Rethinking the possibilities of trees

The view from Northern Blossom Farms

In this third letter from Northern Blossom Farms, Gary Martens 
discusses ways to keep trees on the landscape.

Gary Martens_Supplied__opt.jpegapple tree shelterbelt_opt.jpegIn my first letter I advocated integrating livestock and crops for the synergistic benefits of both components to the farming system. In the next letter, I discussed my crop rotation which includes perennials but is still based mainly on annual crops.

In this letter, I want to propose the integration of trees as a beneficial third component along with livestock and crops in the farming system.

Shelterbelts are common features of the prairie landscape especially in highly wind erodible soil areas. These shelterbelts are now being removed in a number of areas because they cause more trouble than the benefits they bring.

Their primary benefit was to reduce soil erosion. Our seeders are now able to handle more crop residue so some farmers have adopted zero till while many others have reduced their tillage meaning that the soils are less prone to wind erosion, reducing the need for shelterbelts. I noticed this spring that shelterbelts prevented farmers from early seeding because of the accumulated snow in the tree rows.

Don’t remove, rethink

Rather than removing the trees I believe we should rethink the shelterbelt. Silviculture is the practice of managing a forest for a specific purpose. Managed trees in a farming system is called ‘alley farming.’

In these systems, the trees have many more benefits than just wind erosion control — benefits such as lumber, biomass for energy, fruit, nuts and habitat for beneficial insects. Joanne Thiessen Martens introduced me to a research paper “Pollinators provide economic incentive to preserve natural land in agroecosystems” by Morandin and Winston, which showed that up to 30 per cent of the land could be in pollinator habitat without reducing the total yield of a field of canola because of the enhanced seed set provided by the native pollinators.

We need to figure out how to reduce the trouble shelterbelts cause and how to increase the benefits they provide. If the main trouble caused by shelterbelts is delayed seeding because of snow or wetness near the trees, thinning out the trees and using the biomass for energy could be a solution.

I was introduced to the beneficial possibilities of trees in a farming system by Mark Shepard at the MOSES conference in Wisconsin this spring and by Jaqueline Novakowiski, a visiting student at the University of Manitoba from Brazil where silviculture is much more common than here.

Mark Shepard took a quarter section of land in southwestern Wisconsin and planted it into a productive forest, allowing for the integration of crops and livestock within the forest. Mark Shepard says we are in an oak savanna biome and can emulate the natural landscape but make it productive according to our desires.

Edible forest

The edible forest contains acorns from oak trees as a carbohydrate source both for human consumption and for the pigs. Mixed with the oaks there are apple trees (Boughen Nurseries in Valley River near Dauphin have 20 different apple cultivars to choose from). There are also saskatoons, chokecherries and hazelnuts (a source of vegetable oil and protein called filberts), raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries and more. All of these will be mixed in rows with fields in between. Mark Shepard is involved in developing disease resistant and productive hazelnut trees. Even in Manitoba we have a hybrid hazelnut cultivar called Skinner.

Based on the information I have been introduced to over this last winter, I set about to begin a productive forest on my “nano” farm in Kleefeld. I was fortunate enough to get the last delivery of green ash and silverleaf willow from PFRA, now called AESB. There are many more trees to plant, but this is a start.

Dreaming is much more than half of the fun of this project. Doing the actual work will be difficult and the results will be impossibly slow, but a long journey starts with the first step — the summer of 2013.

As Wes Jackson says, “If the problem you are working on can be solved in your lifetime, you are not thinking big enough.”

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