The Creation of Two Alley Cropping Demonstration Sites as Cases Studies on Massachusetts Farms

Progress report for ONE21-389

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,496.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2023
Grant Recipient: Interlace Commons
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Meghan Giroux
Interlace Commons
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to:

  1. Train two farms to develop agroforestry land-use plans focused on alley cropping. This process will help the farms identify alley cropping’s benefits, risks, yields, and best practices for establishment and management, as well as enterprise planning;
  2. Utilize land-use plans to establish alley cropping demonstration sites for educational and outreach purposes;
  3. Share the project’s process and results with farmers, technical service providers, conservation planners, and students to reach a range of stakeholders with information about alley cropping and its adoption in the Northeast. This information will be helpful to stakeholders looking to enhance sustainability, address ecosystem degradation, increase profitability, and prepare for/respond to climate change and its impact on the future of farms, food, and the environment;
  4. Identify funding opportunities to support farms in designing and implementing alley cropping systems. 

If successful, this project will catalyze the adoption of alley cropping in the Northeast as a transformative solution to agriculture’s environmental and economic challenges.  We predict in the short-term, there will be increased interest in and an improved understanding of alley cropping; in the mid-and long-term, there will be an uptick in alley-cropping adoption on farms in Massachusetts and surrounding states.

Introduction:

Extraordinarily productive, annual cropping systems command global agriculture. Single-function monocultures rely on externalities that, with their use, lead to environmental consequences, including GHG emissions. Despite incremental advances, including cover cropping practiced on 1.7% of cropland and 0.8% in organic production, the resulting interventions are not likely to mitigate the degradation issues caused by annual row cropping systems. Agroforestry, specifically alley cropping, which intentionally combines trees with crops, can address the following effects of climate change:

  • Increased herbivory-related issues resulting from warming temperatures and shorter winters are occurring and are predicted to increase. Evidence from agroecosystem and forestry practices suggests that herbivore damage is reduced in diverse cropping systems, including tree cropping modalities that provide structural and species diversity;
  • Warmer, drier conditions, including sustained periods of drought. The microclimate conditions created by alley cropping can stabilize air/soil temperature making crops more drought-resistant;
  • Extreme weather will increase the frequency/severity of wind-related events. Alley cropping can create conditions that lessen wind speed, reducing evapotranspiration by 15-30% and increasing water content in the tillage layer by 5-15%.

In terms of climate mitigation, no-till, reduced, or strip-till on irrigated cropland sequesters 5 tons per carbon/acre whereas alley cropping (that replaces 20% of annual cropland with trees) stores 11 tons per carbon/acre. However, despite the current and predicted climate-related challenges and the science-based evidence supporting alley cropping as a shovel-ready climate mitigation and adaptation tool, this practice’s broad adoption is limited in the Northeast. The need for agroforestry education and technical service provision was evidenced through Meghan Giroux’s graduate research that identified barriers to the adoption of agroforestry. Two barriers are relevant to this project: 1) There are a limited number of technical service providers who can train farms to design and install agroforestry practices, with most trained solely in riparian forest buffers and windbreaks; and 2) The USDA’s "total financial obligations” to agroforestry consist of 71% for riparian buffers, 29% for windbreaks and less than 1% for alley cropping, multi-story cropping, and silvopasture.

The lack of agroforestry adoption in the Northeast matters because there are two imperatives that agroforestry can address: 1) Enhancing food security, and 2) Preserving ecosystems within agricultural lands by growing food in multifunctional landscapes. This project addresses these challenges and the lack of technical service provision to support the adoption of alley cropping. Interlace Commons proposes partnering with The University of Massachusetts/Student Farm and Simple Gifts Farm wherein Meghan Giroux will provide on-farm consultation to support the development and implementation of alley cropping systems on each farm. Our goal is to demonstrate how different alley cropping typologies can act as a climate adaptation tool, reduce land degradation, improve biodiversity, and produce more than one crop on a single land unit. Such demonstration is essential to alley cropping’s broad adoption as farmers need to see the practice used effectively on-farm in order to utilize it. Interest in alley cropping is evidenced by the 162 farms in 4 states that applied to Interlace Common’s Field Consultancy Program in 2020.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jeremy Barker-Plotkin - Producer
  • Lisa Depiano - Producer
  • Dave Tepfer - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

February 8th, 2022

  • The materials and methods remain the same at this point in the project. 
  • Objective Method # 1: The farms are being instructed on how to develop their narrative. 

March 17th & 18th

  • Objective Method # 1:
    1. The farms have completed their farm narratives
    2. Site visits happened with the biophysical assets and constraints mapped
      • Farms will be researching weather and climatic conditions that will influence the productivity of the trees and shrubs to be established in Objective Method # 2

Use Interlace Commons’ existing Field Consultancy Program curriculum to guide the land-use planning process that includes: 

  1. The creation of a farm narrative identifying challenges, goals, and opportunities, a statement of purpose, and description of farm enterprises; 
  2. A site assessment identifying the biophysical and economic conditions of each farm. Biophysical conditions relate to soils, water and water quality, climate, and the farm’s geographic location (i.e., distance to markets which will influence what type of crops the farmer might grow). Economic conditions include markets, infrastructure, off-farm alternatives, availability of credit and labor, and willingness to take risks; and 
  3. An alley cropping field design, including a planting and implementation plan influenced by the farm narrative and site assessment documents. 

Objective 2 Methods:

Install the planting-plan(s) outlined in the land-use plan using labor supplied by the two farms:

  1. Pattern the planting site by laying out the planting lanes;
  2. Prepare land for tree planting by removing sod, tilling soil, and adding amendments; and
  3. Plant trees and/or shrubs and field crops according to the planting plan at both sites that is in accordance with the land use plan that has been developed specific to each farm.

Objective 3 Methods:

To maximize the impact of these two demonstration sites, we will utilize various methods, providing multiple modes of engagement.

Phase 1: Documentation: 

  1. Develop case studies for each farm, including the design and implementation process and results. For each case study we will collect and share data on 1) the species planted; 2) the rationale for their selection (based on the biophysical properties, economic profile, and goals of each farm); 3) the number of trees/shrubs/plants planted and in what configuration; 4) the process for planting, including the use of any soil amendments and/or mulches and other materials utilized for protection of newly planted trees/shrubs/crops; 5) the total costs of the project, including time, labor, and materials; 6) the land use plan developed as the foundation for these processes; and 7) any resulting questions, successes, and challenges. The documentation will be available on the Interlace Commons, UMASS student farm, and Simple Gifts’ websites;
  2. Create a visual depiction of the project using high resolution before and after drone images (to be included in the case studies and on the sign described below); and
  3. Create permanent, educational signage to install in a kiosk format at the UMass site to provide comprehensive, year-round education and engagement.

Phase 2: Dissemination: 

  1. The farms will share their process, learning, and field design plans at a community presentation half way through the project. This helps build momentum, interest, and helps the farmers clarify their plans moving forward. 
  2. Meghan and Lisa will present on process and results at the Summer Northeast Organic Farming Association’s conference, which will include a site visit to the UMass farm and Simple Gifts Farm;
  3. Meghan will present on process and results at the Vermont Northeast Organic Farming Association conference; and
  4. Interlace Commons, Simple Gifts Farm, and the Umass farm will host two Field Days in September 2023.  As Simple Gifts Farms is within walking distance of the UMass farm, both farms will be toured during each Field Day which will include equal parts classroom instruction and site visits. These Field Days will be promoted via a postcard sent to farms, agricultural conservation organizations, and technical service providers in Massachusetts as well as through Interlace Common’s and the farms’ social media networks and word of mouth. 

Objective 5 Methods: In order to increase the likelihood of alley cropping's adoption by other farms in the Northeast we will:

  1. Research available grant opportunities from the USDA and other entities;
  2. Identify the opportunities appropriate for farms interested in implementing alley cropping;
  3. Create a database of funding opportunities; and 
  4. Make a funding database available to farms via Interlace Common’s website and promote via the case studies created with this project.
Research results and discussion:

February 8th, 2022

  • No results at this point in the project. 
Research conclusions:

February 8th, 2022

No research at this point in the project

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

In order to share the results of this project we will do the following:

  • Lisa Depiano will share results with the academic community affiliated with the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture, including other faculty and students; 
  • Each farm will hold a community presentation at the end of year one to share information about the process to that point and their land use plans that will be implemented in year two;
  • Lisa and Meghan will present about this project at the NOFA Massachusetts and NOFA Vermont annual conferences;
  • Two Field Days will be held in September 2023, promoted by Interlace Commons, the University of Massachusetts and Simple Gifts Farm via social media, word of mouth, and a postcard mailing (100 pieces) to stakeholders in the region such as farms, agricultural conservation organizations, and technical service providers including: The Massachusetts Agency of Agriculture, The Department of Natural Resources, local NRCS field offices, Conservation Districts, Massachusetts Audubon, the Nature Conservancy -  Massachusetts Chapter and the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
  • Create a case study document for each farm that details the process and results, to be shared electronically via the three entities’ websites, and promoted at the Field Days and conference presentations; and
  • The design, production, and installation of permanent educational signage at the UMass site, educating students, faculty, and visitors about the alley cropping demonstration site.
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.