Prairie Wood Farms developed a 15-acre low-value pasture into an alley-cropping production demonstration model for commercial organic nut production in Iowa. The project incorporated best management practices for alley cropping with various USDA and local conservation programs to create a working demonstration plot to showcase profitable agroforestry opportunities. The site contains approximately 3 acres of reforestation, 1 acre of organic buffer strips, 9 acres of Chinese Chestnuts alley-cropped with grass hay, and 2 acres of assorted crops including aronia berries and hazelnuts.
The site and farming operation were relatively new to this operator, and the site had previously been overgrazed by horses with little or no management used to reduce erosion or to control weeds and shrub growth by the previous owner.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS:
The objective was to develop a profitable commercial organic agroforestry demonstration plot to illustrate the variety of benefits available from a well-planned comprehensive alternative enterprise.
Demonstration plot goals will focus on educational opportunities related to but not limited to:
* Development and implementation of “Best Management Practices” for organic nut production.
* Development and implementation of “Best Management Practices” for alley-cropping.
* Maximizing conservation practices (REAP, WHIP, CRP, etc).
* Conduct varietal and production trials relevant for the Midwest.
* Develop economic evaluations of breakeven cost between seedling, bare-root, and container stock.
* Demonstration of temporary drip irrigation technology for nursery stock.
* Production demonstration of alternative agroforestry crop products and market research.
Prairie Wood Farms, of Ogden Iowa is located in the heart of monoculture row crop production and therefore producers interested in agroforestry cropping enterprises have limited access to successful agroforestry demonstration plots. This lack of exposure provides little incentive for beginning or current producers to give serious consideration to agroforestry enterprises as a potential for significant contributions to farm income and environmental sustainability. With these limitations in mind we set out to provide a working agroforestry demonstration plot to determine the feasibility of this type of agriculture in the area, and to provide the necessary financial and production information needed to help other producers make the decision of starting into this type of operation. Specific areas of focus included developing realistic production budgets, determining best management strategies, and incorporating alley cropping systems to maximize profit generation during the lag time between planting trees and having harvest levels of nut production.
There are several agencies that have been instrumental in helping with the planning and execution of the project including:
Iowa State University – Extension
Trees for Ever
Iowa State Forestry Service
Iowa State Nursery
-A complete production budget for start-up has been developed showing tree costs and maintenance at over $30/tree.
-The ability to harvest alley crops (hay) during orchard development can be successful and add to revenue to the project during start-up.
-Research comparing different types of tree shelters proved conclusively that there is a difference in types of tree shelters and how to manage them with chestnuts.
-Large scale drip-irrigation has been proven to be affordable and critical to nursery start-up.
-Creative ways to mitigate pest damage have been successfully demonstrated.
-Alternative crops have been incorporated into buffer strips that will ultimately provide additional revenue(hazelnuts, aronia berry).
-Most importantly, the demonstration plot has been utilized by two producers who have also begun new chestnut plantings on their farms.
In a monoculture crop area, drawing attention to the project was not a problem and through the questions and comments received by curious neighbors and interested growers the project has certainly been a success in at least getting people to think about alternative crops for marginal ground or odd-shaped tracts of land. As a result I know of two producers who have already committed to starting operations on their home farms.
I fully anticipated unexpected obstacles and challenges and was prepared for them financially, but was surprised that even with what I thought where generous estimates of the per/tree expenses I still missed them by 20 percent. Mostly due to replacement cost associated with the use of cheap products. Some additional expenses occurred from poor varietal selections of rootstock that I had to replace, but largely from having to upgrade tree shelters that not only were inferior but not usable at all. And lastly from tree loss to mice that exceeded the loss to deer which I took great pains to almost eliminate completely. In short the cost of the trees is only a very small part of the per/tree costs of the start-up process.
I was pleasantly surprised by the interest that was generated by the project and as a result found lots of valuable insight and resources from individuals who visited my farm. This said, I would encourage all producers looking at alternative enterprises to be as public and visible as they can and also to participate in any and every related group or association that might lead you to human and technical resources. In my case I attended numerous field days that I normally would not have gone to. I also joined a related grower’s association and subscribed to publications that I thought might be beneficial.
The last comment is — keep an open mind regarding your brilliant enterprise ideas — the real golden opportunities and cost savings are often accidentally discovered and you need to be ready and willing to adapt your set game plan. In my case, I have discovered several alternative marketing strategies that weren’t even on my radar when I started the project.
The largest economic impacts include:
-The development of a start-up budget for the enterprise that will be shared with all visitors to the farm.
-Secondly the development of two additional farms starting projects as a result of visiting my site.
-Showing that alley-cropping can provide a level of income to help off-set the income lag associated with nut tree production.
-Permanently protecting yet using highly erodible and marginal farm ground for non-traditional row crops.
-Utilizing drip irrigation to minimize water usage.
Only one large field day was planned but unfortunately it was rained out. I have extended an open invitation for all the entities listed in “People” section to use my project as a location for their education programming. As the project matures I am sure that many of them will take me up on it.
Numerous small groups have visited the project including: six ISU extension educators, two members of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, three Michigan Extension educators, six Local FFA/4-H members and five serious independent growers as well as numerous curious neighbors.
Two presentation have been made at workshops and conferences, one at ISU with Value-Added Agriculture to twelve people and most recently at the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Conference and Trade Show in Columbia, Missouri where about 20 individuals sat in on the presentation. We also attended the annual SARE conference in Kansas City, no formal presentation was made however numerous contacts and dialog and visits came as a result of that conference.
Additional information will be distributed on the www.AgMRC.org website which highlights value added agriculture enterprises and case studies.
The most valuable outcome for me personally was the contact I made with similar or like minded growers. Anything SARE can do to help facilitate these connections on a local or regional basis would be greatly appreciated.