Integrating Agroforestry At Rock Creek Farms

HIGHLIGHTING THE PAW PAW

We planted 10,000 trees at Rock Creek Farms earlier this June, making our agroforestry plans a reality. Planting trees has proved to be a powerful experience for all involved. As we face sobering news within our country, from the rising death toll of Covid-19 to police responding with brutality to peaceful protests honoring George Floyd, we seem to be facing a reckoning. At Rock Creek, planting trees has been an exercise in hope: land that had been a conventional monoculture can become a native forest ecosystem. Change is possible. We can build a better future.

Trees of Change

In collaboration with the Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Reserve Program, the Savanna Institute, and Healing Soils Foundation, we planted 10,000 trees in eight rows at Rock Creek Farm. Each tree is native to Illinois. The biodiverse grouping of 25 species was designed to surround the organic fields and act as a protective windbreak. In fact, the trees provide much more by sheltering the organic crops from development and pesticide drift from neighboring conventional farms.

Agroforestry at Rock Creek Farms is a long-term economic undertaking in partnership with the farmer. In the future, we anticipate expanding these practices to include alley cropping and silvopasture.

The photos left show team members from the Savanna Institute planting trees as well as the fruit of a paw paw tree. This photo is credited to Wendell Smith.

We spoke with Kaitie Adams, Savanna Institute’s Illinois Demonstration Farm Manager, about agroforestry and its potential in Illinois. At its most basic, agroforestry is the combination of trees and agriculture and has roots in indigenous traditions of ecosystem management. The trees chosen for Rock Creek Farms play many roles: they reduce soil erosion, help retain water, and they can be harvested for food, timber, floral arrangements, and more. The paw paw tree, for example, has delicious fruit and grows throughout Illinois and North America in shady areas. This makes it an ideal tree for the understory of the windbreak. Kaitie calls the paw paw “one of the most American fruits there is” because of its history and role as a food source for indigenous Americans and all those who forage for it and grow it. Kaitie is shown right planting trees at Rock Creek Farm.

On the importance of choosing native trees, Kaitie says, “I don’t know what our climate will be like in 20 years and models vary based on the data used –– when we use native trees, we know they can withstand changes. They are resilient and have been on this planet longer than humans. The trees we plant today will be there for future generations.” This practice benefits young farmers in particular because agroforestry grows with us. It is a more hands-on investment at the start but becomes easier over time as the trees mature and the ecosystem becomes more self-sustaining.

This project is under contract with the Conservation Reserve Program for ten years, at which point the trees will be established and can contribute to the cash flow at Rock Creek. Although more farmers are diversifying their crop rotation, much of Illinois is still dominated by commodity crops. Agroforestry can play a role in creating ecosystem resilience and developing new markets in the rural Midwest. Kaitie believes that “at a time of huge soil degradation, it’s imperative to implement practices that we know work to help soil, like windbreaks and cover crops.” The trees in the windbreak at Rock Creek Farms have proven market demand and are actively sinking carbon at the same time.

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