Silvopasture Won’t Help Address the Climate Crisis Until It Makes Sense for Farmers

by Lisa Elaine Held

8/11/20

Porch View Farm in Woodbine, Maryland is surrounded by farmland — primarily perfectly manicured fields of commodity corn and soy but also an occasional orchard or vegetable patch. But driving through the gate feels like passing through a portal into a vibrant, alternative agricultural universe.

Farmer Keith Ohlinger checks the height of various grasses in a pasture bright with purple chicory flowers and red clover as blue, yellow and orange butterflies fly from plant to plant. It’s mid-morning and the temperature is already climbing towards 100 degrees, so the cattle and sheep cluster in the shade of two of the 15,000 trees Ohlinger has planted on the property since 2013. Many of those trees snake across the property in curvy lines, forming living fences that divide pastures and welcome at least 37 species of birds — eastern bluebirds, grasshopper sparrows and red-bellied woodpeckers among them.

“I wanted to create a little Garden of Eden,” he says. “All of this is meant to survive thousands of years.” But Ohlinger is no deity, and building a farm that will function as a biodiverse ecosystem for the foreseeable future has involved backbreaking labor and nearly impossible financial calculations. So while one might imagine him to be a proselytizer for sustainable agriculture, he is instead acutely attentive to practicalities. The neighboring farmers that are “beating the hell out of the land” with chemical fertilizers and pesticides? He gets it. They’re surviving.

Ohlinger’s system of incorporating trees into livestock grazing systems is called silvopasture. And it’s one of many practices that fit under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture, an approach to farming that works with nature to restore soil fertility, build healthy ecosystems and sequester carbon. Because of its potential to help mitigate climate change, regenerative agriculture has been getting increased attention in policy and research circles. But farmers like Ohlinger say that more needs to be done to address the technical and financial barriers they face. Otherwise, farms like his will represent fairytale — not realistic — scenarios.

The Promise of Silvopasture

Agroforestry is a regenerative approach to land management that adds trees and shrubs to farmland in various ways. There are five main practices within the system — forest farming, windbreaks, alley cropping, riparian buffers and silvopasture.

Silvopasture has gotten increased attention because it presents a way to reduce the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, which can be uniquely emissions-intensive.

Most cattle in the US are raised on pasture for about a year before they are moved to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or feedlots, where they are confined with thousands of other animals and fed grain to fatten them for slaughter. In addition to environmental impacts like pollution from concentrated manure and the resources used to produce grain for feed, those cattle produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Grassfed systems that keep cattle on pasture their entire lives can build healthy soil that, with the right conditions, may hold enough carbon to counteract emissions from cows.

According to Project Drawdown, an organization that promotes research-based climate solutions, research suggests that silvopasture “far outpaces” other grazing systems when it comes to counteracting methane emissions and sequestering carbon in pastures. Project Drawdown finds: “pastures strewn or crisscrossed with trees sequester five to 10 times as much carbon as those of the same size that are treeless, storing it in both biomass and soil.” Silvopasture systems can also help farmers hold more water in soil and create habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

At the Savanna Institute, an organization dedicated to “laying the groundwork for widespread agroforestry in the Midwest,” outreach coordinator Jacob Grace said that many conservation-minded landowners reach out about finding farmers to practice silvopasture on their properties. “Maybe they’ve inherited land that is farmland and they’re not farmers and don’t plan to become farmers, but they’re trying to figure out something they can do with the land that would be good for the environment,” he said.

In June, the House of Representatives released its first major report on climate change and how federal policy could address the crisis in the coming years. In the section on reducing agricultural emissions, it mentions silvopasture several times, as a practice that should be incentivized.

But that recommendation has not yet been put into practice in any meaningful way. The USDA has funded so few silvopasture projects over the years, they’re basically negligible. And there’s no real data on whether more farmers are attempting to adopt silvopasture across the country.

Still, there’s evidence of movement in that direction in various locales. In Pennsylvania, Austin Unruh started Crow and Berry Land Management to help Mid-Atlantic farmers install riparian buffers, strips of vegetation planted alongside waterways. The buffers were in demand in the region because of a longstanding effort by states and the federal government, which made significant grant funds available, to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Riparian buffers can prevent nutrients, pesticides and sediment from running off fields and entering waterways, where they eventually make their way to the Bay, disrupting ecosystems and wildlife.

“Farmers, especially grazers who are a little bit more willing to think outside the box, they’re looking at the whole farm ecosystem. And some of them are interested in having trees in their pastures for shade,” Unruh said. A few asked him about silvopasture installations, and so he expanded his operation to provide them. He’s done six so far, the largest of which was at Fiddle Creek Dairy in Quarry, Pennsylvania, and has four more coming up. “Demand is small but growing, and there’s real reason for the demand to grow,” he said.

Barriers to Adopting Silvopasture

Many farmers who decide to try silvopasture start with grassy grazing pastures and decide to plant trees. That upfront cost can be significant. Unruh estimates his system costs a farmer about $15 a tree, and he usually plants about 50 stems per acre. Based on those calculations, a farmer with 25 acres would have to spend $18,750. And that’s a small farm.

“Why isn’t every farmer doing this? Because most farmers are just a hair away from going out of business as it is, so they’re not going to spend all their money on something that they haven’t proven works,” Ohlinger said. “And they’re not going to spend all their money on something that’s not going to bring them a return for maybe 10 years, right?”

Returns on investment are a debated, and complicated issue. The simplest benefit for farmers is that especially in areas that have long, hot summers, livestock are healthier and more comfortable because they have access to shade. In the winter, trees also provide protection from wind. “It’s just kind of, you know, a great big natural barn,” Grace said. But it might take five years before trees are big enough to provide that kind of protection.

It’s also possible to supplement animals’ diets based on the trees planted, although that can take even longer to pay off. Unruh, for example, plants Honey Locusts in the Mid-Atlantic because the trees fix nitrogen in the soil, which could produce healthier forage (the mix of grasses and other plants the livestock eat) and they have a “dappled canopy” that won’t block out too much sun. The trees also drop nutrient- and calorie-dense pods in the fall that animals will eat as they graze. “There could be thousands of pounds per acre depending on the genetics you have and how many trees you have, so that could be a really significant calorie boost for the herd going into the winter,” he said.

Ohlinger plants fruit trees — apple, peach and sour cherry — in one pasture, and the animals also eat the fruit that falls to the ground. Of course, he could make more money if the fruit that stayed on the tree could then be harvested and sold to customers. But the Food Safety Modernization Act, a law passed in 2011 to prevent foodborne illness that has been phased in gradually since, prohibits the sale of fresh produce grown in the same fields as grazing animals.

There is also potential, in some regions, around harvesting some trees for timber, but markets are not always present and the ecological impact has to be balanced.

One way to reduce upfront costs is to establish a silvopasture operation in an area that’s already forested, rather than adding trees to pastures. In the Midwest, that approach is common because there are a lot of what Grace jokingly refers to as “crappy forests,” generally areas that were cleared for cropland and then regrew without proper management.

“These are not the healthiest forests that we could have. Not only is the biodiversity and habitat not that great, but they’re kind of turning it into a little bit of a monoculture by neglect,” he explained. “So to try to do some management of these forests and leave some of the bigger and healthier trees or the trees that have more wildlife or biodiversity benefits and take out the mid-story layer, which often comes back as some type of invasive shrub…If you can do that and then get healthy forage underneath and keep livestock integrated, I think that in a lot of cases, that’s going to be better for the carbon balance in the long run.”

In Wisconsin, this approach also comes with a tax benefit for farmers, Grace said, since forested land is taxed at a much higher rate than agricultural land. Turn that forest into a farm, and suddenly, your property taxes plummet.

The important thing, Grace said, is educating farmers about the difference between a carefully managed silvopasture system and just “turning your livestock loose in the woods,” which can cause a lot of damage to ecosystems.

It’s why organizations like the Savanna Institute are important, because resources and technical support on silvopasture are scarce. Ohlinger said he struggled to find information when he was starting out, and that agricultural extension agents often don’t know about planting wildflowers and native grasses, while the conservation groups don’t know anything about integrating livestock.

The field of installations is still developing, too. At Crow and Berry, Unruh has been working on designing the perfect “tree shelter” to be able to plant young trees in active pastures without animals destroying them before the trees have grown big and strong enough to protect themselves. He’s tested many designs and has landed on using a shelter that’s six-feet high, is made of flexible fiberglass stakes, and is wrapped in barbed wire to keep the cattle from rubbing up against it and knocking it over. He’s currently working on collaborative research to test the most effective silvopasture establishment systems.

Silvopasture Solutions for the Future

That research will hopefully inform the development of more resources for farmers as silvopasture picks up steam, and government policies could help get those resources to more people. Representative Chellie Pingree’s Agriculture Resilience Act, for example, would establish several regional agroforestry centers around the country to connect farmers with technical support.

Meanwhile, the Savanna Institute is working on a research project to get a better understanding of how farmers might incorporate fruit trees as a cash crop in a way that could meet food safety requirements. For instance, a protocol that rotated animals out of the orchard pasture three months before harvest could minimize the risk of contamination.

Some of the solutions presented in the House climate plan propose significantly increasing financial incentives to farmers and ranchers using silvopasture and for grant programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to prioritize silvopasture applications ahead of others.

Ohlinger has used grants from the state department of natural resources to plant some of his trees, but he emphasized repeatedly that promoting the system wouldn’t work unless laws actually support farmers in removing barriers and implementing it long-term. And Grace said getting there would require a bigger shift in thinking, especially in the Midwest where farm decisions happen on a year-to-year basis. “Part of the answer is that anything with trees has to happen kind of slowly, at least on a different scale than we’re used to making farming decisions,” he said. But if all of the pieces fall into place, “I think we could have a more productive system that is actually making money for people.”

Top picture of Porch View Farm by Lisa Held. 

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