Growth in human population and more meat intensive diets are increasing the demands on farming and food systems. At the same time rapid urbanization threatens the existence and economic viability of farmland, particularly in the southeastern United States. Thus, data are needed that increase economic stability of farmers while enhancing environmental quality within the farm and in the larger landscape. Agroforestry systems, more specifically silvopasture systems, integrate working trees with animal production, providing multiple environmental and economic benefits to a farm and the broader ecosystem, but are not widely used in agriculture. One barrier to adoption and research in agroforestry systems is the time required to grow mature stands of trees. Data highlighting the success of systems can be used to inform the broader farming community about successful farming methods for the South. Thus, the primary purpose of this project is to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of grazing efforts in agroforestry systems embedded in farmland by restoring forest patches invaded by exotic plants and developing sustainable grazing practices. We will do this by 1) identifying suitable animal forage mixtures, 2) acquiring baseline data on soil fertility to track responses to agroforestry methods, and 3) testing if the above restoration efforts improve wildlife habitat in upland forests in agroecosystems. Identification of shade-tolerant forage crops and improvement of soil quality can reduce the post-grazing recovery times within and between years. The reduced recovery time will increase the economic value of these forest patches to the producer. Removal of invasive species in these forests will improve nesting and foraging habitat for game and non-game wildlife. We will work closely with four farms in the Carolinas and Georgia. We will restore upland forest patches at each site, and then plant replicated mixtures of different forage crops in the restored forests. All plots will be grazed as part of the restoration efforts, improving the economic productivity of each farm. We will evaluate, pre-grazing, performance of the forage species under shade by measuring plant biomass, C to N ratio, stand density, and percent cover. We will measure bird richness and abundance in restored and control plots. We will collect preliminary data on soil organic carbon on soil organic nitrogen as a measure of soil fertility for future pre-post comparisons. Managed forage and grazing should reduce the recovery time required between grazing periods, increase producer resiliency to variations in temperature and precipitation, increase resilience to fluctuations in economic markets, improve habitat quality for local wildlife, and increase soil quality. Last, and perhaps most importantly, we will magnify the education benefits of the project by working closely as researchers and practitioners and by sharing results and lessons learned through multiple education outputs and formats. We will share lessons learned and results via field days, outreach publications, and video. Throughout the study we will evaluate the effectiveness of our research, engagement, and information dissemination components using a mixed-method assessment.
In this project we will address the articulated need of cooperating farmers for applied data on forage production and forest restoration by using existing forest stands at four farms across three states in the southern Piedmont, to test the performance of different forage combinations and the resulting environmental change. These data will identify:
1) What crop mixes best grow under the shaded conditions of restored upland agroforestry systems
2) The response of wildlife communities to forest restoration and ground cover planting
3) Preliminary data and research capacity to study how understory forage crops can be used to restore ecological function and services, in particular soil fertility and health as measured by soil organic carbon and nitrogen content and stratification
4) Share results of the research through a field day, an extension publication, and an online video highlighting the lessons learned and management recommendations
5) Measure change in knowledge, attitude, and behavior as function of participation in the research (i.e., the four farmers) and knowledge and attitude of all participants in field days and information sessions.
Research was conducted on farms in the Piedmont of North and South Carolina. Study sites were Greenbrier Farm in Pickens County, SC, Bio-Way Farm in Laurens County, SC, Spirit Creek Farm in Augusta-Richmond County, GA, and Spirit Level Farm in Rutherford County, NC.
To address project objective #1, a selected forage mix of chicory, rye, alfalfa, and crabgrass and an off the shelf control were planted across the four sites. To address objective #3, we analyzed SOC and SON concentration, stratification, and C:N as a measure of soil quality in forest soils. Soil cores and profiles were collected and analyzed from 36 locations during or prior to grazing in forested patches on three farms in South Carolina and North Carolina. To address objective #2, we conducted active and passive sampling for wildlife communities in silvopasture and unmanaged forest patches. To address objective #5, we reviewed farmer databases and websites to create a list of current pork producers. Pork producers were contacted and asked to complete a survey allowing for subsequent social network analysis (SNA) The survey was also administered in person to a sample of pork producers at Upstate farmers markets in the fall of 2017. These data were analyzed in NODE XL for creation of the community’s network map and metrics.
During this first season (’16), the Southeast experienced unusually dry and hot conditions with nearly 40% of the region classified in moderate-to-exceptional (D1-D4) drought conditions. Thus, germination was very limited across the farms. During the subsequent fall we did find that rye grass spread late in the season did best of the crops in the shade conditions of the project, providing sufficient ground cover for forage and soil retention. There were scattered volunteers throughout. In 2017, there was no statistical difference between the forage mixes. Furthermore, surprisingly, neither forage mix maintained growth through latter stages of growth. Again we did observe some volunteers later in the growing season, but not sufficient for forage or soil retention. To better understand why, we conducted a small trial greenhouse experiment. We found that the diverse forage mixes, despite ecological theory, were lower in growth compared to single and double species mixes. Data from ARUs and active sampling are currently being collated across years. Results from the soil cores indicated the greatest variation in soil organic matter in upper 10 cm with SOC and SON concentrations that decreased exponentially with depth. SOC stock for the upper 10 cm averaged 32.1±8.6 Mg/ha for grazed and 28.9±5.8 Mg/ha for ungrazed forest, similar to other findings for Piedmont forest soils. SON stock for the upper 10 cm averaged 1.6±0.5 Mg/ha for grazed and 1.7±0.5 Mg/ha for ungrazed forest soils. Stratification ratio (0-10/20-30 cm) for grazed was 3.2±1.0 and for ungrazed was 3.4±1.7 forest. C:N ratios were slightly lower compared to other findings for Piedmont forest soils. High variability and lack of statistically significant difference for soil quality parameters between grazed and ungrazed forest patches may indicate that grazing in Piedmont forest could maintain or improve soil quality if immediately replanted with forage crops to reduce erosion.
30 farmers responded to the survey. 65% reported that they are full time pork producers, meaning that they have no off farm work. 75% own the land they farm, with an average farm size of 35 acres. The data illustrate low levels of social and professional networks within niche pork producers of the Piedmont region. It was found that most farmers had one or two connections in which they interact with regarding their pork production. However, some farmers had no connections at all while others served as “hubs” for others and had multiple connections which spread out to connect with other internal networks. Nine farms had a degree (degree is a social network measure that counts all the ties directly linked to an actor) of 2 or higher. In-degree (a measure the number of ties received by a farmer from another farmer) ranged from 0 to 2. Betweenness (a measure of the middle farmer or the farmer which is acting as a bridge to other) ranged from 0 to 28 with the majority of farmers have a score of 0. Despite the low connectivity, the most common information source was fellow farmers at 29.87%, and the least common being non-profit organizations at 6.5%. The majority of farmers sold directly to consumers via farmers market, CSA, or on-farm at 46% and retail at 22%.
With the collaborating farmers, we have started to translate our collaborative research for a broad audience. This last spring John and Roddy shared their process at the CFSA meeting in a session on on-farm research. John also shared his work at the CULTIVTE meeting hosted by the Greenville Tech Sustainable Agriculture Program.
In the future, all applicable findings will be shared with extension educators in all three states, local farming organizations (e.g., CFSA), and local wildlife conservation organizations (e.g., Audubon Society). We will integrate the process and results into classroom instruction, including the Agroecology class offered by John Quinn this fall at Furman University and other classes in the Biology and Earth and Environmental Science departments. We will also reach out to the new Greenville Tech Sustainable Agriculture Program and make our data available to vocational agriculture teachers for use in classes.