by Eric Hagen ’14
Earlier this winter I made a very good decision. I decided to drop by Brent Wasser’s office to seek advice. He didn’t know I was coming, and neither did I until fifteen minutes before I knocked on his door, but he graciously invited me in and gave me his time. I’ve been interested in sustainable agriculture since middle school when I meticulously studied John Seymour’s The Self-sufficient Life and How to Live It. My plan for the next few years was to spend six months or more at a time at various farms learning as much as possible, but I was feeling overwhelmed trying to find good information. It was easy chatting at length with Brent about the theoretical and practical and I left with an invitation to the 2nd Northeast Silvopasture Conference held in Albany. I also left with references leading to an internship I’ll be starting after graduation. I feel very lucky for finding North Plain and Blue Hill Farms, a sustainable livestock operation in Great Barrington.
The word ‘silvopasture’ is a strange one, it’s meaning not very obvious to the average person. Silva is Latin for forest, and so it makes sense then that silvopasturing is raising livestock and producing forestry products together. The idea is that adding trees to pasture, or thinning a wooded stand and creating pasture, provides a variety of benefits that outweigh the loss in pasture productivity, and so add value to the land. The big costs are investments of time and money to set up the silvopasture and potential reduction of grass growth. With careful planning, such as spacing trees to avoid deep shade, these costs can be reduced or eliminated. Benefits can also be maximized with careful planning. Shade reduces livestock stress and the trees add to the biodiversity of a pasture by providing habitat for birds and insects. Trees like oak, beech, chestnut, apple, walnut, and others add to the nutrient makeup and caloric potential of a pasture. These added forages are noted to improve the quality and taste of livestock, and there are niche markets for acorn finished pork and the like.
The main obvious benefit of a silvopasture system are the forestry products that can be harvested and sold. Black locust is a prime example of a good silvopasture tree. It is leguminous and so adds nitrogen to the soil, and it doesn’t have a very dense canopy. These two attributes add to the health of the soil and grasses. Black locust also grows quickly and produces high value timber at a young age. Its timber is rot resistant and durable and is an ideal material for fence posts. The silva part of a silvopasture can be managed optimally for high value timber products, for firewood, and for added forage. After all is said and done the revenue stream per acre under a well designed and managed silvopasture is increased, which is ultimately what will be needed to keep and promote sustainable agricultural practices.
A less practical benefit of silvopasturing, though perhaps the one with the most presence, is the beauty of the systems. There’s something calming about seeing cows graze in dappled sunlight among large trunks and lush grasses. Something about pigs rooting with birdsong in the air and a refreshing breeze out from under the sun. It’s hard to make any claims while I’m just a wet nosed student, but the beauty would be reason enough for me to manage a silvopasture.
At the conference I heard from practitioners and researchers and foresters. There’s a lot to learn from the internet on almost any topic, but nothing can substitute for a meeting with an expert in person among other people. Farmer’s looking to convert asked the practical questions I couldn’t have come up with. I met students of the Yale School of Forestry, a school I’m interested in, and got their advice and contact information. I even met up with the farmers I’m going to be working with after graduation. They are looking to convert some of their woods into silvopasture.
It was a gift to attend the 2nd Northeast Silvopasture Conference. I don’t think I’ll have much spare time or money for the next few years of my life, and so I’m grateful to Brent and the Zilkha Center for allowing me to have attended this conference along with two NOFA conferences earlier this year.