Farmer to Farmer Agroforestry Guidebook for the Northeast

Progress report for FNE23-047

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2023: $30,000.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2025
Grant Recipient: Big River Chestnuts
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Jono Neiger
Regenerative Design Group/Big River Chestnuts
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to alleviate the bottleneck of limited primary source information for the adoption of resilient and profitable tree crops in the northeast. 


Objective 1: Provide ground-truthed, practical information from farmers to farmers surrounding resilient and profitable tree crops

  • Create a guidebook that is available online and is printed that includes vital information on a species by species basis (hybrid chestnuts, hybrid hazelnuts, yellowbud hickory, american persimmon, mulberry, honey locust, ultra northern pecan, and black walnut.
  • Guidebook also includes at least 5 in depth case studies of farms growing these tree crops 

Objective 2: Facilitate support systems for farmers to ensure success of their enterprises 

  • Create a network of additional resources online where people can explore further
  • Create a listserv where farmers can exchange new knowledge and observations

With the rise of climate change, resiliency and productivity in our regional food systems is imperative. Agroforestry provides a unique solution that provides deeper food security while also actively sequestering carbon. One of the reasons adoption of agroforestry in the northeast has been slow is because of the lack of information specific to the region. We have access to unique information based on the experiences of other farmers who can provide recommendations specifically for the northeast. Our solution is to make this information accessible through a guidebook and case studies to provide farmers with the information they need. 

There is no question that climate change will have a large impact on farming in the northeast, and many farmers are already concerned. According to the New England adaptation survey, around 90% of farmers were highly concerned or concerned about unpredictable spring temperatures, increased incidence of drought, and new pest and disease pressure (1). Other concerns were loss of nutrients due to abundant precipitation, heat stress, and increased erosion (1). Agroforestry and the adoption of resilient and productive tree crops can help farmers adapt to climate change while also mitigating its effects. The species that we wish to focus on in this project (chestnut, yellowbud hickory, persimmon, mulberry, honey locust, hazelnut and more) are resilient in the context of climate change because they exhibit the following traits: frost resistance, late blooming, drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, flood tolerance, and more. As perennial tree crops, they perform many functions to mitigate the effects of climate change such as improving water quality, preventing erosion, building soil, providing wind breaks, creating less extreme micro climates, feeding insect pollinators, all the while sequestering carbon. Additionally, the resilience of these nutrient dense foods increases the resilience of our food system. Agroforestry systems can also provide diversified incomes for farmers facing a myriad of perpetual challenges to remain economically viable. The adoption of agroforestry and tree crops on a large scale is one of the most sound and beneficial remediations of climate change.

One of the largest bottlenecks to the adoption of climate resilient and profitable tree crops is lack of accessible information. A survey conducted in Pennsylvania found that although 90% of landowners were interested in agroforestry, most respondents didn’t have enough information for implementation (2). According to the New England adaptation survey, most farmers feel their farms are vulnerable to unpredictable weather events, yet they don’t feel they have the knowledge to adapt (1). We believe that if we present appropriate and practical information surrounding resilient tree crops tailor made for farmers, adoption can be accelerated in the northeast. 

Another interesting result of the New England adaptation survey was that 88% of participants found that other farmers were the best sources of information for adaptation to new challenges. We have found the same to be true, and the majority of useful information we have found comes from the experienced farmers we have built relationships with. Unfortunately, many of these knowledge holders are older in age, and we have already had important elders that have left us without warning. This is why it is important that specifically Yellowbud Farm is supported in assembling this information because of our unique connections with those who aren’t easily accessible. This information in combination with published research and archived materials will create resources that are well rounded, useful, and ground truthed. 

Industries with resilient tree crops exist in other parts of the US, but one reason adoption in the northeast has been slow is because of the lack of information specific to the region. For example, Indiana has a persimmon pulp industry, and their orchards are not only low input, drought resistant, and pest resistant, but they also have high yields. Twin Tykes, an orchard in Orleans, Indian and one of our contacts, consistently produces 5,000 lbs per acre per year and has a profitable persimmon pulp business. Our contacts, Cliff England, Don Compton, and others, have consulted with us extensively about what genetics and cultivars are best suited for colder climates and shorter ripening seasons. Farmers in the northeast are not apprised of the existence, benefits, nor knowledge of many types of promising tree crops, and there are little to no accessible resources that give recommendations of what varieties, genetics, and practices appropriate for the northeast. Our solution is to create resources that provide information tailor made for farmers to give them the confidence and knowhow to begin adopting tree crops that will thrive in adverse conditions. 


Description of farm operation:

Big River Chestnuts is a chestnut agroforestry farm in Sunderland, Massachusetts and is the only organic certified chestnut orchard in the northeast. It demonstrates important practices such as alley cropping and holistic management. The farm itself is an important case study for agroforestry in the northeast and its practices will be featured in the final guidebook.

Jono Neiger is the founder of Big River Chestnuts, and will be providing input and resources surrounding chestnut production as well as holistic management practices. He has 30 years of professional experience in permaculture, site planning, agroforestry, conservation, and restoration. Jono teaches widely at colleges, workshops, and conferences. He has taught at The Conway School and was the founding Board President of the Permaculture Association of the Northeast. He holds a MALD from The Conway School and a BS in Forest Biology from S.U.N.Y. College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Jono also is the author of The Permaculture Promise and will provide valuable input in writing, editing, and resources aggregation. His extensive network will also provide vital contacts for the guidebook.

Elodie Eid will be the main author, interviewer, and resource aggregator for this project. She has 7 years of experience in tree crops and has worked in several agroforestry centered nurseries. She has also aided in the implementation of multiple agroforestry farms and orchards. Through her personal connections she has been able to experience established agroforestry sites first hand and has committed to building community within the tree crops world. She has already begun to create agroforestry educational materials through her time at Arthur’s Point Farm and Yellowbud Farm.


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Materials and methods:

For our first objective — providing farmer to farmer information surrounding resilient and productive tree crops — we will create a guidebook containing in-depth species profiles as well as case studies of farms working with these crops. We will also be periodically publishing information during the timeline of the project on the Farming with Trees Collective website, a decentralized network encouraging collaborative projects in Agroforestry. Currently there are literature reviews and interviews being conducted to create outlines for species profiles. Thus far, we have conducted a total of 10 interviews with 7 different individuals including Dr. Sandra Anagnostakis, Buzz Ferver, Greg Miller, and Michael Nave. Over 30 papers and articles have been reviewed, and facebook groups and blogs have been synthesized (in the tree crops world facebook groups and blogs have been instrumental and some of the most knowledgable people in the field regularly post and answer questions). The primary focus so far has been the chestnut species profile, and there is currently a 34 page outline that is in progress. Profile outlines for honey locust, persimmon, and hazel are also in progress. For yellowbud hickory, contact was made with Sam Thayer, the person who by far has the most experience with this crop to our knowledge. He is a well known foraging author with an agricultural background who is committed to promoting hickory oil as an industry. He expressed that he already has an outline for a book about hickory oil, and we discussed the option to have him create the species profile for this grant. We discussed that his specie profile could also contain a case study of his hickory oil operation. 

As the guidebook and web pages are in formation, not only will we be pulling from our personal bank of information accumulated from farmers and breeders, but we will be continuously reaching out to our contacts for further explanation and sharing of knowledge. Topics include but are not limited to: indigenous relationship and management, genetic and cultivar recommendations specifically for the northeast from breeders, in-depth cultivar descriptions, harvesting and processing equipment currently being used, existing markets, existing yield data, and how farmers have used certain species on their farm. Tree crops that will be focused on but are not limited to include: hybrid chestnuts, hybrid hazelnuts, yellowbud hickory, american persimmon, mulberry, honey locust, and others. Although published research and other resources will be showcased in the guidebook, the primary function will be to demonstrate what systems and farms are currently functioning with these resilient and productive tree crops. It will be a building of past resources while also being informed by the most recent lived experiences. We hope that the guidebook and website content will be the source for the most up-to-date information, and that it can also be a resource that can grow and evolve. 

An important component of the guidebook will be the farm case studies. There are many farms that we have already visited and have personal relationships that are suitable sites to showcase. Some of the farms we have in mind are: Perfect Circle Farm in VT, Big River Chestnuts in Massachusetts, Breadtree in NY, Z’s Nutty Ridge in NY, Twin Tykes in Indiana, Hobo Woods in Indiana, Bramble Berry Farm in Indiana, England’s Orchard and Nursery in Kentucky, Red Fern Farm in Iowa, Wintergreen Tree Farm in Ohio, and Empire Chestnuts in Ohio. Some of these sites included are outside of the northeast, and this is because of the lack of examples there are in this region. There are also farm scale processing facilities that would provide valuable insight. Some farms such as Empire Chestnuts have systems in place essential for post harvest care for chestnuts such as weevil hot water treatment and size grading. Another example is Twin Tykes has developed their own persimmon pulping system with unique machinery. There are other processing facilities we are connected with such as Black Squirrel Farm and the New York Tree Crops Alliance that would provide powerful insight to farmers on what qualities of their crops (nut size, thinness of shell, size of fruit, shelf life, etc.) are compatible with processing equipment in order to bring them to market. 

In order to do these farm case studies, we will revisit at least 5 sites with pre-formulated questions and topics that will be covered throughout the visit. These questions and topics will be guided by the farmer committee. Some topics will include observations of trees, tree care, pests and diseases, recommended genetics, yields, profit margins, fencing, irrigation, establishment, successes, and failures. We are already familiar with these sites, and having site visits with more intention and structure will provide a depth of knowledge that will create a much larger impact. Interviews and tours will be recorded, and helpful videos will be included in online resources. Once the guidebook is complete, it will be published on the Farming with Trees website as a PDF available for download and there will also be webpages created periodically during the project that can be updated later on. 

In addition to the website content, guidebook, and 5 case studies, we will have an organized list of additional resources that will allow farmers and technical service providers to dive deeper into specific topics. This list of resources will include published research, archived materials, other manuals and handbooks, and other online resources. It will be posted as a link on the Farming with Trees website as a working google doc, and can be shared as a link on the websites of other businesses, agencies, and institutions. This will be done in concert with the guidebook and webpages, and it will be updated as we come across new and exciting resources. Our hope is that we can receive additional funding in the future to also periodically update and revise website content over time. 

This is an expanding body of knowledge which stresses the importance for farmers to have networks with other farmers and technical service providers. Creating a listserv provides a platform where new knowledge, observations, and experiences can be shared. Listservs are a powerful tool where one is directly connected with a community of people who share similar questions while also connecting them with those who might have the answers. Those participating in the creation of this project will be members of that listserv and will participate in knowledge sharing and helpful discussion. By creating a point for connection, farmers will have a network and community to bring support to their tree crop goals. 


Research results and discussion:

The biggest change to the project has been deciding to work with the Farming with Trees Collective to be the main host of the content created from this project. Instead of making the information only available all at once through a fixed pdf document, content will be released over time which will create more opportunities for promotion and outreach, creating higher rates of interaction with farmers. Also, this avenue of posting content directly on a website will make it easier to update, which we hope to be able to do in the future. 

The discussion with Sam Thayer for him to write the species profile for yellowbud hickory was very promising as well as a deviation from the original project plans. Although he was not originally considered to be a content creator and was only planing to be interviewed, there is not a more qualified person than him to create a species profile for yellowbud hickory. Although all of the experts that have been interviewed have been very generous and willing to help, many are busy being farmers or are enjoying retirement. To have someone like Sam Thayer who has the knowledge and capacity to be a direct contributor is a very exciting prospect for this project. 

Participation Summary
8 Farmers participating in research
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.