Effects of controlled disturbance within early-successional northeastern forest habitat: Evaluating soil quality, plant production, and economic feasibility

2013 Annual Report for FNE12-751

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2012: $14,976.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kathleen Kerivan
Bug Hill Farm

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.

In 2013 we have completed construction of the experimental hugelkultur beds, completed planting of nursery stock in all plots, and took and analyzed soil samples for the project in the spring and fall. Our project has one more year scheduled before completion, although continued soil sampling in the future may be required to reveal significant insights from the data. Remaining tasks include: care and maintenance of the plots, continued soil sampling and analysis, and data analysis and outreach.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Our project is three years in length and this year we have firmly established the experimental setup. Accomplishments include those listed in the previous paragraph. One major change to our cost analysis of the project is the amount of intensive work required to complete the hugelkultur beds and berry plantings. We did not have as many volunteer farm hands this year as last, and our costs for labor increased accordingly.

One of our upcoming challenges for this project is going to be addressing the nutrient deficiencies in our soils without compromising the integrity of the project. Application of organic matter and fertilizers will need to be handled so that each plot receives the same quantity and concentration is not localized or distributed unevenly across plots. Control of established woody perennial competitors in early-successional habitat and control of weedy herbaceous species throughout the plots without resorting to chemical herbicides will present new challenges.


The large scale farm projects we implemented this year include enhancing existing trail systems through the early-successional habitat and initiated a trail signage system to encourage visitors. We executed a successful hugelkultur-building workshop, and hosted an open-house tour and talk about the grant project and the importance of early-successional habitat for biodiversity. This year the bulk of our efforts were concentrated on maintaining the health of our existing systems, and completing the plantings for the SARE project.

Our main cooperator on the project this first year has been a volunteer, Matthias Nevins, who initiated and took charge of organizing the completion of the hugelkultur beds and planting of nursery stock. He was an invaluable aid to us this year.

Additional hugelkultur construction and field work was completed with the help of our seasonal interns and farm hands, Ellen Green, Mike Dale, Chris Wilkins, and Casey Robinson.

Devon Castillo has continued to assist with grant project administration, financial management, and reporting.

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. Sonia will be helping us address issues of soil quality and treatment options this coming year, as well as monitoring plant growth and helping us begin to analyze gathered data.


Sonia Schloemann

[email protected]
Fruit Specialist
University of Massachusetts Extension
Department of Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences
West Experiment Station/UMass
Amherst, MA 01003
Office Phone: 4135454347
Devon Castillo

[email protected]
Business Intern
Bug Hill Farm
P.O. Box 516
502 Bug Hill Road
Ashfield, MA 01330
Office Phone: 4192629960