Again, March 11th was an anomaly, with B outproducing A (Figure 5).

Interesting, but what might be happening and how does it relate to the anatomical characteristics of walnut? Diffuse porous hardwoods, like maple, create stem pressure in the spring to dissolve gasses in their xylem allowing growing season sap to flow up the tree to support bud break. Ring porous species followed a different evolutionary strategy. They just grow large new vessels in the spring to transport water and nutrients, not bothering to develop pressure to dissolve the gases in their older vessels. Which, by the way, is why you should not bother tapping an oak or ash tree. Walnut, being semi-ring porous, is somewhere in the middle. They do create pressure to clean out their small vessels, but that may not apply to their large vessels, which then would remain filled with gas. This could account for the large quantity of gas we recorded in 2019 as present in the walnut sap. It could also explain why, in this study, more vacuum did not lead to more sap flow, just the pulling of more gas from those large vessels.

I liken it to trying to get those last drops off the bottom of your milkshake. You can suck really hard on a straw and just swallow a lot of air or reduce the vacuum you are applying to the straw and finish off the shake.

Summary of Walnut Tapping – Lessons Learned

1. With walnut’s softwood it is important not to overdrive the spouts. The familiar hammer bounce and pitch rise on a straight barreled maple spout is too far. Choose a spout with as much taper as possible. Hopefully, we will soon have a commercially available walnut-specific spout.

2. Vacuum does increase sap flow. Relatively low levels of vacuum nearly doubled sap output in the 2020 and 2021 studies.

3. Unlike what is expected with maple, in this study, higher levels of vacuum in walnut did not result in corresponding increases in sap flow. However, it should be stated that as a preliminary study this result should be corroborated in future research.

FGU’s Appalachian program continues to research and promote the tapping of alternative tree species. In this coming season, we will be working with the Byrd Institute to develop and commercialize a more productive spout for tappable species with a softer wood, and with Marshall University on the pectin issue. Our work this coming season will also include the expansion of preliminary studies we have been doing on tapping and syrup production from American sycamore (Paltanus occidentalis). Whether in addition to tapping maple or as an expansion of tree syrup production beyond the commercial sugaring range of maple, the unique flavors of alternative tree syrups are helping expand our industry and serving niche markets for the sweet flavors from our forests.

Acknowledgements: This work was supported through a WVDA specialty crop block grant, NE SARE Partnership grant ONE19-374, and by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

Citations:
Ewers, Frank, Thierry Ameglio, Herve Cochard, Francquis Beaujard, Michel Martignac, Marc Vandame, Christian Bodet and Pierre Cruiziat. Seasonal variation of xylem pressure of walnut trees: root and stem pressures. Tree Physiology (21) 2001.
Ferrell, Michael and Ken Mudge. Producing Maple Syrup from Black Walnut Trees in the Eastern United States. Maple Syrup Digest. December 2014.

Gross Influences on Heartwood Formation in Black Walnut and Cherry. USDA Forest Service. FPL 268. Forest Products Research Lab. Madison. WI. 1976.

Naughton, G.G., W.A. Geyer and E. Chambers IV. Making Syrup from Walnut Sap. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. Vol 109, no.3/4. 2006.




5 Keys to Establishing an Organic Orchard

Mulching the orchard

Mulching the orchard. Photo from authors.

The joy of harvesting an apple is so many seasons in the making: After snowmelt, the blossoms are buzzing with bees, tiny fruit swelling all summer, and then harvesting that fruit, sweetness in hand, is so deeply nourishing beyond calories. In this time, when sound bites are seven seconds and media is considered social, deepening our relationships with ourselves and the world around us becomes a healing balm. Indeed, planting a few fruit trees for the seasons and generations to come may be one of the most radical acts of hope and resilience in our lives.

#1: Design for Ease & Access – of the Tree and You!

As you dream of abundance and begin designing your orchard-to-be, ask yourself these two questions, whether you plant 1 or 100 trees:

Where is the best place for a tree (or three)?

Often, as we plan where we might plant trees, we center our dreams rather than those of the tree. When we think like an apple tree, here’s where we would love to find ourselves:

Full Sun – all day, every day, all year!

Deer Protection – in all seasons is essential.

Another Apple Nearby – Did you know that apples need at least one other apple of a different variety within 500 feet for pollination? Wild and crab apples are marvelous, as are planted, named varieties to pollinate each other.

Water Drainage – Well-drained soils grow healthy and expanding root systems with strong anchorage.

Air Drainage – Frosted blossoms won’t bear fruit, so avoid frost pockets and plant apple trees where they won’t warm up too quickly in spring!

Wild Woodsy Meadows are happy places for apple trees! Rich fungal networks, native herbs, flowers and unmowed areas nearby provide biological diversity as well as habitat for beneficial insects to help keep pest populations at a dull roar.

Where is the Best Place for Me?

After (and only after!) we consider the tree’s needs, then we consider our own. Here are some key lessons we’ve learned (and sometimes the hard way):

Close to Home – Are we planting the tree in a place close enough to our home to receive the care and attention it deserves? Trees are dear, so keep them near!

The Better to Mulch You With! How easy will it be to bring wood chips and mulch to the tree? By wheelbarrow? By truck? Slopes are handy for air drainage but a lot of work to haul mulch up! The easier you make mulching for yourself, the more abundant your orchard will be.

Water – Does a hose reach your tree? Is drip irrigation possible? Water is crucial for establishing trees.

Part of the Family – Will we be able to enjoy the bright pink buds as they open in spring? See when the baby birds are flying from the nest? Breathe in the sweet fragrance as the fruit ripens? Care and attention come in many forms and go both ways.

#2: Start Small

In orchards and in life, it’s so easy to bite off more than we can chew – and prune! Trees require a lot of work in their first few years.  This is when they are small and vulnerable to borers, mice, deer and climate shifts. Each tree requires the annual care of weeding, mulching, and pruning.  The better we take care of young trees, the healthier they will grow and greater abundance will surround us all.

#3: Soil Testing is Everything

Whether you’re planting one tree or many, the cost of a soil test is a small price to pay for the precision of soil building that is possible with the insight from a soil test. Especially, as Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard, often says, there is no sharper tool in your tool box than a soil test.

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and future generations is planting fruit trees… …and one of the greatest gifts you can give those fruit trees is testing your soil – prior to planting, and amending it – so your freshly planted trees will sink their roots into rich fungal soils, establishing quickly to surround you with fruit and beauty for many seasons to come.

 #4: The Right Variety Makes All the Difference

There are thousands of apple varieties, each one unique. We love apple pie, applesauce, sweet and hard cider as well vinegar; we also love apples dried as trail snacks and we even love tart crabapples in chutney!

Culinary ambitions aside, disease resistant varieties often surround us with even more abundance.

Here are a few facets of choosing varieties:

Needs & Dreams – Finding the right balance of flavor, disease and ultimate tree size is key. For you, is flavor more important than disease resistance? If low maintenance is critically important, choose disease resistant varieties. The rootstock of an apple determines ultimate tree size from dwarf (10 to 12-foot tall), semi dwarf (10 to 16-foot) to full-size standard trees.

Disease Resistance makes all the difference! Natural resistance to scab and other diseases surrounds us all with that much more abundance. Found in both modern and heirloom varieties, we share bare root stock of a few of our favorite highly disease resistant varieties include Triumph, Goldrush, Enterprise, Crimson Crisp, and Cornell’s latest release, Cordera.

Purpose – Do you dream of your own apples for fresh eating in the fall as well as fresh from the cellar all winter? Are you passionate about baking pies? Some varieties are particularly excellent in very specific ways – like winter storage or for pies – while others are ‘all-purpose’ and enjoyed in many ways. We love to grow many different varieties to savor all the ways apples bring sweetness to our lives.

Season – Here in Naples, NY, in Zone 5, apple harvest extends August through November, with varieties like Goldrush keeping all through May. We’ve planted a diverse orchard so we can savor the spectrum of flavors as well as an extended harvest.

#5: Bring the Biodiversity!

Biological diversity increases abundance both above the ground and below, encouraging beneficial insects that keep pest populations in check while surrounding us all with deliciously medicinal capacities and beyond.

Friends, there is so much to consider when dreaming of and establishing fruit trees to savor for generations to come. We’re honored to join you on the journey!

Don’t be shy & Happy Orchard Planning!

Sow Seeds & Sing Songs,

Petra, Matthew & the whole Fruition Crew

Find everything we’re learning at www.fruitionseeds.com including blogs, a step-by-step and season by season growing guide, how-to videos and webinars as well as our free online course, Organic Apples & Orcharding, to surround you with abundance for years and generations to come.  All of Fruition’s organic apples are both delicious as well as disease-resistant, each with their own unique nuances and qualities, all on easy-to-grow and quickly fruiting semi dwarf rootstock. We’d love to see you here on the farm for a taste test in our orchard one day.




Nature’s Turn

Do you harbor a silent invasion of destructive jumping worms?
“The jumping worm is not yet established in much of the northern United States. The time is now to keep it from becoming the next invasive species horror story. …
The introduction of a single individual is enough to launch a jumping worm invasion.”

A few weeks ago, a chance phone call from field biologist friends in Hillsdale, NY marked the dawn of my searing awakening to a wrenching threat that – I would discover – was already growing in one of my gardens in Mt. Washington, MA and may be inhabiting land you love, too. Upon answering the telephone, I had simply asked Kathy, “How are you?” She was clearly distressed as she described digging up, killing and disposing of thousands of alien earthworms, known as jumping worms, captured over seven years in her acre and a half property: from underneath patio stones, the lawn, gardens and roadside hedges.

I hasten to offer that, once I uncovered my relatively small, confined infestation, I seized the moment. Acting with full force over a weekend, I dug and killed 200 worms from a 5 foot by 15 foot bed where I am now solarizing the earth – seeming, at present, to have stopped the spread. Understanding that prevention is the only way to manage this threat, I am writing to convey what I have learned, to urge readers to look with awareness on your grounds and, if jumping worms are present, take the actions outlined below.

jumping worms

Mass of jumping worms set out to desiccate in a
metal wheelbarrow in full sun. Vigorously thrashing,
muscular like snakes, individuals climbed the
edges of the wheelbarrow, mounting a formidable
effort to escape. Photo Credit: Judy Isacoff

Why are these worms a serious threat? Why is it crucial that we heed the inconvenient truth of their presence in our environment with all pro-active strategies? Jumping worms consume and degrade soil, which threatens the future of gardens, forests and lawns. And, loosely quoted from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties, “They reproduce easily, are asexual (parthenogenetic, do not require mates), and mature in just 60 days, so each year they can have two hatches. From September until the first hard frost, their population will double and may reach damaging levels.”

We begin our efforts to respond to the threat by distinguishing between the two common, long-established species in our gardens, nightcrawlers and red-wigglers, and the distinctly different jumping or snake worm. They are up to 8 inches long, muscular like snakes, usually numerous in the top few inches of soil and vigorously thrash and jump when disturbed. To learn more about alien jumping worms and how to prevent unknowingly bringing them to your property, and prevent the spread if you have them, I quote the following page from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Extension Program website https://ag.umass.edu/landscape/fact-sheets/jumpingcrazysnake-worms-amynthas-spp
“It is not currently known how many eggs each adult can lay in the wild, however in laboratory settings, up to 30 cocoons with 2 eggs each have been observed. Frost kills the adults, and the egg-filled cocoons (which are about the size of a mustard seed) overwinter. Cocoons are resistant to cold and drought conditions. They are very difficult to detect due to their tiny size, and dirt-like color. As such, they can be very easily moved in soil, mulch, compost, potted plants, etc. Physically removing jumping worm cocoons is impractical.

Prevention
Some preventative measures that concerned citizens can utilize include but are not limited to:
● Learn how to recognize jumping worms and teach your family, friends, colleagues, land care workers, etc.
● Look for jumping worm adults and their grainy, dried coffee ground-like castings. Not seeing the adults on the substrate surface, but have reason to believe they may be there? Try mixing a gallon of water and 1/3 cup of ground yellow mustard seed and pouring that slowly over the soil/area with suspicious castings. If present in that location, the worms will be irritated (not killed) and brought to the surface where they can be collected for identification.
● Do not purchase worms advertised as jumping worms, snake worms, Alabama jumpers, or crazy worms for any purpose (e.g. composting or fishing baits).
● Anglers: never dispose of unused fishing baits into the environment. Always throw away unwanted bait worms in the trash.
● Gardeners: look for evidence of jumping worms in soil, compost, mulch, potted plants, etc. If you see coffee ground-like castings in these materials or notice jumping worm adults, report them. Do not move materials known to contain jumping worms to new locations. (Clean tools, boots and machinery to avoid spreading cocoons. J.I.)
● Composters: heat materials to the appropriate temperatures and duration following protocols that reduce pathogens. Recent research suggests that heating the cocoons of jumping worms to somewhere around 104°F for 3 days will kill the egg-containing cocoons.

What to do if you already have jumping worms on your property?

● Do not panic. If the worms are located in one area of the property, take precautions to prevent moving them to other areas of the property or new locations. (Ex. do not move plants from the infested area to new spots.)
● Remove and destroy any adult jumping worms if you see them. This can be done by dropping them into a bucket of soapy water or sealing them in a plastic bag. (See my sun-drying method, which avoids the terrible smell of drowning. J.I.)
● Do not attempt to manage the worms with chemicals or products that are not labeled for that purpose. Currently, there are no pesticides or approved methods to manage jumping worms. Using products without this use explicitly included on the label is illegal.”

blog.nature.org/science/2016/10/31/jumping-worm-the-creepy-damaging-invasive-you-dont-know
gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/care/pests-and-diseases/pests/management/soil-solarization.html
http://ccecolumbiagreene.org/climate-change-and-the-environment/invasive-nuisance-species/invasive-pests/jumping-worm-amynthas-spp-1 ,

Resources
Excellent links to more information Cornell Cooperative Extension Jumping Worm

http://ccecolumbiagreene.org/climate-change-and-the-environment/invasive-nuisance-species/invasive-pests/jumping-worm-amynthas-spp-1
Archive of earth and sky articles by Judy Isacoff https://theberkshireedge.com/author/jisacoff/




A new farmer-led seed company inspired by Pollinator Pathways and CT NOFA’s Ecotype Project

Announcing Eco59: a new Connecticut farmer-led seed company inspired by Pollinator Pathways and CT NOFA’s Ecotype Project

Pollinator enthusiasts, regenerative gardeners, and conservationists can now find a source of locally grown, native, ecotypic wildflower seeds: a much-awaited contribution to our northeastern ecosystem.  It is a good season for it: early winter holidays are the perfect time for sowing native wildflowers.

Eco59: a farmer-led seed collective, has launched its first season of sales.  Catalyzed by the work of the Pollinator Pathways and CT NOFA’s Ecotype Project, a group of farmers has been working together to learn to grow a new crop – seeds of regionally appropriate wildflowers, called ecotypes, for pollinator habitat restoration.  The new seed company seeks to build a “triple bottom line”: seed that is good for the pollinators and the planet, profitable for farmers, and adds to the beauty of our landscape. Profit from the sales of Eco59 goes to fund conservation work across our ecoregion.

Dina Brewster, farmer at The Hickories and a member of the Eco59 seed collective notes, “An important part of the Eco59 mission is to heal a broken landscape.  The systematic displacement of people, the destruction of the environment, and the consequent loss of abundance around us are a direct result of not honoring the relationship that Indigenous people of this area had with the land.  I view our work, growing ecotypic seed to restore native plants in the northeast, as a reminder of all that has been lost and all that we must work to restore.”

Sefra Alexandra, the Ecotype Project Coordinator

Sefra Alexandra, the Ecotype Project Coordinator, collects seeds from native plants at the Hickories to be grown by local nurseries.
Photo provided by CT-NOFA.

After three years of tending their crops of perennial wildflowers, Eco59 farmers have now harvested, cleaned, tested, and packaged their seeds for sale to “re-wild” the landscape of ecoregion 59, a broad swath of land including most of southern New England and parts of coastal New Hampshire and Maine, work championed by the Pollinator Pathway, the Massachusetts Pollinator Network and other like-minded groups.  Rewilding is a term used extensively by Heather McCargo at Maine’s Wild Seed Project, another organization whose goal is to inspire people to take action in increasing the presence of native plants grown from wild seed.  McCargo’s work, in addition to the writing of Doug Tallamy and John Marzluff, motivates the farmers in this collective.  “Having a pesticide-free corridor of native plants that provide nutrition and habitat for pollinators helps them to disperse into new areas and will improve the overall health of the farm and local ecosystem,” says Patrick Horan of Waldingfield Farm in Washington, Connecticut.

You can shop for seeds and gifts, and read about the participating farmers, on the Eco59 website: eco59.com.  Each seed packet details where the original ecotype was collected (city and state) and which farm and farmer grew it.  “Know your farmer; know your seed; know your land.  We promote transparency in seed packaging and in growing practices: something we encourage gardeners and conservationists to be asking about more often through our educational outreach,” says Sefra Alexandra, CT NOFA’s Ecotype Project leader.

Early winter is the perfect time to winter sow native seeds. Instructions for growing are inside each order as well as on the Eco59 website.  In addition to the seed packets, the farmers are producing “seed bombs,” a dozen quail-egg-sized balls made of clay and soil infused with a pinch of wildflower seed, for sowing “here, there, and everywhere.” Customers interested in larger quantities of seed for larger-scale restoration projects should contact the seed company directly through the website: eco59.com.




The Hills Are (Too) Alive: Lymantria Among Us

Female gypsy moth

Female gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar dispar, Dorsal side. Photo by Didier Descouens, commons.wikimedia.org.

Back in the early 1990s, standing in my small Allegany County woodlot, I was ordered into the trenches. Only three miles to the north, the first wave of Lymantria dispar dispar (LDD), commonly known as the gypsy moth, infestations was crashing over the ancient glacial hilltops. Hundreds of acres of mostly hardwoods in the Rattlesnake Hill Wildlife Management Area, more than 5,000 acres, had been stripped bare. Even a casual visitor to the area couldn’t be spared this reality, not least because the epicenter of the defoliation was on a steep, south-facing hillside above a state highway.

I was getting panicky about my 17 acres. Invasive egg masses were multiplying, and it was obvious the following spring would see the hardwoods on my place — largely red and sugar maple with yellow birch, beech, cottonwood, and a smattering of black oak — getting badly chewed up. So I launched a one-person eradication campaign: scraping egg masses carefully into bags with a very dull knife, then transporting the stuff back home for ritual destruction safely indoors.

All this hit home again last year. Just west of Canandaigua Lake, in Ontario County, a frighteningly efficient LDD outbreak struck hundreds of acres. Ontario County Park, in the town of South Bristol, was the epicenter. I witnessed the initial loss of foliage — almost total in some patches — with alarm. Local news media covered the story. Individual landowners in the affected area looked mighty depressed.

There hasn’t been a comparable outbreak near my land for the past 30 years. But, though I remain vigilant and quick to scrape, I don’t give myself much credit for preserving the foliage. And learning more about the Hundred-Fifty Year War against Lymantria dispar dispar in North America has tempered my passions toward the invader and refocused my efforts.

I’ve even developed some grudging respect for this unwelcome insect. First, I’m going with a name change. Calling it the gypsy moth is so 19th Century. Such exoticism is no longer acceptable. Even the Entomological Society of the US has formally rejected the ethnic stereotyping, and the moniker Lymantria dispar dispar — generally rendered as LDD — is now de rigueur. (Updating the name to “Roma moth,” or the like, is obviously no solution.) Let’s hope no battles in America’s Culture Wars break out on this front. If this happens, organic folks will hopefully line up on the cultural left.

Then there’s the matter of “invasive.” I used to almost celebrate my anger at the presence of LDD by imagining myself in the defensive vanguard. Then I learned my allies had “surrendered” by recategorizing the pest as “naturalized.” Yes, science often conflicts with morale. But what are we going to do about the pest? LDD, since its introduction to Massachusetts in 1869 by an entrepreneur forcing the marriage of LDD and silkworms, has been spreading west, southwest and north. Things came to a head regionally during the same years Rattlesnake Hill got hammered, but this is a cyclical phenomenon we’re dealing with, and here we are again.

Scientists tell us LDD operates in “four-phase” cycles. An “innocuous phase” can last for years, followed by a one-to-two year “release phase, then an “outbreak phase” of the same duration. But this schedule is highly dependent on weather and other variables. Outbreaks tend to collapse, for example, when, unsurprisingly, food for moth larvae disappears. And a fungus called Entomophaga maimaga (EM) plays a crucial role in controlling the spread — though the thirsty fungus, in turn, can be thwarted by extended dry weather.

Good news: When LDD came here, it had few natural enemies. But as time goes on, the pest appeals to more palates, including those of some predatory wasps and flies, blue jays and robins, white-footed mice, raccoons, and more.

Scientists have unleashed — experimentally, with appropriate controls — some Old World LDD parasites, with some success. And Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki (Btk) is useful, but this requires good planning so other moth and butterfly species are not harmed. Btk on a large scale also is expensive, since aerial application is involved. In our region, I’ve heard of only one such application, on private land in one of our most upscale wooded areas, near Canandaigua.

 

The entrepreneur of 1869 wanted a silkworm that would be more resistant to cold than Asian species. LDD thrives under varied conditions. Its Old World range extends quite far north, while in North America it seems headed toward most of temperate Eastern Canada, the Eastern states and Upper Midwest. (A simple rule of thumb: the species will do well in almost any habitat in which oaks, Quercus genus, are well-represented.)

But the cold barrier is weakening. Reportedly, even Northern Minnesota with its historically cold winters is now on the hit list. I recall that when I bought my Southern Tier land 40 years ago, subzero temperatures were commonplace — down occasionally to -20F or lower. These days, well, you know the story. Often the ground doesn’t even freeze.

Oaks may be LDD’s favorite cuisine, but they’re far from alone on the menu. LDD caterpillars dine happily on dozens of locally-prominent species, including broadleaf trees like maple, birch, beech, etc. They will even go after conifers like pine and hemlock, and when they do, the results are unfortunate, since conifers don’t regenerate their food factories the way oaks and others do. Which often means quick mortality for the conifers, while the broadleaf trees can spring back with new foliage.

As they say, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the ecological future in a world experiencing a climate crisis, vast extinctions, and mass organized violence.

The warm months of 2020-21 hereabouts have made some of us nervous. LDD has affected parts of several counties, and some of our Monroe County parks and preserves sport all too many LDD egg masses on beautiful, old hardwoods. With a bit of luck, a lot of cold winter nights and generous precipitation, 2022 will bring only spotty occurrences locally.

And may the EM fungus prosper!




Farming & Parenting

Roots Farm

Kelli, Mike and their two boys inside one of their high tunnels.
Photo provided by Roots Farm.

Kelli and Mike Roberts started Roots Farm in 2009 in Tiverton RI, a certified organic diversified vegetable farm with a focus on year-round and no-till growing.  Their farm and family have grown over the past decade, now with two children, six moveable high tunnels, and six employees.  You can find more info at www.rootsfamilyfarm.org and on Instagram @rootsfamilyfarm

Before we get into parenting, how did you get into farming?

My husband (Mike) and I met as undergraduates at MIT, where I studied materials science & engineering, and he studied mechanical engineering.  I moved out to Seattle to do my PhD in materials science, researching magnetic semiconductor materials.  About 2/3rds of the way through my PhD, I had an epiphany where I realized that despite enjoying the science and research of my studies, I didn’t want to be part of developing smaller and faster devices for humanity’s ceaseless consumption.  I also felt that we didn’t need higher tech to solve the problems of the world, but rather we needed appropriate tech and change from the ground up.  I wanted to shift my career to something more tangible and in line with my values.  While out in Seattle I had become interested in organic farms and food systems, and so after finishing my degree, Mike and I moved back east to apprentice on an organic farm in Maine.  We were looking at our year on the vegetable farm as a way to learn how to grow our own food, and think more about the bigger picture of tying our life’s work into something we were passionate about.  And then… we fell in love with farming.  After that year in Maine, I took a postdoc research position at Cornell University, but I was restless in the office and found myself wanting to get back in the field.  We would shop at the farmers market in Ithaca NY, and I was happy to be supporting local farmers, but I knew I wanted to be the person on the other side of the table, actually growing the food, not just buying and eating the food.  That winter we made our business plan, and within six months we’d moved to RI (where I am from) and were renting land to start our own farm.

What challenges have you felt specifically as a mother and a farmer?

The two biggest challenges I’ve felt are (1) finding the balance between the needs of your children, your partner, your farm, and yourself; and (2) learning to let go.

First, to address finding balance, as farmers we are used to giving ourselves above and beyond for the sake of our farm: the land, the soil, the crops, the customers.  And as mothers, we feel that even more so for our children. I knew I didn’t want to burn out on farming, and I certainly didn’t want to burn out on parenting.  It is important to figure out what you need to keep the balance for maintaining the long-term sustainability of the whole farm system, which now includes not only the farm, but yourself, your children, and your partner.  And by “sustainability”, I mean the social, emotional, physical, and economic side of all of it.  It’s complicated, and every family and farm is unique.

For us, this balance has been accomplished over the years by (a) developing strategies for decision making, prioritizing, and optimizing our time, (b) getting help with childcare, (c) hiring more farm employees (especially in that first newborn year) to pick up where we knew we wouldn’t be, and (d) constant check-ins between partners to make sure we are feeling content with the roles we are playing in both the family and the farm.  Being honest with yourself, as a mother and farmer, about what you want for your farming career and your role on the farm will help you make the decisions about hiring, whether it’s childcare, farm employees, or planning to scale back for a period of time.

 

In regards to the second challenge of learning to let go, there are two ways specifically I’ve learned to let go: (1) letting go of other’s expectations of what a farm family should be, and (2) letting go of your own expectations of how much you will get done when you have the kids with you.

 

For letting go of others’ expectations for a farm family, both prior to having children and even after, I always felt there were a lot of preconceived ideas that as a farm family, the farm kids are home with the parents on the farm, all the time.  When we had our first child (9 yrs old now), having this preconceived idea in mind, I naively thought I could put him in a backpack and still get it all done.  I was certainly wrong!  It became apparent when he was still less than one-year-old that I certainly wasn’t going to get it all done with my colicky baby in tow, and I had to scramble to find work shares and volunteers halfway through the season to help.  The following year I knew that I needed to find a better balance that fit both my farming goals and our family’s needs and our individual personalities.  I wanted my son on the farm, but I also didn’t feel like having him on the farm with me all the time was going to be the best for him or me.  That was when I decided to get help with childcare.  And we also hired our first employees.  It was definitely worthwhile, and I felt excited that when I was farming on my own, I could really focus and get a lot done, and when I was farming with my son, it took away the pressure of trying to accomplish more than was possible.  I could then involve him in the farm in a way that was more enjoyable for him and for me.  (Of course, in hindsight this all sounds like it worked out perfectly – but there certainly were lots of stressful, exhausting times then also.)

We now have another son (5 yrs old), and we have approached the balance between kids on the farm and childcare the same way.  We have used part-time babysitters, preschool, summer camps, and public elementary school, and have been happy with the balance that has allowed us.  Accepting that each family is different, and the right balance of childcare and kids on the farm is unique to that family didn’t come overnight, and it didn’t come easily.  Occasionally I find myself wondering “I wish…” or “What if…”, but I know that doesn’t fit us, and so once again, I have to remind myself to “let go” of other’s expectations of what kids who grow up on a farm should be doing.

Luckily, I’d learned quite a bit about “letting go” from farming prior to kids, having experienced the disappointment and heartbreak of failed crops or being short on labor and having to let certain things go.  Dwelling on mistakes or failures in a negative way doesn’t move you forward.  Prior to having children, I made progress in accepting failures on the farm and learning from them.  So when it came time to let go of what I thought I’d get done that day with children along, well…there’s really not a lot of debate to be had.  Having children truly forces you to stop working when it’s mealtime or bedtime, or meltdown time, or whatever stage you are at.  Since these times really aren’t negotiable in regards to children’s needs, you stop farming for the time being, and you adopt a better work-life balance.  You can’t make up an excuse to work into the dark when the kids need dinner.  However, that being said, we often do a fair amount of office work in the evenings after the children go to bed.  That is something that I hope we can change someday, so that we can also prevent burning out on evening office work by shifting it to more daytime hours.

Did the farm change once you started a family? (Or how did the farm adjust once you had kid/s)?

With our first son, since we were still relatively new to farming and babies, we naively thought we could carry on as before and just bring him along everywhere.  But since that didn’t work out, and my productivity was drastically reduced, we relied more heavily on volunteers and work shares that first year.  The following year we hired our first employees.  I focused primarily on farm planning and managing the crew, but didn’t do as much fieldwork as I had prior to having my son.  As he got older and I got help with childcare, I was able to resume more fieldwork and day-to-day tasks.  We had to adjust again four years later when we had our second son.  I planned to step back that first year with him, and then resumed more of my farm roles as he got older.

So many farmers struggle with health insurance costs (there happens to be an article about this in this TNF), especially when providing insurance for a family.  How have you handled this in your life?

I think the specifics of this varies state to state, but I will relay our story.  In our first few years, we had off-farm jobs that provided health insurance.  Once we left those positions, our yearly income was certainly less, our benefits were gone, and we qualified for Medicaid.

So far, we’ve been able to maintain our income below the Medicaid threshold, both by re-investing money into the farm and by contributing to retirement accounts (as an added bonus, our employees who qualify can also make pre-tax contributions to retirement accounts).

We expect we’ll be able to stay eligible for Medicaid for a few more years; after that, we’ll probably have to look to purchase health insurance, though the kids should still qualify for Medicaid since their cutoffs are much higher than for adults.

Have you developed any unique ways or approaches to include your kid/s in farming? Any you don’t recommend?

I found that this was very specific to my kids’ personalities, but yes, we have found ways to include them that fit our family well.  A few tasks that I found to be successful both for them and for the farm, even in the toddler years, are filling pots with potting mix, seeding larger seeds in trays (spinach, beans, peas), anything involving spraying things down with a hose, measuring and mixing soil amendments, harvesting (many crops), hoeing (large open areas preferably), and the salad spinner!  They also both like to be part of any machine work, so when possible, we let them ride along on the tractor, mowing, etc.

However, what has been the most successful is actually giving them each their own large garden, where they can put into practice what they learn from us on the farm.  This actually started when our older son was about 6 years old, as a way to deflect his strong will and persistent ideas on how we should be running our farm and his keen interest in lots of machine work, into his own space where he could experiment and we could let him take charge.  It took away the constant struggles of too much water and where to step and how much compost… And I can’t say enough how incredible this has been.  He is now 9 years old, and he makes his whole crop plan in the off-season, including mapping out his 12’x20’ garden.  He decides on soil prep he wants to do (harrow, broadfork, compost, amendments, etc.) with some minimal advice from us.  He makes his own soil blocks, seeds his own seedlings, transplants them to his garden, and even sets up his own irrigation system.  He cultivates with hoes (sometimes) and harvests when he wants.  He sets out his crops as add-on items for our CSA pickup, and he is often making decent sales for his work.  This past season he saved up and bought a solar panel, inverter, and battery for the renewable energy system he is working on.  He has learned so much by running his own micro-farm.  And by giving him full reign of it, he has really taken pride and ownership of it.

Our younger son had his first garden this past season.  His participation was less than the 9-year-old, and I had to help him along for nearly all of it.  But he chose what to grow and helped seed it and weed it.   We hope his garden becomes a passion for him as well.

What advice do you have to other farmers who are thinking of starting a family?

Find a balance that fits your family’s needs, and let go of others’ expectations.  Maybe you will keep the kids home full-time while you farm and even homeschool.  That’s great if you do.  But if that doesn’t fit your family, don’t beat yourself up over it.  Do what will keep you farming and parenting without burning out.




Young farmers struggle with child care and health insurance

Kat Becker feeds hundreds of people with the vegetables she grows on her Wisconsin farm, and she wants to expand. But her ability to grow her business collides with her need for affordable health insurance and child care.

She has had to make difficult choices over the years: keep her farm income low enough so her children can qualify for the state’s public health insurance, or expand the farm and buy expensive private insurance. To look after her three young children, she could hire a cheap but inexperienced babysitter, or spend a significant share of her income on child care and have peace of mind that the kids are safe from dangers on the farm.

“The stable choice for my children to have health insurance is an irrational choice for my farm business,” she said.

We’ve heard numerous stories like Kat’s in our work as social scientists supporting the next generation of farmers. Through thousands of interviews, surveys, and conversations with farmers across the country, we have documented how household expenses like access to health care and child care undercut investments that could increase food production across the United States.

Read news coverage based on evidence, not tweets

As farmers continue to age and retire, the U.S. needs young farmers to take their place. The country has 3.4 million farm operators today, roughly 2% of the American population, and their average age is 58.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made concerted efforts to help young and beginning farmers, particularly with access to farmland, credit, and marketing skills. But focusing on the technical side of farming misses a fundamental fact about farms: They are inherently social entities, and their success depends upon social infrastructure as much as biophysical or financial infrastructures. Bolstering food systems’ resilience means supporting individuals so they can grow food.

Our research indicates that health care and child care are two crucial ingredients for a successful food system.

Health insurance: What happens when farmers get sick?

Economists find that healthier workers are more productive, adaptable, and better able to cope with stress. Farming, meanwhile, is stressful, risky, and physical work.

Our research found that two-thirds of farmers have a preexisting health condition, and one in three farms has a family member whose health problems make farming difficult. Farmers prioritize having health insurance – over 90% of farmers are covered – yet this number hides details that plague the entire U.S. health care system.

In addition to farming, half of all farm families have at least one adult working an additional full-time job, often primarily to get health insurance coverage. It’s an affordable option but pulls time and energy away from farm work. The costs of health insurance and child care can make it difficult for young farmers to start and expand their farms.

Farmers in states as diverse as Mississippi, California, and Nebraska have shared the lengths they have gone to stay eligible for public health insurance. In extreme cases, farmers have said they kept marriages secret. Often, farmers feel trapped: Too much income can put them over the threshold for public benefits.

Nationwide, 68% of all personal bankruptcies are connected to health and medical expenses. Such personal and financial crises can have long-term consequences for farms. One in two farm families reported that they worried they would have to sell farm assets to pay health expenses.

Farmers report that covering health care needs often means working into old age or selling land to the highest bidder. This limits access to farmland, making it even harder for young farmers to get started.

Child care: Who watches the kids?

As parents across the country discovered during the pandemic, productivity can suffer when working from home with children around. Magazine and grocery store advertisements of smiling farmers posing with young children obscure the reality that farm parents are working parents who also must navigate the complex world of child care.

Growing up on a farm has many benefits for children, but farms can also be dangerous. Every day 33 children are seriously injured in agricultural-related incidents, and every three days a child dies on a farm. Child care is rarely discussed in conversations related to farm viability and farm safety, yet it underpins the very foundation of the family farm.

In a national study of farm parents before the pandemic, we found that two-thirds had struggled with the cost, availability, and quality of child care. Surveying farm parents during the early months of COVID-19, we found 58% reported that taking care of children became harder during the pandemic – especially for women farmers and those with children under age 6.

Women are one of the fastest-growing groups of farmers, and their role as primary caregivers influences a farm’s success. In our research, women were almost twice as likely as men to report that child care was an important factor in farm decisions, 44% compared to 24% among men.

We also found that the majority of women farmers with child care problems operated small or medium farms and were significantly more likely to sell directly to consumers, such as at farmers markets. These findings have implications for the food system.

The Biden administration’s new US$1.8 trillion proposal to support families and women in the workforce includes resources for child care infrastructure. These investments could also deliver much-needed support for American farm families.

Prescription for supporting the next crop of farmers

Over the last 10 years, farm families have told us that public insurance options, making insurance easier for self-employed people to access, universal health insurance, and affordable rural child care would help them grow better food and stronger businesses.

These challenges parallel those faced by many Americans. Policymakers can leverage lessons from the social and economic crises triggered by COVID-19 to ensure that all Americans, including those who grow the nation’s food, have access to adequate and affordable health insurance and child care.

The Department of Agriculture announced on April 21, 2021, that it was beginning an effort to “improve and reimagine” the supply chains for food production – including meeting the need of agriculture workers and addressing the needs of mid-to small-sized farms. This is an opportunity to integrate health insurance and child care as core infrastructure that supports the future of farmers and rural communities, along with the U.S. food supply.




Lessons from the Land: Resilience

A Mother’s Love

Farming has helped me heal and I’m so grateful for it, so I thought I’d share some words about it.

I wasn’t a person before I started farming. Okay, sure, I had all the qualities of a person—hobbies, favorite bands, a preferred season, a skeletal system—but when I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize my reflection. Who was this college dropout? Did I even like them? Did they have any sort of purpose, like, at all? If they did, it was unbeknownst to me. I simply didn’t know them.

I now understand that this is a symptom of trauma—personal trauma and generational trauma bequeathed to me. My seven-year eating disorder, a mother whose free spirit was crushed by compulsive heteronormativity, a grandmother who never had a chance to discover who she really was, a great-grandmother who never even wanted to have a child, a great-great grandmother who lost all but one of her children to illnesses and had to flee her home country as an adult. It can break your heart to tiny pieces if you start thinking about it for too long—the compounded suffering, each maternal generation laying the foundation for a house—my body—besieged by trauma.

It was June of 2017 when I first started volunteering on a small organic vegetable farm in Belmont, Massachusetts. Twenty-six years old and just realizing that farms not only existed but that I, a regular person, could work on one.

I was in love.

There was nothing better than taking a bus and three trains home smeared in dirt. I wanted people to ask why I was so damn dirty so that I could exclaim about post-hole diggers and summer squash and collecting eggs from real-life chickens. It felt like I had discovered a secret. Not just a secret, but the secret, and if only people would ask I could gleefully pour some soil into their hands and watch their eyes brighten.

By September I was working on a larger organic vegetable farm in Concord, Massachusetts where I finished the 2017 season. This was followed by a full-time apprenticeship on the same farm in 2018. I was buzzing from connecting with the Earth. My serotonin levels climbed higher every time I slid my hands into the ground. My confidence was stick landing intricate backflips in front of cheering crowds as I learned how to drive tractors. Staying an hour or two extra to set up irrigation as the sun slipped away was like talking to a therapist.

Farming was medicine. Physically draining, ache-inducing, sweaty medicine.

After the vegetables, came the animals. Six months on a small goat dairy in Maine showed me just how much work goes into making the goat cheeses, yogurts, and other dairy delicacies that I do so love.

I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the hours in the dairy scooping curd or wrapping cheeses for farmers’ markets. Couldn’t stand machine milking goats for two and a half hours every other night. But, oh, the goats. Stealing away to the barn for ten minutes here and there to sit with these caprine creatures calmed my nerves. Their unfaltering gazes, their curiosity, their measured and rhythmical chewing as they worked at their cud—this was why I was here. The small moments where I could thank them for their gifts.

In my earlier twenties, I had suffered a short period of extreme gastrointestinal pain and goats’ milk kefir had played a significant role in healing my gut. How else could I display my gratitude than by giving them the gift of my devotion? Our gut health is vital. My gut health had been ravaged by an eating disorder. Their gifts had helped rebuild my health. I could give these goats six months of my life in return.

After the goats, I farmed for one more season, but I didn’t return to farming after that. Farming is more than a full-time job—it’s your life. And all the hours I gave to this lifestyle made me realize that I have other passions in need of my time. Even in this way has farming helped reveal parts of who I am. I am an artist and a musician and I didn’t know how badly I needed to fulfill these parts of myself until farming showed me.

The mothers on my maternal side did the best they could in a world where womens’, AFABs’, and queer spirits are squashed by capitalism. But I had to turn to our shared Mother. I needed to fill my house with her sunlight, soil, and creatures, and it was by farming that I was able to do this. I can now look at my reflection and see an artist, a nature-lover, a musician, and an armchair herbalist, amongst other things. But mostly I see myself, and I like them.




Save our Trees to Save Ourselves

For any generation, it can be difficult to imagine that the world of the past was so radically different than the present. Here in Vermont, with our rolling farm fields and forested mountains, the landscape appears

healthy. Because the northeast region has the built-in resilience of abundant precipitation and a temperate climate, the land has recovered to such a degree that, unless you study the land-use history, it is not manifestly evident that European settlement brought about near ecological collapse.

The human-driven devastation wrought upon the North Woods from 1750 to 1850 was the natural disaster equivalent of a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, forest fire, and flood—all rolled into one. The wholesale destruction of the ancient forest began in earnest with the Merino sheep boom of 1810 and ended with the felling of the last old-growth stands in the mid 20th century. An adult Abenaki person still alive in 1850 had witnessed their entire world undone. With the exception of tiny remnants, all the woods see now are regrowth, and in many cases, the trees have been harvested two or even three times.

It is estimated that fully one-half of Vermont’s soils have eroded away since the 18th century. Forest ecologists estimate that if you let a New England farm field go fallow, it takes a natural succession of about 120 years to re-establish a healthy soil biome, but even that will be but a pale shadow of the mature complex food web that once existed under the bowers of the ancient giants. The diverse deciduous and evergreen forests that blanketed the hills and basins of our region were a species of super-organism and the keystone species that bound all this biodiversity together were the mycorrhizal fungi. These trees could live 300-500 years and were enormous—with red oaks and hard maples at 150 feet and white pines reaching 200 feet or more. Hardwoods could have boles 9 feet in diameter. But all this biomass above ground was dwarfed by more than 60% of the total—the food web underground. For all the tons of carbon held in the trunks and branches—the real long-term stable carbon was built up over centuries in a substrata of deep humus. That is the carbon bank our farmers are still drawing on.

Worldwide, 50% of the carbon stored in a forest is held by the top 1% of the biggest trees (in VT it is estimated at 33% because of the relative youth of regrowth). New findings show that, although sequestration is most rapid in young trees, the amount of carbon storage is greatest from the growth period of 50 years to 150 years and continues after that. There are innumerable benefits accruing to old forests in terms of healthy landscape function and biodiversity—not to mention the aesthetics. You simply can’t put a dollar value on the recreational benefits of an area like Telephone Gap (an area in the Green Mountain National Forest where some parcels are slated for clear-cut and shelterwood cuts in the current Forest Service plan). (Shelterwood is a “treatment” that harvests most of the trees but typically leaves about 12 mature trees per acre to act as seed trees for regeneration.) These are places that can begin to heal your soul if you let them.

Over the course of the 20th century, as farmland was abandoned, our forest cover returned to 80% of the land base. However, in the last ten years, the tide has turned again and we are now losing an estimated 1150 acres of forest every year, mainly due to development. Clear-cutting and fragmentation also increasingly threaten habitat for a wide swathe of our wildlife dependent on deep forest and corridors to thrive.

At the same time, there is growing recognition that our forests are one of our greatest assets to mitigate and even reverse the worst effects of abrupt climate change. There is a promising approach to management taking hold in our region called Ecological Forest Management. This comprises practices that aim for the complexity of canopy and varied tree age range found in old forests. It includes identifying legacy trees, establishing gaps, freeing mast trees, leaving snags and standing dead, and more.

Although managing for old-growth characteristics while still harvesting timber reduces yields when compared to a typical selective commercial cutting, the real-world benefits of carbon sequestration, infiltration and retention of water, and restoration of biodiversity, far outweigh the loss. 70% of our forest is in family ownership. We need to understand the forest as a system and grant incentives to woodland owners who manage for long-term health and adaptability. This doesn’t have to entail the “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome. We can sustain a local harvest while managing for enhanced

complexity. In fact, the promotion of ecological forestry could help jump-start a “localvore” movement in the timber and wood products industries. After all, do we really want new decks and home renovations to be built from old-growth lumber imported from British Columbia? If we really care about our own forests we need to reduce waste and over-consumption.

The current prevalent practices of shelterwood and clear cuts may have made sense in our region in the 20th century but with the advent of climate change, with flash droughts, extreme precipitation events, wind shears, invasive pathogens and pests, we have no guarantee that regeneration will occur on such sites as it once could reasonably be expected to do.

We can protect and restore our public lands through proforestation. Let’s unite with President Biden’s “30×30” initiative and call for the establishment of 30% “forever wild” designation of forest lands in Vermont by 2030. We can begin by permanently protecting all the public land within the boundaries of state and national forests. We should also ask our legislators to place a moratorium on new biomass

projects for heat and energy. Weatherization of homes and subsidies for thermal heat pumps could bring us better gains without further environmental destruction. Let’s ensure that Ecological Forest Management becomes a required practice of the Current Use tax abatement program and makes re-wilding and proforestation accepted practices for restoring bio-diversity and building up our strategic carbon reserves.

We are accustomed to thinking of forest managers in terms of the output of their operations— the number of board feet harvested. But to squarely address abrupt climate change, we need to match expectations for production with management aimed at restoration of the carbon cycle. Restoration of the carbon cycle leads to restoration of hydrologic cycles, which is critical to landscape function and climate change mitigation.

Stephen Leslie is a co-owner of Cedar Mountain Farm and Cobb Hill Cheese located at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT. Stephen is an author with Chelsea Green Publishing.

Resources

(1) Seeing Forests for the Trees and Carbon: Mapping the World’s Forests in Three Dimensions— Michael Carlowicz, Nasa Earth Observatory, January 9, 2012

(2) How Forests Store Carbon—Calvin Norman & Melissa Kreye, Penn State Extension, September 24, 2020

3) Report: Vermont Losing 1,500 Acres of Forest Every Year—Joshua E. Brown, UVM Today, September 19, 2017