Enhancing berry farm profitability through perennial alley crops

Progress report for FNC19-1200

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2019: $8,940.00
Projected End Date: 10/28/2021
Grant Recipient: Midwest Agriculture & Restoration Services LLC
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Kevin Wolz, PhD
Midwest Agroforestry Solutions
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Saturn Farms is an innovative agroforestry farm in Central Illinois. We lease the 21-acre farm via a long-term, 30-year lease developed in collaboration with Farm Commons and the Savanna Institute. Eleven acres of the farm are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program as pollinator habitat and windbreak. The remaining ten acres are dedicated to commercial currant production.

The currant acreage contains over 18,000 currant plants, approximately half black currants and half red currants. Integrated within the currant rows in a multi-strata agroforestry design are also regularly spaced European hazelnuts and Chinese chestnuts. The nut trees, however, are just a few years old and will not be bearing for quite some years. All currant rows are equipped with a drip irrigation system supplied by an on-farm well.

I am currently only a part-time farmer, as the young perennial crops do not yet provide enough income to farm full-time. We live part-time in Wisconsin as a result. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, devoid of an agricultural appreciation. It wasn’t until my undergraduate education when I realized that the problem of agriculture was central to so many modern issues, especially climate change. Since then, researching and enacting transformative solutions to the problem of agriculture has been my passion and focus.

I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 2017 with a PhD in Ecology. My dissertation focused on innovative agroforestry practices, and, during my time at UIUC, I was instrumental in getting the University’s first two agroforestry research sites established. With this background, even on my farms, I only develop projects with robust replication schemes and a solid plan for statistical interpretation. Every tree on my farm is part of an experiment of some sort, whether via a multi-farm collaboration or just some new idea I want to test on my own.

Summary:

Most shrub fruits (e.g. brambles, elderberry, blueberry, currants) are grown in rows spaced tightly (8-15 feet) to maximize yield while permitting access by mechanical harvesters. While these “alleys” receive plenty of light, their narrow width prevents efficient cultivation of most crops. Consequently, most farmers resort to a simple grass-clover groundcover, which provides neither revenue nor substantial ecological benefits to the farm.

At Saturn Farms, we also started with grass-clover alleys but have since realized the inefficiency in this approach. We want to explore several perennial alley alternatives that could improve farm profitability and sustainability while maintaining the management/harvest efficiency of the berries: asparagus, rhubarb, and native prairie (for seed). These are ideal alley crop candidates because their harvest seasons are complementary to most shrub fruits, and they can easily rebound after being driven over by a tractor/harvester.

We plan to (1) establish pilot plots of the three alternatives within currant alleys on our farm, (2) assess the impact of alley crops on currant growth, yield, disease incidence, and weed pressure, (3) evaluate alley crops for compatibility with the currant machine harvester (see attached Design Diagram), and (4) share findings through field days, video, results bulletin, online seminars, and social media.

Project Objectives:

1) Establish pilot plots of three perennial crops alternatives for potential use in machine-harvested berry crop alleys on our farm.

2) Assess the impact of alley crops on berry crop growth, yield, disease incidence, and weed pressure.

3) Evaluate the perennial crops for compatibility with the currant machine harvester (see attached Design Diagram).

4) Share findings through field days, video, a results bulletin, online seminar series, websites, and social media.

Research

Materials and methods:

The three alley crop treatments (asparagus, rhubarb, prairie) and a control grass-clover treatment will be established in plots 36-feet wide (three currant alleys) by 45-feet long. Each treatment will be replicated 3 times. Spanning three currant alleys will allow each plot to envelope two currant rows within the treatment. Asparagus alleys will contain three rows, spaced at 3-feet between rows. Rhubarb alleys will contain two rows, spaced at 4-feet between rows. These configurations are based on each crop’s standard spacing, as well as compatibility with the currant machine harvester (see attached diagram). The native prairie and control treatments will span the entire alleys.

The alley crop choices of asparagus, rhubarb, and native prairie seed were selected for several reasons. First, since most shrub fruit growers focus primarily on perennial crops, we also wanted the alley crops to be perennial. These three crops are ideal candidates because their harvest seasons are complementary to most shrub fruits, and they can easily rebound after being driven over by a tractor/harvester. Furthermore, each commands a high value in pre-existing, easy-to-access markets, so any additional marketing burden would be minimal.

Our research and demonstration methods were selected to address the three main hurdles we see preventing alley crop adoption by shrub fruit growers. Careful data collection on the alley crop impact on shrub fruit growth, fruit set, weed pressure, and disease is critical to overcoming farmer doubt about the additional system complexity. Documenting and demonstrating the compatibility with the machine harvester via field days and a shareable video will maximize the opportunity for farmers near and far to visualize and understand this complex system. Finally, documenting the additional costs and labor associated with the alley crops will allow the creation of enterprise budgets, which are critical for farmer decision-making.

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

All education and outreach activities for the project are scheduled for the second year. 

Learning Outcomes

Lessons Learned:

Only the first of our four project outcomes was targeted in this first year of the project: Establish pilot plots of three perennial crops alternatives for potential use in machine-harvested berry crop alleys on our farm. In the early spring, we purchased the rhubarb crowns, asparagus crowns, and prairie seed to be used. However, Central Illinois was plagued with the wettest spring on record, so planting of crowns and seed was delayed substantially until late May.

Despite these non-ideal conditions, the asparagus and rhubarb treatments were successfully established. The prairie treatment was seeded, but we experienced very low germination and high weed pressure.

A “control” alley on our farm between currant rows, with the traditional low-mow grass-clover groundcover mix. No money to be made or flowers to pollinate here!
An alley with two rows of rhubarb established between rows of currants. Young trees are also present within the grey tubes. There is 4 feet between the two rhubarb rows and another 4 feet between each row and the adjacent currant row.
An alley with three rows of asparagus established between rows of currants. There is 3 feet between the two rhubarb rows and another 4 feet between each outside row and the adjacent currant row.

 

Regular weeding of all treatments occurred throughout the year to aid establishment. Weeding methods utilized were both hand-weeding and herbicide with a wipe-on applicator.

One of the rhubarb alleys is shown after a round of weeding.

 

The prairie plots were abandoned half way through the year due to the intense weed pressure and low germination rate. Perhaps, if we had started the project in January or February, we could have frost seeded the prairie and had better germination in the first year. Nevertheless, the record rains would have certainly made any approach difficult!

Although all systematic data collection and photo/video documentation in this project are scheduled for the second year, we still harvested currants in 2019 so were able to do an initial check on the success of the rhubarb and asparagus treatments.

 

Unripe black currants about one month before harvest on our farm.
The tractor-pulled Weremczuk Joanna 3 harvester performing a currant on our farm.

 

Both the asparagus and rhubarb treatments seemed to function as intended in terms of having geometric design compatible with the wheels of the tractor and harvester.

 

You can see how the tractor straddles the asparagus row as it pulls the harvester to harvest the currants.
The harvester also straddles the asparagus row.

 

Our initial impression was that the rhubarb row seemed more resilient to damage from the low ground clearance of the mechanical harvester. Taller asparagus stems seemed to snap at the base rather than bend as the harvester passed over them. However, it is difficult to say how this will play out in future years as the alley crops reach their mature sizes.

Project Outcomes

Success stories:

All project outcomes are set to be delivered in the second year of the project. The first year was only utilized to establish the experimental plots.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.