Effects of controlled disturbance within early-successional northeastern forest habitat: Evaluating soil quality, plant production, and economic feasibility
We have proposed to employ techniques of agroforestry and permaculture to allow us to expand berry production into marginal, forested areas of our property while still managing these areas for the overall health of local forest ecosystems. This will allow us to determine which cultivation methods will produce the best balance between environmental sustainability and cost of production.
The main research objective of this project is to examine changes in soil quality as a direct effect of experimental land management and cultivation techniques, viz.
- Establishing small plantings of perennial woody berry crops that are common in transitional ecosystems — chokeberry, elderberry, and honeyberry — into early-successional habitat which has received treatments of varying levels of soil disturbance;
Maintaining land in an essentially arrested state of early-successional development to increase biodiversity and habitat for wildlife, including native pollinators; and
Recycling the high-carbon waste produced by such management practices through the construction of specialized sheet compost-cum-raised beds known as ‘Hugelkultur’.
Secondary objectives include measuring plant growth as an indicator of health and future production value, and economic analysis of the costs associated with the execution of each treatment.
The experiment will be conducted over the course of three years as the changes in soil health and composition which we will be monitoring tend to happen slowly over time, and a longer time-frame for data collection will also provide more meaningful results in the face of uncontrollable environmental variables like weather.
In the first year of our project, we completed initial site preparation and machinery work for all of the experimental plots, and we obtained all of the nursery stock necessary for the project. We began construction of the hugelkultur beds, and took and analyzed soil samples for the project once in the spring, before site work began, and once in the fall. Our project has two more years scheduled before completion. Remaining tasks include: completing hugelkultur construction, planting of nursery stock in each plot, care and maintenance of the plots, data analysis and outreach.
Our project is three years in length and we’re just in the start-up phase, so it’s a bit early for results. Accomplishments include those listed in the previous paragraph. There have been two major changes to our initial concept that will likely affect our cost/income analysis; both are due to the unusual climatic factors that this region faced this year (the early warm spell this spring, and the heavy drought this summer). Specifically, we were not able to complete the construction of the hugelkultur beds as planned this year, and we were unable to plant the berry crops in the experimental plots.
The large scale farm projects we implemented this year, combined with the heavy drought this summer, put a significant strain on our workforce, which diminished what we were able to accomplish toward constructing the hugelkultur beds until late in the season. We had been planning to utilize the cover crop as a green manure within the hugelkultur mounds, but the cover crop we sowed in the control plots did not survive the drought and securing an outside source of green manure late in the season proved problematic. We also spent more time than originally anticipated in gathering and processing the woody debris required for hugelkultur construction, due to the fact that the wood had already been partially removed and/or redistributed after the initial cut. Completion of the hugelkultur beds may require a greater cost and time estimate than we anticipated, although some of this cost may be recovered by obtaining construction labor through paid workshop volunteers.
One new idea for this type of project that we would recommend for others interested in testing similar techniques on marginal land would be to order nursery stock one year prior to the planned beginning of the experimental land management project, re-pot them in larger containers, and raise them for a year to strengthen and develop root mass prior to the time you need to plant them out. This will assist the plants in coping with the conditions they are likely to find in marginal soils, and make them more competitive with larger, more established plants in successional landscapes. Alternatively, you may be able to order older/more established nursery stock if it is available and you can afford the increased costs.
This year was a busy one for the farm. In addition to our established five acres of mixed berry crops, we added a second high-tunnel greenhouse for fall-fruiting raspberries, an additional acre of strawberries, an additional acre of high-bush blueberries, one-half acre of elderberries, and expanded our black currant production. We renovated an unused garage and demolished an old woodshed attached to the farmhouse and built a commercial production kitchen and on-farm retail space to take their place. We are planning to use these new vertical integrations to reduce many of the direct costs associated with value-added production and retail sales. It was also our first summer having multiple WWOOF interns working for the farm at the same time, which presented new rewards and challenges.
Our main cooperator on the project this first year has been our grant writer, Devon Castillo, who took on the role of organizing the project and making sure that project goals were carried out, in spite of difficult working conditions this year. He seeded the cover crop in the control plots, and took soil samples in the spring and fall. Devon started construction of the hugelkultur beds, and led a hugelkultur building workshop with volunteers from a local permaculture class.
Additional hugelkultur construction and field work was completed with the help of our seasonal interns, and three young, local agricultural entrepreneurs, Emily Forse, Tomas Pickering, and Shelby Howland.
Sonia Scholemann, our project’s technical advisor, visited the site on a couple of occasions, and provided valuable input and advice, as well as instruction in soil-sampling techniques. Sonia also equipped us with a soil penetrometer which was needed to complete the soil testing.
University of Massachusetts Extension
Department of Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences
West Experiment Station/UMass
Amherst, MA 01003
Office Phone: 4135454347
Bug Hill Farm
P.O. Box 516
502 Bug Hill Road
Ashfield, MA 01330
Office Phone: 4192629960