Tuesday, July 12, 2016

40% of New York is in a Drought: What do the trees have to say?

Areas in brown are classified "moderate drought"

Drought conditions really shine a light in the dark corners of the farm, illuminating the aspects of our systems that are most vulnerable. At our best, we can learn from the lessons presented before us, and at our worst we crumble in fear and let our daily anxiety overwhelm us.

Droughts, floods, and crop failure are nothing new for humanity and especially not for farmers. The choice we have is to be better prepared to anticipate these inevitable extremes the next time around. With all the incredible and innovative people getting into farming I have a lot of hope – yet we must have the difficult conversations and daylight our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as well as celebrate our strengths.

Farming teaches us that there can’t be a single catch-all solution to a problem, but instead we must draw up a range of strategies to keep things moving ahead. And while our farm has its fair share of tanks, pumps, and infrastructure to store, hold, and move water where we need it, we always go back to the biological systems, to examine and explore the stories they have to tell us.

It’s remarkable that trees and woody plants hardly look different this year. Sure, there is sometimes some wilting, and new growth is certainly diminished – but overall the trees, and especially the forest, look remarkably the same whether it’s a dry, normal, or wet year.

There is a lot of research, along with human experience, to back up the benefits of trees and forested ecosystems in the context of a more dynamic climate, and one has to go no further than their local woodlot or preserve to see it firsthand. Our fields are brown and parched, our gardens wilting were it not for the irrigation, and yet the forest stands true and tall, doing its thing.

We planted trees in our pasture when we first arrived four years ago. We’ve seen over decades of tree planting that a proper hole, along with more intensive care (water, reducing weed pressure, nutrients) during the first three years gives most trees a foothold to thrive and take care of themselves. Considering that these trees could live for decades if not hundreds of years makes the investment a good one.

This season, the Willows, Red Alders, and Black Locust were finally above browse height so the sheep could graze amongst them. The trees were like a magnet; the sheep spend time digesting their forages in their shade, and they put extra effort into grabbing onto the lower branches and stripping the leaves with their teeth. The woody plants provide good nutrients and extra tannins, which can help reduce parasite issues in our flock. 

Trees and woody vegetation, though, have a slower recovery time. We certainly need pasture with its fast growing grasses and forbs as the mainstay of our sheep’s diet. Yet as we make our second rotation around the farm, those forages are almost non-existent in these conditions. We’ve taken to carving paths through our field edges and hedgerows- mostly packed with thick shrubby vegetation like honeysuckle and multi-flora rose – and the sheep love it! Most remarkable is the mutual offering of food and shade these marginal spaces offer. Plus there is a labor savings for us – we haven’t moved our portable shade shelter in six weeks, because the sheep don’t need it.

There are even more unseen benefits of trees and woodlands on our farm – most notably in this dry time the difference in air humidity from pasture to forest. Mature trees cycle hundreds of gallons of water per day, though their roots and our their shoots, a necessary release that is part of the photosynthetic process. Our sheep shelter doesn’t provide an ambient cooling system.

In a time of stress and vulnerability, trees are showing us the way, and providing our animals shelter, food, and air conditioning. They offer us a signpost of a way forward; we just have to figure out the kinks of how trees can be integrated into our farm in a way that still allows us to move fence, machinery, and animals efficiently.  For instance, we began planting trees on contoured rows about 30 feet apart – only to realize that our sheep prefer wider alleys more like 45 – 60 feet apart. Part of planting trees is letting some go – recognizing that this process of growing, dying, changing is all part of the dance.

As we evaluate our choices, systems, and preparedness in the wake of this very hard year for land and farming, one element has become clear; trees and wooded areas will continue to become more and more a part of the farm. We continue to see the benefits, not only in dry times but also in times of excessive rain – the climate change phenomenon some say we are more likely to experience.

Related to all this is a discovery that the marginal edges of the farm – the overgrown hedgerows and thickets of thorny brush – offer respite and a largely undervalued resource. These areas haven’t been maintained in the past because the land was managed with a tractor – and this vegetation persists where it’s awkward or unfeasible for the tractor to go. When we traced the lines of these spaces in Google Earth we found that we have several more acres of pasture available – we just have to begin managing it.

The intentional management of trees in a farm setting is known as Agroforestry.

As we continue investing in trees, we are expanding our palette of species, to match the various areas of the farm and continue our process of reforesting the farm for the multitude of benefits offered. IN addition to the early success stories of the locust, alder, and willow, we are bringing Hybrid Poplar, Sycamore, Birch, Elderberry, Aronia, Paw Paw, and more into the wet riparian areas of the farm, so that we can support healthy water ecology both in times of dry and wet.  We are clearing brush and leaving behind the native White Pines, Hawthornes, Maples, Oaks, and Hickories that persist, thinning them only enough so that we can establish and understory of grazing forages on the woodland floor.

In this way, each time we experience extreme weather, our farm will be more ready to respond. Each year, as the systems grow, there is more invested in that stable, reliable character the forests and its trees offer. And we are confident that any farm producing any range of products would benefit from the addition of trees to its layout – we just have to work out the details.

See agroforestry systems in action at several farms, along with an in-depth study of forest ecology in some of the most diverse forests in North America during the Forestry & Agroforestry Short Course at Wellspring Forest Farm August 12 – 16.