Ecological and Economic Impacts of Transition to an Apple/Hay Agroforestry System

Progress report for FW21-374

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $24,818.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Host Institution Award ID: G320-21-W8613
Grant Recipient: Raising Cane Ranch
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Nichlos Pate
Raising Cane Ranch
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Project Information

Summary:

Very little information around the costs and benefits of agroforestry for production farmers in Western Washington exists. Studies from other areas of the country (Mungai, et al 2006; Garrett and McGraw, 2000) and anecdotal evidence suggest that applying alley cropping to hay production could improve soil ecology, reduce erosion, and reduce drought and flood risks (Schoeneberger, et al 2012). These benefits may also coincide with improved yields or nutritional value for primary crops (Wolz, 2017). However, without regionally specific information that addresses the challenges and benefits of adoption, agricultural professionals are unable to confidently recommend alley cropping as a best management practice (BMP), and producers are unlikely to adopt it. This project looks to address the research question of “What are the ecological and economic impacts of an apple/hay agroforestry system in Western Washington?”

 

This project will examine the costs of transitioning conventional hay production to a cider/hay alley cropping system, look at changes in hay yield and nutritional value, and examine the soil health/ecology changes to fields in alley cropping. The goal of answering this research question is to provide farmers interested in transitioning to agroforestry or incorporating tree crops into hay, as well as agricultural professionals, with essential cost-benefit information for decision making. By disseminating results through field days and web media, Snohomish Conservation District (SCD) and Washington State University (WSU) aim to provide local producers with a key BMP to address the threats of climate change, increase productivity, and improve the health of the agroecosystem.

Project Objectives:

Research Objectives

Objective 1:   Measure the costs of establishing and managing a cider apple/hay alley cropping system 

Objective 2: Quantify the effects of alley cropping on hay yields and quality

Objective 3: Determine soil health impacts of conversion to apple/hay alley cropping 

Objective 4: Collaboratively share knowledge and results among current and potential producer practitioners, agricultural professionals, and scientists

Educational Objectives

  1. Share evidenced-based research on the agroecological and economic effects of alley cropping with farmers, agricultural professionals, and the general public.
  2. Develop alley cropping farm planning and management tools for transitions to agroforestry systems

  3. Foster collaborative discussion around agricultural resilience BMPs

Timeline:

Please see attached Gantt Chart for details.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Mark Batcheler (Researcher)
  • Carrie Brausieck - Technical Advisor (Educator and Researcher)
  • Nichlos Pate - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Kari Quaas (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

Objective 1:   Measure the costs of establishing and managing a cider apple/hay alley cropping system 

Mr. Pate, with support from the research team, will document procedures used to convert hay pastures into an alley cropping agroforestry system. This data will be used as a metric for management decisions and will be used to disseminate information as a learning tool to other producers. Mr. Pate will carry out additional economic calculations to generalize the financial and labor costs associated with this alley cropping system, including start-up and maintenance costs. These costs will be compared with estimated gains produced by apple and hay production to model the financial viability of apple/hay alley cropping. Information collected will serve as economic and ecological baseline in which future data will be comparatively analyzed.

Mr. Pate installed an apple/hay alley crop pasture in 2017 adjacent to the proposed new alley crop pasture. This previous establishment will allow the research team to collect economic, soil, and management data on two age classes of alley cropping, broadening the scope and depth of this research project.

  1. Document historic management and previous management techniques. This record will provide historical hay yields and economic costs associated with hay production. Mr. Pate will record this information in an excel sheet and which will be used as a comparative economic analysis tool for the establishment and maintenance of an alley cropping system.
  2. Record and document costs associated with the transition from a hay pasture to alley cropping fields. Costs will be categorized by 1) supplies and equipment; 2) changes in labor. This information will be recorded on an excel budget sheet that will be accessible by Mr. Pate and the rest of the research team.
  3. Alley cropping implementation will follow a design that will contain the following information:
  • Costs of apple trees, root stock and varieties, age of trees.
  • Installation of trees: Labor, method of tree installation, timing, and comprehensive materials list and costs.
  • Site preparation: mechanical, biological, and chemical methods used to modify alley crop pastures. 
  • Layout design: trees per acre, spacing between rows, spacing between trees. 
  • Site analysis- soil analysis (see objective 3), Soil type from Web Soil Survey (NRCS), Precipitation and temperature normal from the interpolated PRISM data (http://www.prism.oregonstate.edu), plant species composition

Analysis of data: Information collected from the data associated with this objective will be used as a managerial tool that will provide detailed information on conversion costs. Costs associated with labor and supplies will be comparatively analyzed to previous production costs.

Objective 2: Quantify the effects of alley cropping on hay yields and quality

Using the haymaking methods as laid out by Fransen and Hackett in the WSU extension bulletin ‘Haymaking on the Westside,’ Mr. Pate will document his management decisions including preparation, timing, and equipment used in hay harvest. Mr. Pate will gather yearly yield data from harvests in both alley cropping fields and the control hay pasture. This will inform Mr. Pate of the influence of the alley cropping system on hay production and will help influence management decisions including apple tree pruning techniques, mowing frequency, timing of harvest. Yield data will also highlight economic impacts of the alley cropping system and will influence further management goals and objectives.

In addition to management and yield data, Mrs. Brausieck and Mr. Batcheler will conduct a bi-annual field analysis at the beginning of the growing season and then again prior to hay harvest.  In the two alley cropping fields and control hay pasture, using a  1m2 quadrate and a farm map to specifying plot location ,we will quantify: 1) species composition 2) changes in OM ; 3) protein analysis of hay.

Results of this data will help influence management decisions for haymaking as well as determine the influence of apple trees on species composition of hay

Objective 3: Determine soil health impacts of conversion to apple/hay alley cropping 

Mr. Batcheler will conduct a comparative soil analysis between hay fields (control) and intercropped components of the alley cropping fields (experimental). Quantifying soil analyses will influence economic and ecological success for both apple and hay production. Temperate alley cropping systems may contribute to soil organic matter (SOM) content through addition of tree leaf litter, fine roots, and crop residues. As well, changes in microbial respiration and nutrient cycling can be influenced by the micro-climates created by tree canopies. We will conduct three comparative analysis of the soil: 1) near the tree row; 2) in the middle of each alley cropped row; 3) within the control hay pasture.

Mr. Batcheler and Ms. Brausieck will conduct a site analysis through the use of the Soil type from Web Soil Survey (NRCS).

At the beginning of each growing season (March-April), the research team will take four soil samples at each of the three sites. Soil samples will be taken at 10 inches of depth and approximately 10 meters from the edge of each site in order to reduce edge effects.  Soil samples will be taken at three different distances (3ft, 6ft and 9ft) from randomly selected trees in each orchard.

Soil samples will be sent to Soiltest Farm Consultants Inc.  This analysis will include: CEC, OM, pH, available nutrients and total carbon

Data analysis:  The results of soil analysis will inform the producer of changes in soil health as a result of agroforestry management implementation.  Based on the results, Mr. Pate may be able to modify his fertilizer rates thus effecting economic returns and management decisions.

Objective 4: Collaboratively share knowledge and results among current and potential producer practitioners, agricultural professionals, and scientists

Closing current knowledge gaps in the farm community and in extension and academic literature is perhaps the most important objective of our project.  We hope to foster knowledge sharing and mentoring and to provide guidance for both producers and extension professionals who want to enhance the economic and ecological feasibility and sustainability of alley cropping practices. Our outreach features a combination of interactive field events, web communications, and extension publications. See Educational Plan for more detail.

Research results and discussion:

Objective 1:   Measure the costs of establishing and managing a cider apple/hay alley cropping system 

Nick will be working on compiling this data

 

Objective 2: Quantify the effects of alley cropping on hay yields and quality

Hay Yields: Nick will be working on compiling this data

Hay Quality: To determine the impact of the alley cropping establishment and management on hay quality we initially planned to measure crude protein from randomly selected samples in the control and experimental plots. However it was determined that the hay in the orchards would be mowed multiple times in a growing season in order to ensure trees in the alley's could be managed.  Multiple mowings in addition to fertilizers added to the trees could result in changes in nutrient content.  Thus we opted for a broad wet chemical feed analysis to compare the following values: crude protein, acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF), relative feed value (RFV), digestible protein and macro and micro nutrient percentages (sulfur, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese, copper, iron, sodium and boron)   We will utilize an analysis of variance to determine the variability of hay nutrient composition within the two experimental plots and between experimental and control plots once we have completed collecting samples from our second year.

Hay species composition: On September 7th, 2021 we collected the hay species composition in fields. Composition was uniform across the three fields: old alley cropping field, new alley cropping field, and control hay only field, with a few additional species found in the old alley cropping field. Species common across all fields are:

  • tall fescue - Festuca arundinacea
  • dandelion - Taraxacum officinale
  • red clover -  Trifolium pratense
  • velvet grass - Holcus lanatus
  • orchard grass - Dactylis glomerata
  • Bent grass - Agrostis stolonifera

Additional species found in the old alley cropping field were as follows:

  • common plantain - Plantago major
  • buttercup - Ranunculus repens
  • cat's ear - Hypochaeris radicata
  • perennial ryegrass - Lolium perenne

Objective 3: Determine soil health impacts of conversion to apple/hay alley cropping 

Using the NRCS soil web survey it was determined that the primary soil series is Puyallup fine sandy loam; a very deep, well-drained soil formed on stream terraces. Soil samples were collected at three different distances between tree rows to determine changes in soil nutrient content, pH, organic matter and cation exchange capacity. We will utilize an analysis of variance to determine the variability of soils within the two experimental plots and between experimental and control plots once we have completed collecting samples from our second year.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

2 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

1 Tours

Participation Summary:

24 Farmers participated
9 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Outreach in Progress:

2 Fact sheets are in development:

1 focusing on summarizing the overall research project and its findings

1 focusing on the knowledge gained from the research project with an overview of the cost/benefits of the alley cropping system and will direct interested parties to additional resources to guide implementation.

There will be a farm tour conducted at Raising Cane Ranch in September 2022

Outreach Completed:

On September 27th, 2021 from 3 to 6pm we had a wonderful farm tour at Raising Cane Ranch to introduce agroforestry and to discuss the following topics with attendees:

What is agroforestry and what are its potentials as a land use (presented by Carrie Brausieck, Agroforester SCD)

Experience of transitioning to an agroforestry system of alley cropping cider apples and hay (Presented by Nick Pate, Farmer Raising Cane Ranch)

The research we are conducting and data collection (Presented by Mark Batcheler, WSU PhD student) 

We all toured the farm and walked through the alley cropping systems. There were a lot of great questions and after our farm walk Farmer Nick served some of his wonderful hard cider to attendees for tasting!

Nick Speaking to Group
Farmer Nick speaks to the group about agroforestry on his farm

Agroforestry Farm Tour - Compressed - Sept 27 2021

10 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)

Education and Outreach Outcomes

22 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project

Success Stories

    Success stories:

    More to come as we offer another tour demonstrating the alley cropping system one year on and as we begin to put together our findings and fact sheets that farmers will be able to utilize. 

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.