Topographical Contour Measurement and Water Management Earthworks for Ecologically Restorative Edible Silvopasture Planting

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2017: $7,403.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Cultivating Community Farm
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:


  • Agronomic: hops
  • Fruits: berries (blueberries), berries (cranberries), berries (other), cherries, figs, grapes, paw-paws, peaches, persimmon, plums, kiwi, passionfruit
  • Nuts: chestnuts, hazelnuts, pecans
  • Additional Plants: tea
  • Miscellaneous: mushrooms


  • Animal Production: pasture renovation
  • Crop Production: contour farming, drainage systems, drought tolerance, intercropping, multiple cropping, silvopasture, water management
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Natural Resources/Environment: afforestation
  • Pest Management: integrated pest management
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, integrated crop and livestock systems, permaculture
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures


    We would like to establish systems including edible perennials and livestock in a way that increases the health and fertility of the soil, plants, and animals. Having minimal experience on this land, we consulted with an expert and mentor to help us decide how best to set up this system, particularly in terms of water management. 

    We wanted to test how well edible perennials respond to common water management approaches recommended in permaculture teaching. We planned to test combinations of four water-management techniques (a row of stacked brush just uphill of the planting row, a swale just uphill of the planting row, chisel plowing in the alley uphill of the planting row, and a control), but ran into some problems. After setting in on the project, we found the rows of brush would be prohibitively time-consuming to construct. We also couldn't find someone to chisel-plow for hire. But we did cut swales along two rows, so we can assess their effectiveness at capturing moisture compared to control rows. 

    We also wanted to test how edible perennials fare in the varying soil moisture conditions across the hillside test plot, so we planted varying combinations of tree, shrub, and vine species in blocks. This way, each species is placed in a few different regions of the test area, spanning elevation, soil moisture, soil type, and microclimate. 

    The 3-week drought that came after our 2017 planting had the biggest impact on our research, causing a 92% loss our first season, but our 2018 planting fared much better with the rainy summer, with a 77% loss. 

    We found that the rows with swales seemed to have drier soil than control rows, potentially due to moisture lost by the exposed soil of the actual swale cut. When species was controlled, plants in the swale rows fared better than plants in control rows.

    Based on this research, I would recommend having at least simple low-cost contingency plans in effect for extreme events (like drought) to protect your investment. I would need to study the effect of swales over a longer time period before being able to speak for or against them, as their effects in this limited study were surprising and varied. 

    Project objectives:

    Our goals for the project were to: 1) design and plant an edible silvopasture on our farm despite our minimal experience, to 2) assess water management systems that would reduce the need for watering, and to 3) include community members and farmers in both our design and installation processes. 

    1. To design an edible silvopasture with our minimal experience, we proposed hiring an expert to consult on our water management and planting design. We did this in April 2017 and came away with a plan and a mentor who guided us through the design process, accomplishing that goal.
    2. To assess water management practices as to whether they would improve establishment of trees and shrubs, we designed a rather complex planting system. As recommended by our expert/mentor, we arranged and planted mixed rows of trees and shrubs slightly off contour (sloping downhill at 1% grade from the valley to the ridge) to theoretically help distribute water more evenly across the hillside. Each row either uses swales for water management or remains a control, with no water management. This allows us to measure 1) whether swales actually provide more moisture to downhill plantings and 2) whether our slightly off-contour swale actually takes moisture from the valley and increases moisture in the ridge. We also planted the trees and shrubs in blocks, with different combinations in each row, so we could assess each species's health according to soil moisture and type. This allows us to assess both whether swales are beneficial and what each plant prefers in terms of soil moisture. 
    3. To include farmers and community members in our design and installation process, we held a design workshop around the consultation and invited other farmers and community members. We had several regional and local farmers and landowners attend and have remained in contact with almost all of them to provide updates on the project. We also held tree-planting workdays where several community members learned about our project and assisted with the tree-planting portion.
    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.