Planting of nut trees puts a new agricultural model to the test
Originally posted in the Hill Country Observer
By TRACY FRISCH
The crew gathered at Kevin Maher’s farm on a weekend in the middle of May with an ambitious goal: to plant 10,000 hazelnut trees in open fields on the hilly, largely wooded 240-acre property.
The project was the first to be undertaken by Agroforestry Management LLC, a new company Maher founded with Jared Woodcock, a native of the neighboring town of White Creek. Their business is dedicated to spreading the practice of “forest agriculture” – in which tree crops like nuts are planted in widely spaced rows that allow space for complementary farming activities -- in Washington County and beyond.
The effort is part of a broader movement, inspired by the Wisconsin farmer and author Mark Shepard, that aims to get thousands of acres in the region planted with chestnuts, hazelnuts and Korean pine nuts. If it succeeds, supporters say the agroforestry movement has the potential to radically transform large-scale agriculture both locally and nationally.
In this region where New York and New England meet, the idea of growing nut trees commercially marks a significant break with convention. The local agricultural landscape is dominated by annual crops, such as corn, plus forages like hay, that are mainly destined to feed dairy cows. The only tree crops commonly harvested locally are maple syrup and apples.
The thought of planting rows of nut trees on cropland and hilly fields probably would strike many farmers in the region as a cockamamie scheme unlikely to ever take hold.
But Maher and Woodcock aim to disprove that by scaling up their vision for “regenerative farming.”
The concept is to put nut trees at the center of their farming operations while encouraging other complementary agricultural enterprises -- from pastured livestock to fruit-bearing shrubs or vegetable production – in the ample alleyways between rows of nut trees.
Supporters say this system offers both financial and environmental benefits – by developing diverse, high-value crops, and by reducing soil erosion, improving soil health and fostering biological diversity. And the trees planted for agroforestry would absorb the atmospheric carbon that contributes to climate change and put it back into the soil.
Maher and Woodcock say success depends on pursuing the concept on a large scale. A critical mass of nut producers will be needed to justify processing and marketing infrastructure that would give growers outlets beyond U-pick operations, farmers markets and online sales. Working with local farmers and landowners, and with outside investors who will underwrite the cost of large-scale tree plantings, Maher and Woodcock aim to get 4,000 acres of nut trees in the ground within a decade.
Seeking a bigger impact
Several other farmers and landowners are putting the concept of agroforestry into practice independently around the region, including two with nut tree plantings in Rensselaer County who agreed to be interviewed for this story.
But the project started by Maher and Woodcock stands out for its ambitious scale. The two partners say they began with a vision, inspired by Shepard, and created their limited liability company as a means to realize that vision. They decided to seek out financing from accredited investors – wealthy or high-income individuals who meet federal rules that allow them to participate in riskier, and potentially more lucrative, investments.
“We could go to banks and other conventional lenders, or we could work with humans who have the same belief system and can contribute money,” Woodcock explained. “That is why we prefer to work with equity partners.”
Maher, who previously worked in the world of finance but became interested in farming because of a family health issue, says the nut trees are the sort of investment that requires patience.
“Essentially what we are doing is building a biological factory, so there are start-up costs and labor costs,” Maher said. “Then you have a consistent yield that can last for generations and sequester carbon and increase biodiversity.”
Their company plans to use investor funds to acquire land, buy and plant seedlings and sustain the trees during the early years. The investors will share in the proceeds from crop sales when the trees mature.
Over time, Agroforestry Management aims to help other farmers join the movement, by functioning as a vehicle to connect investors with people who have the skills and equipment to plant nut trees but lack the necessary capital.
“No one farmer can afford to create that critical mass alone,” Woodcock said. “And groups of farmers can’t risk everything to plant it all at once.”
Maher said they are focusing first on establishing parcels to demonstrate that the model can work. And those parcels will be larger ones. Getting 400 acres established will allow them to put a small-scale processing facility in place. This will help attract additional investors and allow more farmers to consider these nut plantings as a viable option.
“There are two sides to it,” Maher explained. “If we’re working with investors and they see the progress, they may be comfortable before we reach full maturity. As people see it go from theory to implementation, I think we'll be able to move faster.”
In a few weeks they’ll be assisting with another hazelnut planting. In that project, the landowner will bear the cost of the plants and the installation. Often, though, that won’t be the case.
Woodcock said their company is unusual in several ways, especially because farmers and land stewards will make all the land management decisions. He and Maher see that ground rule as a safeguard allowing farmers to use their best judgment to sustain the enterprise and the integrity of the agricultural ecosystem.
Kevin Maher, the co-founder of Agroforestry Management LLC, carries an armload of hazelnut tree seedlings, bred to be cold hardy, ready to be planted at his farm in Cambridge, N.Y. Maher and his business partner hope to get 4,000 acres of nut trees planted around the region within a decade. Joan K. Lentini photo
A tree-planting adventure
At Maher’s farm, the planting crew was tasked with getting thousands of bare-rooted hybrid hazelnut seedlings into the ground. The crew consisted of a core group of five or six people, with others showing up to help for a few hours here and there, so that there might have been eight to 10 participating at any one time.
Shepard, the author and a national leader in the agroforestry movement, traveled to Cambridge from Wisconsin to lead the first planting of nut trees for the business he’d inspired Maher and Woodcock to start. For years he has been helping to guide similar installations around the country.
As a nurseryman, Shepard had selected and grown the tree seedlings that were being planted. Shepard also came to offer his expertise in water management and to teach the growers how to lay out the orchard rows to more evenly distribute water and prevent erosion.
“The task is to spread water out by the way you plant, rather than by draining the land,” he explained.
Over the course of one weekend, the crew was able to plant 10,000 hazelnut trees in long rows that curve and meander with the contours of the topography. On Saturday, they labored for 14 hours to plant 5,700 hazelnuts. The next day they did much better, planting 4,000 trees on a lower, flatter field in just five hours.
On Monday, Maher jubilantly announced, “We cranked out a 10-acre planting in a day and a half.”
Just a week and a half later, thanks to warm weather and plentiful rain, some of the vigorous seedlings were already starting to leaf out.
Lessons of forestry and life
Meeting the ambitious goal of planting thousands of nut trees in a couple days hadn’t been a sure thing. The tree planters were working with borrowed equipment that malfunctioned. A local nursery dropped off a tree planter, and a generous neighbor had lent them a tractor.
But the pull-behind tree planter had come with a broken coulter. That essential piece of iron cuts the sod into which the trees are to be planted. Having grown up on a farm, doing woods work and exposed to the practical trades, Woodcock was able to take apart the coulter on the spot and repair and sharpen it. A grateful Maher marveled at his skill.
Woodcock traces his interest in forest agriculture back to his father, who had a passion for American chestnuts. He recalled a day in his boyhood, when he was working with his dad in the woods and they happened upon a large chestnut tree.
American chestnuts had been all but wiped out by a fungal disease in the early 20th century, and Woodcock remembers the intensity of his father’s excitement at discovering a survivor.
“We planted out its nuts in the yard,” he said.
The nuts that grew into trees produced chestnuts, though all of them eventually fell ill from the blight.
Woodcock, 36, grew up around agricultural and trade skills that are crucial for the project of planting trees and managing the land.
“I took these life lessons for granted until I went to college and realized most people weren’t as lucky as me to grow up in a way that allowed me to learn how to use tools and get things done,” he said. “My mother always says, ‘Necessity breeds invention.’ That’s her way of saying, ‘I’m not going to buy it for you. Go and figure it out.’”
Woodcock currently makes his living as a private forest manager and grows food for his family on their homestead. With his workhorses, he does woods work year round for private landowners. Previously, for several years, he helped get the agriculture program at SUNY Adirondack off the ground, inspiring students to work with new paradigms for ecological agriculture. Before that, he managed the farm at Merck Forest for a couple years.
He compares working a homestead to having a big garden.
“It’s based on beauty and poetry,” he said.
Full-time farming, he acknowledged, is “not as fun.” But he recognizes its necessity – and its benefits.
“We know that tree crops have a positive effect on the ecosystem services that we humans depend on,” he said. “And they also produce a long-term food crop, so it’s win-win.”
Finance to farming
Maher came to the partnership from an altogether different background: He moved up to Washington County from suburban New Jersey, where he’d been a commodity trader.
“We chose to move up here because my ex-wife was from the region,” he explained. “In 2011, I had stepped back from my trading career and was home with my kids.”
Maher’s priorities had begun shifting almost a decade before his family made their move upstate. In 2002, his daughter had been born with severe food intolerances.
Concerned about their ailing daughter, the Mahers educated themselves about the food system and joined the community-supported agriculture project at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, N.J. Started by a visionary Catholic nun and run under the sponsorship of Dominican sisters, Genesis Farm was one of the first farms in the country to follow the CSA concept, in which a farm’s customers pay in advance to buy shares of each year’s harvest. Maher wound up serving on the farm’s board of directors for a time.
“I was being made aware of issues in agriculture and how we grow our food and the impacts it has had on ecosystems,” he recalled.
On his suburban house lot of one-third of an acre, Maher and his family had a forest garden – a landscape of edible perennials -- installed as a Genesis Farm workshop.
“We had pear and plum trees in the upper story,” he recalled. “Below these fruit trees were other edibles, like goumi, a relative of the autumn olive, bush cherry trees, raspberry canes, and tuber-producing Chinese artichokes, as well as all sorts of medicinal and culinary herbs.”
Even before he moved to this area, Maher was familiar with the work Shepard had been doing in Wisconsin. And he had just this type of project in mind when he decided to buy his semi-mountainous property in Cambridge, though he lacked the requisite practical knowhow to realize his dream.
He met Woodcock at the Cambridge farmers market soon after moving to the area. The two men were inspired by Shepard’s book “Restoration Agriculture,” which came out in 2012, and in 2014, they both met Shepard when he did a weekend workshop just down Route 22 in Stephentown.
Shepard told them he thought this region was perfectly suited for his agroforestry model, and they began discussing how to overcome the initial hurdles to implementing that model – especially the cost and delayed payback of planting tree crops.
Maher has used his financial skills to guide the limited liability company he and Woodcock formed. Last year they brought in Ji Soo Noh, a lawyer in the Philadelphia area who Maher said has been a close friend since high school.
“We’ve been looking for a diversity of skills and background to build our woody crop company,” he said.
A more recent addition to the team is Dave Jacke, co-author of “The Edible Forest Garden,” who’s based in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Jacke has long been associated with the ecological design movement known as permaculture, which uses some of the same concepts as agroforestry but typically involves smaller-scale projects.
Keeping farming viable
As the architect of agroforestry, Shepard’s work has drawn interest around the country. While he was in the area working with Maher and Woodcock last month, he led a two-hour workshop on “restoration agriculture” that was hosted by the Agricultural Stewardship Association, a regional farmland conservation group, at the Hubbard Hall campus in Cambridge. Despite minimal advance notice, the workshop attracted more than 50 people, some from as far away as the mid-Hudson Valley.
Teri Ptacek, the executive director of the Agricultural Stewardship Association, said Shepard’s work offers an intriguing model for helping to sustain working farms in the region.
“Farm viability has always been a part of our mission.” Ptacek said. “We’re particularly concerned about what kinds of effects climate change is having on agriculture. That’s why we're interested in hosting programs that orient farmers toward adopting practices that sequester carbon and build soil health so their land is more resilient.”
Promoters of agroforestry say it will help to create more resilient ecosystems by curbing soil erosion, improving soil health and increasing the diversity of insects and wildlife. All of these benefits, supporters say, flow from the creation of perennial polycultures – in other words, growing multiple perennial plant species together rather than cultivating the typical monoculture of corn or another annual crop.
Trees transpire as a matter of course, providing natural cooling during the growing season, and helping to prevent drought. Tree plantings are better able to withstand the weather extremes associated with climate change than annual crops with smaller root systems.
Supporters say forest agriculture also reduces farmers’ workload as well as the costs for chemical inputs (fertilizers and various biocides) normally used for row crops like corn. And the concept offers the potential for better economic sustainability because of the potential high value of tree nuts and the fact that multiple enterprises can coexist on the same acreage.
Another advantage of mixed plantings or polycultures is greater productivity when compared with monocultures, Shepard told his audience. When plantings contain more than a single species, he said, they capture more sunlight and produce more biomass.
Shepard started with the premise that trees are superior to annual crops in their resilience and their capacity to heal the land.
More than 20 years ago, he founded Forest Agriculture Enterprises, a nursery where he’s been breeding productive, cold-hardy chestnut and hazelnut hybrids for use as perennial alternatives to corn and soybeans. His 200-acre New Forest Farm in southwestern Wisconsin has offered a demonstration of how agricultural soils degraded by row cropping in corn can be restored through conversion into a perennial agricultural system.
Shepard has long wanted to see his vision implemented on a larger scale. Most of those who’ve tried it so far have done small plantings that are too widely dispersed geographically to create any kind of critical mass.
But now in several areas of the Midwest, and in the Ithaca area of New York, nut growers are scaling up their orchards and banding together to form co-operatives to support needed processing facilities. Shepard said 4,000 acres of nut trees would be an appropriate target to create the level of crop production needed to support processing and marketing.
Maher and Woodcock have embraced that number as their goal.
Testing other approaches
Around the region, other farmers and landowners have becoming interested in this agroforestry model and are working out their own ways of getting nut orchards planted locally.
Nearly two hours to the south of Cambridge, in the city of Hudson, a business run by millennials called Propagate Ventures works with investors to finance the planting and management of nut trees in exchange for a no-cost partnership lease with farmer-landowners. In this model, the trees are managed as investor assets, while profits from the nut crops are shared with each farmer. Farmers do not earn equity in the nut orchards, though they do have the option of buying out the investors and gaining ownership of the trees and the infrastructure that supports them.
In the Rensselaer County town of Pittstown, former dairy farmer Brad Wiley has leased 7 or 8 acres to Russell Wallack, a beginning farmer who planted the field in chestnut trees. That arrangement came about after Wiley’s partner Elizabeth Collins stumbled upon Wallack’s entry on the Hudson Valley Farmland Finder. She had been scrolling through the online matching service, looking for a vegetable farmer to lease their tenant house and some of their tillable land.
Wallack, who lives in Amherst, Mass., calls his business Breadtree Farms. The name refers to the chestnut, which in various ethnic cuisines is used to make a gluten-free flour. He entered into a 30-year lease with Wiley.
“I’m a 30-year-old beginning farmer,” Wallack said. “So for me, it’s a great opportunity. I can’t afford to buy land.”
Wallack was able to self-finance his tree planting partially through his day job with the consulting firm Terragenesis International, which assists brands in understanding the impacts of their sourcing decisions. He said he used his credit cards to get the rest of the needed funds, though he stressed that he’s conservative in his spending habits.
His agreement with Wiley follows a revenue-sharing model. Because Wallack is fronting the cost of establishing the nut orchard, he explained that under their contract, “Brad won't receive any cash until I’m making money.”
Wallack expects to begin harvesting chestnuts within three or four years. At first he will sell fresh whole nuts, which can go for $10 a pound. They will be husked but unshelled. But by the time his chestnut trees achieve full production after eight or 10 years, Wallack said he would like to have access to a drying and milling facility.
Like other current and future chestnut orchardists, Wallack said he sees a market that’s wide open. Currently 90 percent of fresh chestnuts consumed in the United States are imported.
But that might not be indicative of future trends. Wallack noted that domestic almond production has quadrupled in the past 20 years.
A model for the future?
Ben Hart and his wife bought land and built their home in Stephentown in 2014. In the spring three years later, he invited Shepard to the region to give a weekend workshop on forest agriculture. The workshop attracted 35 people, including Maher and Woodcock.
On the weekend of that workshop, Hart planted most of his land – nearly 9 acres -- in 1,000 chestnut and 2,000 hazelnut trees. He had done little to prepare the land in advance, but it doesn’t seem to have mattered.
“So far the results have been fine,” Hart said, adding that the well-drained soil, although it had been heavily farmed in the past, had lain fallow for two or three years before the tree planting.
Before moving to Rensselaer County, Hart lived in St. Louis, where he was finishing his doctorate in philosophy. While writing his dissertation, he said he realized he wanted to do something more impactful than writing papers that only would only be read by a handful of other academics.
As he pondered his next move, he read Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and considered its implications. He became interested in the permaculture movement.
“But permaculture is not going to feed people at scale in a regenerative way,” Hart said. “I felt like permaculture is great for one acre. It’s gorgeous and productive.”
He attended a talk by Shepard and was taken with his vision of an agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems, based on “what wants to grow” in a particular region. He liked the fact that Shepard, trained in permaculture, had taken its principles and developed a model that combines perennials, such as nut trees, with animals – a model that can be scaled.
Within three or four years, Hart expects to be harvesting a lot of nuts, because the trees came from Shepard’s nursery and were selected for early bearing.
“I think of it as a long-term investment,” Hart said.