Solving the Agroforestry Cash Flow Gap: Intercropping Short Term Cash Crops During Tree Crop Establishment.

Progress report for FNE22-024

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $9,492.00
Projected End Date: 01/20/2024
Grant Recipient: whistle down farm
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
nicholas pandjiris
whistle down farm
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to:

  1. Identify annual and perennial crops that can effectively be intercropped between trees and provide the best combination of high economic return and low amount of time planting, tending, harvesting.  We will be keeping track of all inputs and time spent on each crop, in addition to what the total harvested yield in pounds and dollar value of each crop is.  We will produce a public facing document to be housed on the Whistle Down Farm and SARE websites to document this information.  We hope other farms will be able to use this information to identify what crops would work best in intercropping systems on their farms.
  2. Provide a working example of intercropping in action so that other farms that want to adopt this practice can learn from our work.  We hope seeing a successful agroforestry installation will inspire other farmers to adopt these practices and in turn improve their businesses and the ecosystems that their farms are a part of.  We will engage with the public through our social media following, an on-farm field day, and a short video detailing the project.
Introduction:

There are numerous benefits to incorporating tree crops into agricultural systems (agroforestry) through intercropping.  Intercropping is the practice of planting other crops in between rows of trees in the same row.  This is different from alley cropping, where crops are grown in the "alleys" between rows of trees.  Some of these benefits include sequestering carbon, reducing erosion, lessening wind speeds to reduce evapotranspiration, and increasing the water holding capacity of the soil.  Others are diversifying farm income streams, increasing the climate resiliency of farms, increasing biodiversity of farm ecosystems, and boosting the overall productivity of a given area.  (Gold, 2009, Schoeneberger, 2017) We chose to focus on intercropping in this study because rows of trees can be planted closer together in more of an orchard type installation, whereas alley cropping requires more space between each row of trees.  We also wanted to take advantage of and utilize the space in row between each tree because it is already being irrigated and kept weed free.

Despite all of these benefits, the agroforestry practices of intercropping and alley cropping are not very widely adapted in the northeastern US.  In fact, there are very few examples I have been able to find on actual working farms.  Aside from secure land tenure, the biggest hurdles to establishing agroforestry systems are the length of time before a crop can be harvested, the cost of establishment, and lack of demonstration sites and technical assistance for these practices.  

This proposed project would address some of these challenges by identifying crops that would provide an economic yield immediately the first season while utilizing the same space designated for the tree crops.  Some of the perennial crops we want to trial would also continue to provide a yearly return growing alongside the trees as the trees begin to bear fruit.  This technique would boost the overall productivity of the installation, while simultaneously providing earlier yields/income as the trees are establishing.  My hope would be that, by removing some of the barriers to establishing tree crops, more farms would be encouraged to plant trees and diversify their farming operation.

Cooperators

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  • Erik Schellenberg - Technical Advisor (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

We plan to plant approximately 157 fruit and nut trees in the spring of 2022.  These trees will be ordered and paid for by Whistle Down Farm in fall 2021.  We will prep the planting site by subsoiling, chisel plowing, and rototilling planting strips every 20 feet on center in the planting area as soon as the soil can be worked in March.  We will then plant the bare root trees at their required spacing (please see "planting plan overview" pdf uploaded in "Other Relevant Research Information" section). We will install landscape fabric mulch on either side of each row of trees, and drip irrigation in row.  In the irrigated section of soil in between the 2 strips of landscape fabric, and between each tree, we will plant trials of 10 different annual and perennial crops at their required spacings and planting timing (please see "detail of an intercropped row" pdf upload).  The trial crops will be rhubarb, basil, cucumber, watermelon, winter squash, pepper, succession of lettuce/cabbage, strawberry, elderberry, black currant.  Plant material will be either purchased (rhubarb, strawberry, and black currant), propagated from seed in the Whistle Down Farm greenhouse (basil, cucumber, watermelon, winter squash, pepper, lettuce, cabbage), or will be propagated from cuttings gathered at Whistle Down Farm (elderberry).  Crop trial list is subject to change pending further research and consultation with technical advisor upon grant approval.

We will tend the trees and interplanted crops by weeding, irrigating, fertilizing, and mowing alleys between trees as needed.  These are all crops that we either currently grow, or have grown in the past at Whistle Down Farm, so we have experience with their needs.  We will harvest the interplanted crops as they are ready.  We will keep track of labor and other inputs in time and dollar amount in excel spreadsheets, and also document the yield in pounds and dollar value of each crop as it is harvested (please see "SARE grant crop data overview template" pdf and "SARE grant specific crop data template" pdf uploaded in the Other Relevant Research Information Section).  We will make note of and document the differences in management and maintenance needs of the intercropped trial crops grown in between trees and the same crops grown in open fields at Whistle Down Farm.  We will also document any differences in yield and labor requirements between the intercropped trial crops and the same crops grown in open fields.

We will also document all processes (site prep, planting, different stages of crop growth, harvest, etc) in photo and video to be shared on Whistle Down Farm's social media at least monthly, and more frequently during high periods of activity on the project.  

We will host a field day for other farmers and interested parties in the fall of 2022 to visit the site and see a working example of an intercropping system.  The event will be promoted through social media, farmer email lists, and Cornell cooperative extension.

At the conclusion of the project we will produce a short video documenting everything we did and some of our observations.  We think that short video format is a great way to communicate ideas in this moment because people's attention spans are very short and people are more likely to watch video than read articles and spreadsheets.  Nevertheless, we will also write a final report which will include the spreadsheet data and prose analysis of our study.  

 

Research results and discussion:

2022 progress: We completed most of the work described in the project.  In the upcoming year we need to assemble the data and put together video, as well as collect second year data on the perennial crops.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We hosted a field day on August 29, 2022 showcasing the trials we had done to date.  There were 31 people in attendance.

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

So far I have gained a better understanding of what crops do better and are more viable in this system, as well as some of the challenges and benefits of growing in this system.  

When I write the final report I will have data and personal insight to share.

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.