Evaluating Agroforestry Enterprise Opportunities for Specialty Forest Products: Decision Tools for Producers

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $99,308.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Federal Funds: $170,000.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $86,306.00
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Scott Josiah
Nebraska Forest Service

Annual Reports


  • Fruits: berries (other)
  • Nuts: hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts
  • Additional Plants: trees


  • Crop Production: windbreaks
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, extension, networking, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management, agricultural finance, market study, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, hedgerows, riparian buffers


    Gathering, organizing, and extending a large amount of specialty forest product (SFP) cultivar performance, product, and financial and market data and information has considerably improved producer decision making for on-farm SFP enterprise opportunities. This information, transferred to producers through comprehensive outreach and training efforts and a web based Market Information System, has substantially increased producer adoption of more diverse, profitable, and sustainable agricultural systems that integrate annual and woody perennial crops in Nebraska and the Midwest. Impacts include enhancing the capacity of natural resource agencies and non-profits to support producer assessment of SFP enterprises, and the organization of a specialty woody crop processing and marketing cooperative in Nebraska.


    Chronically low commodity prices and rising production costs are forcing producers throughout the Great Plains and Midwest to search for alternatives to current crops and farming systems to improve farm profitability and system sustainability. Many producers have shown considerable interest in producing “alternative crops” (including specialty forest products for the niche food, medicinal, decorative floral and handicraft markets), but the barriers to adopting these crops (and their associated integrated cropping systems) are substantial.

    Perhaps the greatest barrier to large-scale adoption of these alternatives is the critical lack of specific, believable, science-based information that producers need to 1) decide whether a particular crop fits with their enterprise, 2) grow the material, and 3) market the products. Easy access to information that does exist is extremely limited, usually located in obscure or hard-to-locate publications, and fairly general in nature. Unfortunately, many alternative crops are often promoted using inaccurate or questionable production, yield, local suitability, or market data, making producers reluctant to enter into new ventures. Indeed, many alternative crops are promoted most heavily by those who stand to profit most from their adoption (e.g., nurseries). Further exacerbating the problem, most producers that currently grow “alternative crops” (especially SFPs) are very reluctant to share their production and market expertise, for fear of assisting potential competitors. Little of this rich source of “indigenous knowledge” is published or available in any form.

    This paucity of information limits many potentially profitable and environmentally beneficial opportunities to use woody plants that produce commercially valuable products in more sustainable farming systems (agroforestry). The result is that natural resource professionals are reluctant to promote SFPs without science-based data, and/or producers are unwilling to adopt the practices because they are unable to evaluate the financial benefits and risks.

    This project addresses these barriers by consolidating knowledge gained in past and current SARE and other initiatives, and creating science-based, producer-accessible tools and databases intended to assist producers in identifying and customizing SFP enterprises with the most potential. In fact, this project provides SARE with a means to consolidate and transfer agroforestry and specialty forest product technologies and information gained in a number of other SARE-funded projects, and make them widely available to producers in the North Central region and nationwide.

    Literature Review

    Research conducted on the financial and economic benefits of agroforestry systems that produce specialty forest products is limited, particularly when products are produced in intentional systems. Research on agroforestry system economics relevant to the Great Plains and Midwest is largely limited to the economic benefits of windbreaks (Kort and Brandle, 1991a and 1991b, Brandle et al, 1992), the value of agroforestry plantings for hunting (Cable and Cook 1990), and black walnut alleycropping systems (Kurtz and Garrett 1990, Kurtz et al 1991).

    Smith’s (1929) classic study on a “permanent agriculture” was one of the first to describe the general economic potential of producing special forest products on marginal cropland. Douglas et al (1980) updated and expanded on Smith’s ideas, describing potential tree/crop assemblages in various agricultural systems worldwide. A number of publications provide broad reviews of the special forest products industry, usually in the Pacific Northwest, and generally focus on “wildcrafting” (harvesting from natural populations in existing forests) (Jones 1995, Schnepf 1994, Thomas 1993, Wills and Lipsey 1999, Mater Engineering 1993 and 1994, Hill 1990, and Western Forestry and Conservation Association 1998). Several efforts (Mater Engineering 1993 and 1994) attempt to document the markets for a variety of special forest products, and include some information on prices. Little work has been done on production costs or yields, particularly under cultivated conditions, or on the development of optimization models for integrated systems (Scherr 1991).

    Little is publicly known of the production functions of most of these species or varieties as they perform in agroforestry applications. Production data from some of these species that are currently being produced in commercial plantations are considered proprietary information and are closely held by private companies. These data are not generally available to researchers, landowners, or potential investors.

    Of the few papers in the literature reporting production data, Miller et al (1994) reported from Indiana that beginning two growing seasons after planting it was possible to selectively harvest 84 marketable pussy willow branches (>60cm) per plant, with a density of 1631 plants/ha. Hausher (1987) in a survey of the saskatoon industry in Alberta Canada, reported saskatoon yields of 500 lbs/acre the first year to a average of 2000 lbs/acre (ranging from 1650 to 6000 lbs/acre) on bushes seven years and older. Davis (1995) lists nut yields from a number of nut and fruit species, bearing ages, and prices obtained for pick-your-own operations, although the source of this information is not reported. Various financial analyses of black walnut alleycropping systems in Missouri have determined internal rates of return ranging from 4-11%, with nut revenues being particularly important (Kurtz et al 1991, Garrett et al 1994, Kurtz et al 1996, Kurtz et al 1984). However, even this relatively intensely studied system lacks detailed information on actual walnut production under managed conditions (Garrett and Harper 1999). And nut production data from trees derived from wild open pollinated seed can vary enormously between trees and from year to year (Jones et al 1995).
    The Native Fruit Development program at the University of Saskatchewan develops and commercializes the saskatoon serviceberry and other native fruit-bearing woody species for the production of high value berry and fruit crops. It is an excellent example of the powerful role a university can play to stimulate the development of new agroforestry-based industries. The goal of this program is to support the diversification and health of agricultural economies and operations, and to expand the food processing industry. These cultivars are now being adopted on a large scale by producers, who are using them in windbreak systems across the province (St. Pierre 1992). Kort (1994) reports that over the past 20 years, the culture of saskatoons in Saskatchewan has grown from simply harvesting wild berries to the cultivation of 250,000 pounds/year (in 1994), and the industry is expanding.

    Published financial evaluations of utilizing these species are limited but intriguing. Miller et al (1994), in a study of the use of species for the production of fruit, nuts and decorative florals in a designed riparian buffer, reported very high estimated gross financial returns (up to $13,590/acre) based on some production data. Robles-Diaz-de-Leon (1997) conducted a similar appraisal for the production of specialty forest products in riparian zones, reporting theoretical gross returns of $60,000/ha/year. The financial analysis methods to determine these returns were not reported. Evaluations of fruit crops such as saskatoons in Alberta showed returns of 8.5% if production exceeds 3,000 lbs./acre/year (Hausher, 1987). St. Pierre (1992) reports projected income ranges from the production of specialty fruit crops in Saskatchewan of Can$3,600/ha to Can$67,500/ha, with relatively high development costs (Can$3,600/ha to Can$12,000/ha). Williams (1991) conducted a financial analysis of a 10 ha saskatoon plantation in Saskatchewan, where 33,000 pounds of fruit were produced, providing a net income of nearly Can$25,000. Kort (1994) estimates that chokecherry plantations would require less management than do saskatoons, with higher yields and lower prices.

    Additional information on SFPs is scattered throughout the gray literature, including conference proceedings, internal reports, etc. (Josiah 1999, Streed in press, Streed 2001, Vance 1995, Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food, Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development A and B, newsletters of the Northern Nut Grower Associations and of various state chapters, and SARE project reports). Unpublished cultivar production, yield and fruit quality data are also available for saskatoons, chokecherry, pincherry. highbush cranberry and black currants from the Native Fruit Development Center in Saskatoon, Canada (R. St. Pierre, personal communication 2000). Hazelnut cultivar and yield information, though sketchy and limited, is available. For example, Farris (2000) summarized 25 years of breeding work on hybrid hazels in Michigan in his book “The Hazel Tree,” though this work does not include specific information on yields by cultivar. Pellett et al (1998) examined production and yield data from certain lines of hybrid hazels developed by Badgersett Farms. Ricks and Cely (1991) and the UNL Food Processing Center (2000) examined the Midwestern and national markets for hazelnuts.

    A method to consolidate the massive amounts of SFP production, economic, market, and price information producers need into a usable format was developed by Koppell (1995). This Market Information System (MIS) was locally developed in the Philippines for non-timber forest products, and was found to be useful by many farmers. It shows considerable potential to be adapted to Midwestern U.S. crops and conditions, and to be useful to Midwest producers. Given recent advances in electronic information technologies, the system can be continually updated, enhanced, and made available to all producers via use of the World Wide Web.

    Project objectives:

    1) Assemble existing SFP production, price and market data, and collect additional data as needed.
    2) Develop a web-based Financial Analysis Tool that producers can use to assess the returns from on-farm agroforestry investments using plants that produce SFPs.
    3) Develop a web-based SFP Marketing Information System (MIS) that will provide producers with comprehensive information on SFP product characteristics, distribution channels, prices, markets, and financial, botanical and production information, by cultivar.
    4) Integrate the data collected in (1) into both the Financial Analysis and MIS Tools.
    5) Transfer these information and decision assistance tools to producers and resource professionals through workshops, a newly developed SFP website that will list the Financial Analysis Tool, the MIS and their user guides, as well as other SFP publications.

    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.