(Note: In the photo above, unprotected willow stakes were destroyed by white-tailed deer.)
When it comes to developing silvopasture plans, there is a need for a combination of humility and critical thinking before one commits to a plan.
Humility, because the list of people intimately familiar with silvopasture systems, both young and mature, is incredibly small, and there is so much we simply do not know at this time and will only learn slowly. Critical thinking, because trees only offer feedback very, very slowly, and mistakes made at the planning phase may only come to light in 5-10 years. Rather than wait 5-10 years to see what your mistakes are, it’s best to spend some extra time on the front end to consider the different ways your plans might go wrong. Put simply, unexamined assumptions and uncritical optimism lead to expensive problems down the road.
Here’s a list of questions to get you started as you review your plan:
● What is most likely to damage my trees, and how can I prevent that from happening?
● What is most likely to kill my trees, and how can I prevent that from happening?
● Who will be responsible for the aftercare of these trees? How likely is it that they will follow through in a timely manner? What reminders/incentives should they have, and what is my plan B if they do not follow through?
● What is the likelihood of having a profitable market for this tree crop?
● What factors need to fall into place for this tree crop to be profitable?
● If the market I intend to sell into is not profitable, or I am not able to harvest my crops, what is my backup plan?
● Am I happy with the genetics I am getting? Can I acquire better genetics now, or in the not-too-distant future? What are the upsides and downsides of waiting?
● What is the likelihood of me wishing I’d not filled this space with trees now, and waited instead for a better fit (with better genetics, or different species) later?
● If I do not know the answers to a question, where can I get that knowledge?
● Do a pre-mortem, and imagine that this silvopasture planting failed. What are the most likely reasons for failure?
● Where is this plan well adapted to my context? And where is this plan potentially ill fitted to my context?
● How likely is it that a significantly better source of cost-share will come about in the next few years?
Of course, we can only see so far into the future, and even the best laid plans, given the most precaution, will still need adjusting. As Dwight Eisenhower said, a plan is worthless, but planning is indispensable. Trees are much easier to move with a pen or cursor than once they’re in the ground.
So before you jump into planting, sit back, observe your plan again, ruminate on it, and make adjustments for a more resilient, profitable silvopasture.