Adapting Brazilian Syntropic Farming Practices to Integrated High-Conservation-Value Nut Tree Species in Pennsylvania

Progress report for FNE23-064

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2023: $26,918.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2026
Grant Recipient: Homefields Inc.
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Andrew Phillips
Homefields Inc.
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

                This project seeks to:

  • Evaluate the Syntropic framework for establishing fully-integrated forests from open agricultural land
  • Conserve soil and reduce runoff by establishing trees on hayfield space
  • Establish and propagate native nut and timber species of high conservation value which require zero tilling, little irrigation, and minimal pest management while sequestering carbon
  • Quantify the effects of growing conditions on disease susceptibility and vigor among identified species
  • Provide an additional area for involvement on the farm from student groups and individuals in the community who are interested in conservation efforts

Problem 1: Excessive stormwater runoff and soil erosion.
Lancaster County is currently considered a priority county for water quality improvement by the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Our farm currently experiences significant flooding during heavy rainfall events as well as erosion of topsoil. By establishing perennial trees and shrubs in this area on contour with the slope of the land, we hope to increase infiltration, interrupt sheet flow of runoff, and conserve soils while simultaneously sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and providing habitat for beneficial insects and birds.
Problem 2: Insufficient diversity of revenue streams to provide organization-wide financial stability
While the CSA model allows for secure income at the farm scale, the CSA revenue has not been sufficient to cover the costs of Homefields programs in full, requiring additional fundraising such as large events and corporate sponsorship to meet budget goals. This project will allow us to engage with native plant nurseries in mutually-beneficial exchanges whereby we produce seed and scion of difficult-to-find native species and in exchange Homefields can receive a percentage of retail sales. The crops produced by this plot will also provide revenue for decades to come, as there will be opportunities to sell nut and berry crops to community members as well as restaurants and local chocolatiers. Finally, if the Syntropic reforestation model is successful in establishing integrated crop systems, it can be scaled in coming years to cover the remaining areas of the unused hayfield space to massively increase production of these crops as well as drastically benefit the soil and water dynamics of the farm watershed. This will be accomplished with few off-farm inputs, as we will be able to produce our own saplings for successive plantings.
Problem 3: Limited relationship with local educational institutions
Homefields is currently deepening relationships with Millersville University as well as other local institutions of higher education. There has been significant interest in our program from these institutions, and we seek to build sustained connections that can be mutually beneficial. This project addresses this need by providing an experimental classroom where students can be involved in both maintenance and data collection. These experimental plots will also direct students’ attention to the plight of many native species which are diminishing in the wild due to introduced pests and diseases, as well as the conservation efforts underway to preserve and restore these species. Additionally, the demonstration of novel Syntropic farming techniques would greatly benefit multiple areas of academic study including Biology, Ecology, Hydrology, and Botany.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Richard Brison - Producer
  • Dr. Christopher Stieha - Technical Advisor
  • Donna Volles - Producer


Materials and methods:

Proposed methods

To evaluate the Syntropic framework for establishing fully-integrated forests from open agricultural land, this project will involve planting all the layers of a complete forest ecosystem together. This differs from the traditional practice of reforestation which involved planting canopy species together and excluding the understory and ground-level plant niches. This project will instead establish multiple layers in the same location using close plantings in a single row, allowing for ease of mowing to control neighboring growth. To this end, the additional native perennial crop species of pecan, paw paw, and haskaps will be included for added diversity and maximum use of space. All of these species will tolerate the juglone soil compounds produced by butternuts and pecans and will likely integrate well together. This model was derived from the work done by Ernst Götsch in Brazil (see citation list). For this project will adapt this model to fit a temperate climate and encompass native species with high conservation value. This method may also reduce some of the disease transmission in the species as susceptible individuals will not directly border one another. The use of biodegradable plastic mulch will prevent direct root competition from neighboring weeds and will break down once the saplings are well established. This model, if successful, may prove valuable for reforesting similar agricultural land for the sake of tree crop production. The effectiveness of this strategy will be reflected by the metrics of vigor, disease susceptibility, mortality, and age at first nut production which will be compared across each plot. As a control, approximately 50 feet on the end of each bed will consist of conventional tree planting at standard spacing, which can then be compared with the vitality and vigor year-by-year of the Syntropic-style plots.

To conserve soil and reduce runoff, we will measure the percentage of the research are covered by canopy cover each year over the duration of the project. The effects of canopy cover on stormwater management are well-established and canopy cover will be determined by measuring the radius of each sapling divided by the total dimensions of the research field space. Again, canopy cover will be compared between the Syntropic plots and conventional plots. Planted strips will be oriented on contour using an A-frame in order to interrupt lateral water flow and allow for maximum water infiltration in the test plot. Soil composition will be measured before this research plot is established and then again at the conclusion of the research timeline to quantify changes to soil composition through the establishment of tree cover.

                To establish and propagate native nut and timber species of high conservation value, this project will provide seeds and scion from these species to local native plant nurseries. These native plant nurseries will then be able to grow these important species out to be used in conservation programs as well as sold to the general public to help increase the cultivated populations of these species. This will in turn increase public awareness of their importance and value in conservation and food production. Collection of seed material will be facilitated by regular mowing of aisles along the planted strips to minimize weed cover prior to seed dropping. Seeds will then be collected and immediately stored in our existing cooler space for distribution to partnering nurseries. Our partnering nurseries will provide data on number of individual saplings produced as well as observed vitality and vigor of these saplings. This data will allow us to quantify the effects of our parent trees on restoring the populations of these species in both cultivated and wilderness spaces. The conservation species which are the focus of this project were selected on the basis of substantial threats to wild population and potential as a food or timber crop. The conservation species and supporting species were selected on the basis of mutual compatibility with regard to allelopathy, soil conditions, and light requirement. Non-conservation species were selected by the additional criteria of adaptability to shade conditions as the canopy fills in, niche fulfillment, representation of diverse plant clades, and native status. The target conservation species selected include butternut (Juglans cinerea), American elm (Ulmus Americana), Allegheny Chinkapin (Castanea pumila var. Ashei), and American Hazelnut (Corylus americana). Supporting species include bladdernut (Staphylea colchica), honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea), paw paw (Asimina triloba), and improved pecan (Carya illinoinensis).

Quantifying the effects of growing condition on disease susceptibility and vigor among identified species will involve planting four separate integrated rows at 20 foot spacing starting at the riparian zone and moving up a North-facing slope. This will test each of these species in different water, soil, and temperature conditions. The saplings will be measured for growth rate, percent affected by disease, mortality rate, and years to produce a crop for applicable species. This data will be compared with the conventionally-planted control areas to quantify the effects of the Syntropic planting method.

These test plots will serve as an ideal living classroom to provide an additional area for involvement on the farm from student groups and individuals in the community who are interested in conservation efforts. The selected location for these test plots is not currently utilized for any program purposes. Through the protocol outlined in this proposal, this project will integrate into our existing Talks in the Fields offerings. Through farmer-led classes available to community members, those community members will be able to learn about the importance of these native crops as well as their threats and opportunities. Student groups and volunteers who already participate in farm operations will similarly have opportunities to help establish and maintain these experimental plots and will be involved in data collection and outreach as these plots become established. The number of individuals and the hours of volunteer as well as paid labor will be recorded to assess impacts of these plots on the awareness of the surrounding community. The addition of this proposed research space could also provide opportunities for partnership with the neighboring Millersville University.


Due to some project delays from the time it took to get our SAM number, we were not able to begin site preparation and planting until November 2023. We are still on tract to finish all planting of bare-root and direct seed plants by April 2024, with the final transplants of seed-grown plants occurring in Fall 2024.

Over the 2023 season, we were still able to try some of the methods we intended to use for our SARE project and have been able to slightly alter our plans. Additionally, we received some of our trees free of charge from the Keystone 10 Million Trees project, allowing us to include a few new species of high conservation value. The additional species we will include are

  • Arundinaria gigantea and Arundinaria lecta, two native North American bamboo species which have potential in riparian restoration
  • Prunus pumila susquehanae, a native cherry species that was once common in the Susquehanna watershed
  • Ilex vomitoria, a drought tolerant holly species native to the Southeast US which produces caffeine and has the potential to serve as a local caffeine source
  • Amelenchier spp. Instead of the haskaps (Lonicera) will be used because of their better performance in hot, dry conditions which are becoming more frequent in this region
  • Osmanthus Americanus, an uncommon native olive relative with high wildlife value, potential to be used for landscaping and habitat restoration

Additionally, we decided to use woven ground cover fabric instead of the planned biodegradable plastic cover, as the biodegradable material did not stay intact long enough to fully solarize the underlying grasses. The other advantage is that the woven ground cover is reusable, and will hopefully prove a more viable option if this planting design is repeated in other restoration efforts.

Due to space constraints, the orientation of the project plot area was shifted to East-West orientation which will still interrupt surface runoff. Soil testing will take place in the Spring of 2024 to establish the baseline. and will be measured again at the conclusion of the study

As of December 2023, the test plot has been established and planted with American Hazelnut, Sand Cherry, Paw Paw, and Yaupon Holly. Seeds for remaining species have been purchased and are cold stratifying for planting in air pruning pots in the Spring of 2024 for transplant into the test plot in Fall 2024. 

Participation Summary
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.