Progress report for LNE21-423
Project activities will result in 100 new forest farmers across the Northeast region planting commercially valuable native understory species across 50 acres of forestland, resulting in a profit potential of $500,000 dollars added to privately owned forestland in the region.
Problem and Justification:
The cultivation of commercially-valuable herbs under a forest canopy—an agroforestry practice called forest farming—represents a strategy for increasing economic and ecological diversity on farms across the Northeast. It presents an opportunity to diversify on-farm income streams with low additional labor and costs by converting idle forestland into an economic asset without compromising forest health or timbering potential. The result is greater product diversity, increased farm resilience, and long-term ecological and economic viability (Chittum et al., 2019).
A major barrier to establishing a forest farming enterprise is access to technical information and assistance on topics such as farming techniques, market strategy, regulations, and forest resource inventory and management (Jacobson and Kar, 2013). While coordinated technical assistance is being organized in other regions—exemplified by the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition (ABFFC), a group founded by Virginia Tech University in 2015 dedicated to the development of forest farming enterprises—this assistance remains sparse and uncoordinated throughout the Northeast U.S.
Meanwhile, prices for forest crops are rising, research and extension around forest farming is improving in quality and quantity, and national support for the agroforestry is growing—evidenced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s (D-Maine) proposed 2020 Agricultural Resilience Act, which would expand the National Agroforestry Center through three new regional offices.
Solution and Approach
Our project will allow farmers to meet this opportunity by providing the first region-wide forest farming educational campaign in the Northeast. We will build a broad community of practice, centered around small and mid-sized farms with a forested component. This project directly addresses the problem above through strategic regional partnerships, providing the resources and relationships for forest farmers in the Northeast to optimize their operations. This project builds off lessons learned in the Appalachian region to bring their knowledge of forest farming to the Northeast.
In-person trainings, the establishment of a peer-to-peer forest farming mentoring network, and the creation of forest farming demonstration sites at strategic locations throughout the region represent the core of our educational campaign. Meanwhile, project research will generate baseline data to address understudied ecological, financial, and production questions related to five important forest farmable species with significant profit potential—American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), ramps (Allium triccocum), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).
This project represents an opportunity for the Northeast to build on national momentum around forest farming research and education, and it would come at a critical time. With a national American Forest Farming Council in the early stages of design, the establishment of a Northeast Forest Farmers Coalition would lay a foundation of forest farmers and educational resources in the region.
We will establish growth and yield trials for five commercially valuable forest understory species under different propagation methods—from seed and from rootlet transplant—and management regimes, with labor and inputs ranging from minimal to intensive. Prior research suggests as labor and inputs increase, plant growth and yields increase; however, given varying price points for study species the increase in production may not mean increased profitability.
In this project we will 1) assess the commercial production of understory herbs in a Northeast forest farming context, and 2) determine the most profitable propagation method and management regime on a species-by-species basis.
Original Research Description
This research will provide important ecological, financial, and production data on five species with significant profit potential—American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), ramps (Allium triccocum), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Little is known regarding rates of survival, establishment, and growth and yield for these species under different management systems, especially in the Northeast region. This research will help farmers make informed decisions about growing methods, costs, and revenue ratios under different management intensity regimes.
Farmers’ input was integrated throughout the design of this research: A) our research questions are a direct response to survey data from hundreds of farmers (Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition, 2020); B) the research design of this project builds on research PI-Sheban conducted with American Ginseng Pharm (Sheban, 2019); and C) we conducted numerous consultations with project advisory board members.
Our project treatments were chosen in direct response to forest farmers input. When asked “what forest farming topics are you most interested in?” in a survey of nearly 500 forest farmers, the top two answers were: 1) Forest management for understory crops and 2) Plant propagation. Therefore, these are the primary treatments examined in our research.
Forest management: The question of whether a “wild-simulated” approach to forest farming is the most practical and cost-effective strategy for landowners has not been comprehensively studied. Wild-simulated production requires the fewest inputs of time, labor, and materials. And in the case of ginseng—which has a unique market in East Asia for wild-appearing roots—it often results in the highest-value product. Thus this approach to forest farming is often recommended to small-scale operations (Apsley and Carroll, 2013). However, modifying the local growing conditions—by removing competing understory and midstory plants, tilling the first inch of the soil, applying fertilizer—can result in faster growth rates and larger plants, potentially increasing the value of a forest planting. The majority of scaled forest farms modify the growing environment in some way. Establishing the difference in establishment, growth, and yields under these different management regimes—from intensive commercial-style to wild-simulated production—and tracking costs and profits will help beginning and experienced forest farmers decide what growing methodology is right for their operation.
Plant propagation: There have been no formalized studies examining the differences in establishment rates of forest herbs grown by seed and by rootlet in forest farming operations. The information available is often focused on container growth for horticultural crops and not for in-situ forest farming operations, representing very different systems. Anecdotal experience and horticultural guides suggest that propagation success and establishment vary by species. Outplanting rootlets is a more common approach to propagation for most species because of the assumption of better establishment, although it is more costly and time intensive. Seed establishment in ramps can result in germination rates of up to 90% (Filyaw and Sheban, 2015) showing huge cost saving potential. Having a species-specific understanding of which method is more effective will help forest farmers minimize costs as well as help nurseries growing planting stock invest in the material that is the most valuable for their consumers.
We will conduct experimental plantings of the five target species at six research and demonstration farms across the Northeast region (Figure 1). These sites include the Yale-Myers Forest in northeast Connecticut; American Ginseng Pharm in the Catskill region of New York; the property of farmer Stephen Prinn in Northeast Connecticut; Penn State University’s Shaver’s Creek in Central Pennsylvania; the Yew Mountain Center in Southeast West Virginia; and Cornell’s Uihlein Forest in Northern New York. Additionally, as a comparison site, we will conduct a seventh planting under shade cloth in a hoop house (i.e. intensive commercial-style production) at Penn State’s Beaver Campus in Eastern Pennsylvania.
For our forested plots, we will use a blocked two-by-two factorial design (Figure 2). The first treatment level is planting stock type (seeds (S) or rootlets (R)). The second treatment level is management intensity (wild-simulated (WS) or intensively managed (IM). The fully factorial design results in four unique conditions (four plots) for each block:
- propagated by seed, wild-simulated management (S-WS)
- propagated by rootlet, wild-simulated management (R-WS)
- propagated by seed, intensive management (S-IM)
- propagated by rootlet, intensive management (R-IM)
At each forested research site there will be five blocks, randomly distributed, each containing a replicate of the above four treatments (4 plots per block x 5 replications at each site x 6 sites = 120 plots per species). The same experimental design will be done with each of the five species as independent experiments for a total of 100 plots per site (Figure 3), and 600 plots across all sites.
We will use English units for this research because these are most used by forest farmers; thus, these are the units in which we will be communicating our findings. Treatment Plots are 3’x3’, where one of the four treatment combinations will be applied at the entire plot except a small 6” buffer on all sides adjacent to the other plots. Each plot will be planted with either 4 seeds or 4 rootlets in the 1 sq. ft center of each treatment plot, to mitigate edge effects.
All plots will be established in the fall of 2021. Wild-simulated plots will receive no management beyond planting and initial watering. In the intensively managed plots we will remove any plants within or immediately adjacent to the plot and cultivate the first four inches of the soil before planting. Once planted, plots will be mulched using small-grain straw, weeded twice a season, and fertilized with gypsum in Year 1 to achieve the optimum levels of calcium and pH (Davis and Persons, 2014).
The comparison plot will be planted in raised beds under artificial shade cloth in a 70-ft long hoop house in eastern Pennsylvania. Plants will be weeded, watered, fertilized, and treated with fungicide on a weekly basis. This site will provide a financial and production comparison to the forest farming systems being compared in our study.
Data Collection and Analysis:
We will choose planting sites through coordination with the farm partner. Once planting sites are selected, we will take baseline environmental measurements at each plot: we will measure percent canopy coverage using a spherical densiometer; soil moisture using a Hydrosense moisture meter; and collect composite soil samples for nutrient analysis.
We will collect data on germination, plant establishment (mortality and survival) and plant size, we will note any herbivory or disease we observe, as well as environmental conditions (sunlight, soil nutrients and water content) three times during each growing season: May, July, and September. At the end of the experiment we will harvest a sub-sample of the plots and measure final biomass production.
We will used generalized linear mixed effect models to examine the importance of each of our farming intensity factors as well as their interaction and environmental variables of light and moisture as our response variables with block and site as random effects. Our response variables include survival rate/establishment, plant growth, harvest biomass.
We will track costs by species and treatment and calculate potential income based on biomass harvest in order to generate profitability projections between treatment combinations. We will compile a database and provide records of where all plant material is sourced from and sold.
Project update after Year 1
To date we have made significant progress on the project, and are on track in accordance with proposed project milestones. The bulk of work thus far has focused on the coordination of project partners, the procurement of planting stock, and the establishment of Research & Demonstration (R&D) sites across the Northeast region. Spring and summer months were spent identifying planting stock suppliers and monitoring the supply for target species, which are not always readily available. Planting stock for five target species—American ginseng, goldenseal, ramps, black cohosh, and bloodroot—was sourced from multiple providers, in response to availability. Planting stock sourcing was as follows
- Ginseng seed from Rural Action
- Ginseng roots from Harding’s ginseng
- Ramp bulbs from Wild West Virginia Ramps
- Black cohosh, bloodroot, and goldenseal roots from Loess Roots
- Black cohosh, bloodroot, goldenseal, and ramp seed from Prairie Moon Nursery
The summer months were also spent coordinating with R&D sites and project partners, to select windows for planting during the fall. To date, five R&D sites have been planted
- Oct 16-17, Yale-Myers Forest in Eastford, CT
- Oct 19-20, Dartmouth Forest in Hanover, NH
- Oct 21-22, Cornell University’s Uihlein Maple Syrup Research Forest in Lake Placid, NY
- Nov 18-19, Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Forest, Petersburg, PA
- Nov 29 – Dec 3, Yew Mountain Center in Hillsboro, WV
There are a few important changes to the original scope of work to note when it comes to R&D sites.
- We dropped one of our initial planting sites, American Ginseng Pharm in the Catskill region of NY, due to internal complications within the business structure. In place of this site, we planted at the Dartmouth University school forest in Hanover, NH. We believe this is a strong substitution for a R&D site given its location in the region, the resources of the university, and a collaboration with the agroecology lab of Dr. Theresa Ong.
- Ultimately we decided not to conduct an experimental planting of project target species under a hoop house in eastern Pennsylvania. This was due in part to challenges with the site selected for this project activity, and was in part based on discussions with advisory board member Dr. Eric Burkhart, who recommended using project funds to instead erect an experimental deer fence around the R&D site at Shaver’s Creek. As deer are a major pest in plantings of forest understory herbs, deer fencing will allow us to compare growth and yield under conditions of deer pressure with conditions that are deer free. We believe this reallocation falls within the spirit of the award and will let us answer questions critical to forest farmers in the region.
- We decided to postpone our planting site at farmer Steve Prinn’s property in Eastford, CT. We plan to plant this site in the spring of 2022. In addition we are in conversation with Emily Ruff, the Director of Sage Mountain Botanical Sanctuary in East Barre, VT, about establishing an R&D site on the 600-acre learning forest where she and her staff conduct education around forest biodiversity, forest understory herbs, and agroforestry systems.
Thus the two additional R&D sites we plan to plant in the spring of 2022 are:
- Forest farmer Steve Prinn's property in Eastford, CT
- Sage Mountain Botanical Sanctuary in East Barre, VT
This project will establish six forest farming research sites across the Northeast region. Four of these will double as educational demonstration sites—the Yale-Myers Forest; the Cornell Uihlein Forest; Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center; and the Yew Mountain Center—which will provide hands-on educational opportunities to address the fundamental knowledge gaps necessary to start a production forest farm.
We will offer nine in-person workshops over the three-year project timeline, with a target of 25 workshop attendees at each event for a total of 225 attendees over the lifetime of the project. Workshops will cover the topics that forest farmers have identified as most critical for establishing an operation (Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition, 2020), and content will be organized from introductory to more advanced material, allowing beginning forest farmers to move through an educational progression—from planning to implementing a forest farm all the way to conducting product sales.
Year 1: Species biology/ecology, site selection and preparation, forest management for NTFPs, and planting techniques
Year 2: Harvesting and drying, value-added processing, and enterprise budget planning for forest farming operations
Year 3: Marketing botanical products, and enrollment in verification programs
Many of these topics will be hands-on and participatory, taught in the field, using project demonstration sites to ground lessons in the physical environment. At project events we will provide printed resources, also available online—some existing and some specific to the Northeast that we create with project funds—that cover the above topics for farmers’ reference through the implementation process. These will be factsheets and cultivation guidebooks. During the project we will create six new educational videos on the above topics, which we will make available on the project website and Facebook page, and upload to the Forest Farming YouTube channel, which already has 170 videos and nearly 20 thousand followers.
Event educators will be project key individuals, advisory board members, and others with topic-specific forest farming expertise in order to address the topics above. All classroom and field sessions will be recorded and made available through the Yale Forest School website and the Northeast Forest Farmers Coalition Facebook page to expand the reach of our educational campaign.
Mentorship is the second-most requested service by forest farmers, after in-person workshops. In Project Year 2 we will organize a mentorship program. Interested project farmers will be paired up with an experienced mentor, drawn from a pool of forest farmers in the ABFFC network who have already expressed a willingness to mentor a beginning farmer. Mentors will be compensated for three consultations with their mentee beginning in project Year 2.
We will plug into ABFFC recruitment networks to identify members farming in the Northeast. Additionally, we will draw on the established outreach and extension networks of partnering universities—Yale, Penn State, Cornell—to recruit new forest farmers into the network. We will also recruit members and promote events through state NOFA chapters, the National Young Farmers coalition, state Farm Bureaus, and the cooperative extension networks of regional states.
Currently, we are in the process of recruiting landowners to join the Coalition and begin following our activities through the project website. This will serve as the basis of our landowner network, whom we will advertise educational events to. This will begin in spring of 2022. In addition to the establishment of R&D sites, we have worked with Meghan Bathgate and Jennifer Claydon of Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning to design a forest farmer intake survey – this tool allows for crucial data collection on forest farmers and interested forest landowners in the region. Working with Yale students, we have also designed a website to house the intake survey, as well as online resources and an event calendar for the project. The website is currently live and can be found here. A big focus of the project over the next 6 months will be to build our online presence and resources to turn the website into a critical tool and first point of engagement for interested forest farmers in the Northeast. This will entail the creation of new resources, such as educational videos, but also the strategic integration of online tools being created by project partners, such as the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition. For example, resources such as this online site assessment tool will provide a critical service to forest farmers in the Northeast region, and we will use our website to expand the reach of resources from Appalachia throughout the Northeast.
Farmers receive an invitation to join the Northeast Forest Farmers Coalition. Through their membership, farmers explore a wide array of online resources, and learn about opportunities for virtual and in-person networking and educational experiences and assistance in marketing new agricultural products. Farmers begin engaging with the online content/community, asking and answering questions, and learning about upcoming educational workshops in their region.
During Year 1 of the project we established 5 Research and Demonstration sites across the Northeast region. These plots, installed between September and December of 2021, will serve as the basis of our educational and research activities. More recently, we established a website for the Northeast Forest Farmers Coalition that serves as the intake point for new and interested forest farmers in the region. The website was officially launched earlier in the month of December, and large-scale outreach efforts are planned for January and February of 2022. As of the writing of this report, the Coalition has been promoted to farmers at one major conference in the Northeast, the Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative Conference (a video of the talk is available here). We expect high levels of recruitment in the spring, coinciding with in-person educational events hosted at sites across the region.
Three farmers assist in the establishment of research plots on their properties. Farmers provide input on the optimal location of plots, and participate in the collection of baseline environmental data. They receive training on species-specific maintenance and data collection protocol, including plant phenology, plant propagation techniques, data collection and data entry. This training prepares farmers to present on their project participation at project workshops in Project Year 3.
We worked with a number of forest farmers in the fall of 2021 to help install research plots. These forest farmers, who ranged in experience from new to veteran, received training in how to install the research plots, a different approach than planting only for production. In turn, these forest farmers provided input on where to locate plantings and the best time-frame to install plantings. We worked with 6 farmers and 6 agricultural service providers over the course of the fall, and install plantings at 5 locations. In the spring and fall of 2022 we will return to these plantings to weed and collect preliminary data, and these farmers will join in this activity and learn about data collection protocol.
New and beginning forest farmers attend annual workshops (3 workshops each year with 25 attendees each over 3 years; 75 attendees per year, 225 over project lifetime). Farmers receive both field- (hands-on) and classroom-based educational opportunities, network with one another, meet regional technical service providers, and leave the workshop(s) with the fundamental knowledge required to start their own operation. Attendees are recruited into the coalition, and learn about project objectives, resources, and membership advantages.
We plan to hold our first in-person workshops in the spring of 2022.
Workshop attendees receive entrance and exit surveys at events, and engage through other data acquisition methodologies—parking lots, reaction cards, live-time phone polls, and listening posts—to track knowledge/skill acquisition and to provide feedback (3 workshops each year with 25 attendees each over 3 years; 75 attendees per year, 225 over project lifetime). Surveys allow participants to convey what knowledge/skills they have gained, as well as topics they require additional assistance on. Much of this data will be shared in live-time to make the data-acquisition process beneficial for both farmers and project researchers.
Surveys will be available to attendees at in-person workshops, to be held in the spring of 2022. An intake survey is available on our website, and can be viewed here: https://yalesurvey.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3fxdwThNdx9KDrM
Farmers engage with educational resources provided in-person and online through the project. This includes connecting farmers to existing forest farming resources as well as to Northeast-specific resources created using project funds. We will track engagement through printed resources taken at workshops, unique downloads online, and views for videos. As a result, farmers have educational resources to reference when implementing project activities on their properties; and recruit new members when resources are shared within farmers’ networks.
We have created a resources page on our website, available here: https://www.northeastforestfarmers.org/resources. These resources include a link to the Forest Farming YouTube channel, where we will eventually post videos created with project funds; a link to a virtual site selection tool to help beginning forest farmers determine where to plant forest crops on their own property; and a link to a free PDF of a book on cultivating the target understory species of this project, co-authored by PI Karam Sheban. We have not officially begun tracking the traffic to these resources generated through the website, but will have stats on that soon as recruitment to the site ramps up.
Farmer members receive an invitation to provide feedback to project organizers, through an annual survey assessing effectiveness of project activities/resources and performance target metrics of adoption, as well as through a member survey link available online to continuously collect feedback. This will allow farmers to reflect on their experience with the project, and to participate in the development of the community. It will also allow project leaders to adjust activities/resources to best serve farmers.
This survey for forest farmers in forthcoming.
Interested farmers in the Northeast region are paired up with an experienced forest farmer mentor through a partnership with the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition; project leaders vet interested Northeast farmers and Appalachian mentors and match farmers based on interests; samples questions/discussion topics are provided to facilitate a semi-structured consultation; mentors are compensated for up to three consultations.
Our mentorship program will begin in Year 2.
Participating farmer-researchers co-present the results of three-year research trials at project workshops alongside key project individuals. Farmers develop presentation skills and science communication through communication of results and findings to their peers.
Presentations on results will happen after Project Year 3.
Farmers will hear presentations from project PI and partnering farmer-researchers at major regional farming and forestry conferences. Presentations will be offered at conferences such as the New England Society of American Foresters (NESAF) Conference and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA conference); these conferences will serve as a recruitment opportunity into the Northeast Forest Farmers Coalition, as well as a chance to make important connections among farming and forest communities in the Northeast.
As of the writing of this report, the Coalition has been promoted to farmers at one major conference in the Northeast, the Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative Conference (see video below). The talk took place on December 17th, 2021.
We have designed an intake survey and have begun collecting data on new members of the NFFC. This survey was created in collaboration with Yale's Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. We will create similar surveys for in-person educational events to take place in the spring of 2022, and use these surveys to determine changes in knowledge, skills, and adoption.
Performance Target Outcomes
Farmers and forest landowners in the Northeast will integrate forest crops into the forested portion of their properties.
Create 50 forest crop acres in forestland across the Northeast; introduce 500 farmers and forestland owners to the practice of forest farming; and establish 100 new forest farming enterprises.
Generate $500,000 in profit potential across the 50 forest crop acres established by new forest farmers.