[The above picture from the USGS shows the area in North America dedicated to crop production. It’s a lot.]

At Trees For Graziers, we have determined to focus our attention first and foremost on the practice of silvopasture, and even more specifically on planting trees into pastures. While we absolutely work with other agroforestry practices as well, like riparian buffers, or advising conversions of woods to silvopasture, we have chosen to really concentrate our attention on planted silvopasture. This is for several reasons:

  • There are so many opportunities in the broad field of agroforestry, from growing ginseng or shiitake in the woods to growing pecans and cider apples, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, spread too thin, and hence ineffective. We would rather make great leaps in one direction than creep forward in many.
  • We have chosen specifically to not focus on tree crops for human consumption. The whole business of growing tree crops for humans to eat is vastly more complicated than growing feed for livestock. The logistic complexity of harvesting, processing and marketing tree crops profitably is a real barrier to entry. It’s enough work for one crop, say chestnuts, but when you add currants and aronia and elderberry and hazelnuts and all the other potentially valuable crops, there’s a lot of moving pieces, each with significant question marks. Since there are already very competent players in this space, like the Savanna Institute and Propagate Ventures, we determined we’d let them crack that nut. In contrast, here’s the basic plan for harvesting, processing and marketing livestock feed crops: Let the animals eat them where they fall. Done.
  • Trees for livestock feed are much more scalable and stable than tree crops for human consumption. Most agricultural land in the United States is dedicated towards feed for livestock, not food for people. J Russell Smith, author of the 1929 classic Tree Crops said it best:
    • This book is primarily an attack upon the gully. To succeed in this we must have millions of acres of tree crops replacing the destructive plow crops. Now the nuts that people eat are fine and worthy of much improvement, but a few hundred thousand acres of them would glut the market. Not so with stock food. Once we get a cow-feed tree crop established we have a guaranteed outlet, and twenty or thirty million acres will not glut the market. We would simply convert thirty or forty million acres of our hundred million acres of corn to a more profitable and soil-saving crop.
    • There is another reason also. Some of the stock-food crops seem to be in the class of sure things with which the farmer can safely begin without waiting for a lot of scientific work to be done. Then, too, stock foods start on an honest-to-goodness basis. They don’t begin five prices high like a human food novelty and then come down bumpety-bump as soon as a few carloads are produced.
    • This last piece is critical. Anyone who has been around ag for any time has seen quite a few boom and bust cycles of trendy crops. Since we’re talking about tree crops, which are a very long-term investment, stability is critical. Livestock feed may not be glamorous or able to return as much per acre, but it will always have a solid outlet.
A black locust after only 3 growing seasons, showing the quick ROI on shade trees
  • While feed trees like honey locust, mulberry, persimmon and oak will most certainly cover many times the acreage of chestnuts, hazelnuts and currants for human food, even simpler still is providing trees primarily for shade. While a lot of development work needs done on food and feed trees, shade trees are ready to go, and offer some of the quickest and most reliable ROIs in all of agroforestry, especially in climates with hot summers. Reducing heat stress in livestock and forages is a surefire way to create more resiliency to climate change and increase farm profitability.

We at TFG are pretty bullish on the future of silvopasture. Right now there are several major bottlenecks to the practice majorly taking off, but farmer demand is not one of them. Thoughtfully integrating trees into pastures simply makes good sense for graziers, and as funding availability and tree genetics are improved, we’ll see silvopasture really take off. It’s a long-term, slow-moving practice, so ‘explode’ might be the wrong term, but steady growth in the right direction is what I see moving forward.

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