This year we’ve hand-planted over 3200 trees in three main areas around the farm, all for different purposes.
Most of the land on our farm is steep wooded hillsides and pastures. Down in the valley, however, there’s a relatively flat field that’s been conventionally farmed in annual crops for 150 years. Back in the 1800s it would have been a tobacco field and then would have been maybe some small grains and then eventually corn. I actually found an old rusty horseshoe in an erosion gully this spring, no doubt thrown off by a horse cultivating the field back in the 1800s. In the last 150 years of cultivation, this field has lost at least 3 feet of topsoil.
When we first bought the property last spring, the neighboring farmer, who’s been renting and farming that field for the last 20 years asked if I’d rent it to him again. At that point, we didn’t have a tractor and I didn’t have any other means of managing that field. I knew I wanted to restore perennial vegetation, but I didn’t have a plan or any equipment yet. I also wanted to maintain good relations with my neighbors and not necessarily give the impression of being a crazy hippy. (There are only two kinds of people in this area – rednecks and hippies. You don’t have to have long hair and wear tie-die to be a hippy here – just not a redneck.) Anyways, I decided to rent the field to him and he sprayed it round-up and planted GMO corn – just as he’d done for the last decade. I had noticed that the corn crop last year had been pretty poor, so I ask if he’d switch to beans instead. He said he would, except that his soybean combine couldn’t fit through the gate – that’s why he’d only ever done corn in that field. No wonder!
While that field was in corn last year, I put together a plan and got some funding to help the process. I signed up for an NRCS Honey-bee Initiative program to plant “Conservation Cover,” or native perennial grasses and forbs (prairie) on the field. So I got a whole bunch of big and little bluestem, indian grass, anise hyssop, echinacea, lead plant, new england aster, and several other species of prairie seed, which we broadcasted by hand last fall and disked in with the tractor. Then this spring, I surveyed contour guide lines according to Keyline Design, and layed out parallel rows for tree planting. While this corn field is the flattest place on our farm, its not totally flat. There were big erosion gullies where the pitch was the steepest, from rain striking the ground when ground was bare. I plan on harvesting hay on this field for the first 10 years or so until the trees are well established and able to handle heavy animal pressure. So the width of the alleys between the tree rows are 36 feet – enough for four passes with my 1968 New Holland 9’ sickle bar mower/conditioner.
The ultimate plan for this field is Pig Paradise. Right now, we raise our pigs in the main valley in about 4 acres of pasture, where they rotate up and down on either side of the valley. There are some trees down the middle of the valley – a couple hickories, mulberries and apples. They love the shade and the fruit and nuts from these trees as well as forage from trees like prickly ash, multiflora rose, and hackberry. So we used this as a model to for our future pig paradise where we should be able to finish 30-40 hogs per year in a veritable paradise with minimal inputs.
We planted rows of chestnuts, oaks, hickories, and walnuts with hazelnuts, nanking cherries, elderberries, apples, and mulberries, interplanted in between. In 10 years we’ll have nuts and fruit falling from the sky throughout most of the season where pigs will be quite at home. We can run the cows through to eat the tall grass first and then let the pigs rotate through eating the shorter grasses and clovers and of course, the fruits and nuts.
We planted very densely. Hybrid chestnuts we planted 3’ apart with the plan to select for early and high producing, disease-resistant genetics. Oaks we planted about 10’ apart with a few hazelnuts in-between.
For the oaks, we planted swamp white oaks and bur x gambel, and bur x english crosses which are supposed to be early producing varieties of sweet, low-tannin nuts. These are obviously plantings for the long haul, we won’t see them reach maturity.
We will likely harvest some of the fruits and nuts from this field for ourselves and maybe for our CSA customers, but we are mostly planting these fruit and nut trees to feed pigs. Pigs require a lot of high-energy food to get fat, and 99% of pigs get this from corn and soybeans. Much of the corn that used to be harvested from this field would have gone to feed cattle and pigs. But we hope to be able to provide nearly 100% of the pig’s ravenous appetite with forage, fruits, and nuts, grown right here, that they are able to harvest themselves, with a little help from their friends, of course.
The guy we bought this property from last year ran a cattle buying and selling operation. So he didn’t farm per se, but he would buy cattle from one place, hold them for a few days, and then resell them somewhere else. So along the road, he had three well-fenced 1-2 acre lots where he could store and sort his cattle. On one day there would have been three or four dairy steers in there, and on another day, thirty just-weaned balling calves. The stream runs through the lots, below the road, and the hillside between the two is super steep. These lots had been overgrazed off-and-on, so there was lots of erosion where cow paths criss-crossed the steep embankments. Lots of bare heavy clay soil washing out and eroding into the stream.
Our first course of action to repair these lots has been to keep cows off them. We will allow the grass to recover and go through several seasons of growth, flowering, and seeding, without grazing or mowing. My neighbors think I’m crazy for letting the grass go to seed, but I’m certain it will result in 2-3x as much grass in 2 years. Anyway, on the steepest embankments, just below the cowpath swales, we densely planted, 1’ apart, hundreds of hybrid poplar, mulberry, black locust, hackberry, and basswood trees. These trees have a two-fold purpose. First is to help anchor these embankments and slow erosion while the grasses regain a hold of the soil. Another is to provide forage for cattle. I will manage these trees by pollarding, or coppicing the trees above the browse line of cattle and feed the branches full of nutritious leaves to the cattle. Since I’m keeping cows out for the next few seasons to allow the grass to recover, that will give these fast-growing trees time to get above browse line so we can begin the coppice rotation.
The Home-Path Hedgerow
We’re planting a living fence/hedgerow between the valley road up to our cabin and the adjacent pasture. We’re planting hybrid poplar every 1′ that will be woven together in a grid or diamond-like pattern where the stems will hopefully graft together forming a stock-proof fence. We’re also planting hazelnuts, apples, pears, seaberries, elderberries, mulberries, cherries, and lilacs scattered throughout the poplar row. A stock-proof fence that produces fruits and nuts we can eat on our walks to and from home – even better!