An Agroforestry Road Trip

Hey all! Harry here. In addition to running the 100 Years of Sun tree nursery, I consult for Propagate Ventures. Propagate is a startup that is developing financing mechanisms for agroforestry implementation. What corporations excel at is moving money through space and time. Much of the value of trees lies in the future: chestnuts take several years to bear, and unless we are young, we plant black walnut trees such that our children can harvest the timber. The science of finance relates the future value of assets what they are worth today. As a result, applying financial principles to tree crops makes good sense. Timber Investment Management Organizations link forestry and finance, but agroforestry finance is not yet commonplace. This practice is part of what Propagate Ventures is all about.

My business partner, Jeremy Kaufman, and I have embarked on a tour of the status quo of agroforestry in the colder climates east of the great plains. We left Brooklyn, New York at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 1st, and headed straight to Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. This post details that experience. After Polyface, we continued on to the Martell Research Forest, where Purdue University has been conducting black walnut timber trials since 1968. Our next stop was the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where the Savanna Institute runs the Woody Perennial Polyculture research site. These two stops are detailed in our second post.

We have also arranged to connect with:

1. Red Fern Farm, a 25-year-old chestnut farm in Wapello, Iowa,

2. Prairie Grove Chestnut Growers, a chestnut aggregator in Columbus Junction, Iowa

3. Versaland, a four-year-old perennial polyculture farm in Iowa City, Iowa

5. Badgersett Research Corporation, a 30-year-old farm in Canton, Minnesota that breeds hybrid hazelnuts and chestnuts

6. Nettle Valley Farm, a new farm run by our friend Dayna

7. New Forest Farm, the United States' flagship cold-climate restoration agriculture site in Viola, Wisconsin

8. Mastodon Valley Farm, a younger farm near New Forest Farm that raises excellent pastured livestock

9. Feral Farm, an agroforestry farm run by Casel Dahl, a founding member of the Savanna Institute

10. LaFever Chestnuts, a chestnut orchard in Fenton, Michigan

11. The Route 9 Chestnut Cooperative, in Carrollton, Ohio

12. The Good Life Farm, in Interlaken, New York

13. Angus Glen Farm, a silvopasture farm in Watkins Glen, New York

Thus far, we've been making excellent connections! We may miss one of the above farms, but such is life. We'll be passing through these places, and if someone is gone for a week, we won't end up being able to meet with them. Alas!

Day 1: Polyface!

Polyface Farm is an old, but innovative classic in regenerative agriculture. They specialize in pastured meats such as chicken, beef, pork, turkey, and rabbit. Started by the Salatin family in 1961, they've always done things differently. The cows eat grass, and not corn. Laying hens follow the cows, picking through their dung as wild birds do with herds of grazing animals. The animals are given new, sanitary pasture daily, which keeps them healthy and antibiotic-free. The system is thought of as "beyond organic." We got to meet Joel Salatin, who was interested in our market-driven business model that works for both farmers and investors. If you'd like to learn more, the Polyfaces: The Film documentary is excellent, and Joel has written a number of books that are all very approachable, even if you don't have a farming background.

Joel Salatin's books make farming approachable. Polyface promotes the use of mobile, modular infrastructure that makes for low barriers to entry. The Polyface way of farming strikes a ratio of inputs that leans more toward labor than toward financial and technological inputs. If farming is ergonomic, human labor need not be eliminated from our days. Click here for a photo album from our trip.

Most meat, eggs, and dairy that we eat (or don't eat) in the United States is produced in Confined Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs). I would go on about the horrors of industrial meat production, but you can find that elsewhere. It suffices to say that CAFOs are ethically and environmentally atrocious. Confinement operations concentrate animal manure in one place, which readily volatilizes into methane, which is a greenhouse gas 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Concentrated manure takes your breath away. Polyface raises animals on pasture, incorporating their manure directly into the soil. The animals are moved daily to fresh pasture. Joel highlights that their operations is aesthetically, aromatically, and sensually romantic. In short, it doesn't stink, and the animals are healthier for not living in their own feces. As a result, the meat quality is excellent.

My Reflections on Polyface

I’ve been to a handful of mid-sized farms, and at Polyface, people are busy, but content. There are farms where farmers seem to be busy and angry, others where people appear off-track and unproductive, and some that cut the day like butter and go to sleep exhausted but satisfied. Polyface fits into the last category: those that are not 100% focused on production simply don't work at Polyface. You can smell the efficiency. People work hard, and sell good food for an honest price. They feed conventional grain, but unless we as a society are ready to buy $30 chickens, for $6/lb., it doesn't make sense for farmers to raise organic chicken. Grass-fed beef is $6-7 per pound, so perhaps $6/lb. is reasonable, but when consumers can buy a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken at a mainstream grocery store for $5.00 in total, the sticker-shock of organic, pastured chicken sets in. Elitists can fault Polyface for using conventional grain, but until we can convince society to pay for organic, pastured chicken, we might choose a different leg to stand on. Our other option is to simply not produce and eat chicken. I myself raised ducks and geese this past season on grain and apples, but I don't regularly buy animals that ate grain. Choices.

I myself have never raised pigs, so feel free to take the following with a grain of salt. When animals are left for long periods of time to forage in and inhabit the understory of a forest or silvopasture, they can damage the root systems of trees. Short rotations are fine, but prolonged impact kills trees. In certain pig paddocks at Polyface, there was very strong disturbance from the pigs. The area that we saw had large pigs in it, waiting to go to slaughter. Perhaps those pens are meant to be hit hard with impact. Many trees were rubbed like scratching posts, and many crowns were dying back. I’ve never raised pigs, so who am I to comment? I’m sure it makes good economic sense to sacrifice small sections of forest, but how often should we disturb a particular section of land, and how hard should we disturb it? This is not a statement phrased as a question, but: what kinds of drawbacks do we see from managing pigs like this? Answers to this must be in Joel’s newest book, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, and also in The Salatin Semester, or in several years of raising pigs myself. I suspect the short answer would be: we’re okay with intensely disturbing a small area of forest, and sacrificing a small number of trees.

A second inquiry I have for Polyface is as following: if they have been finishing pigs on acorns for decades, why not plant things like apple trees, such that the pigs have more tree food? I understand that the opportunity cost of time is real, and that spending days and bandwidth to plant trees takes away from routine operations. However, still, "why not?" is my question.

Moving back to the grain question, Polyface does what makes sense for its context. Personally, I would prefer that omnivores eat waste streams such and spent grain from a brewery, cheesemaking waste, and food waste in general. However, until we have local food hubs everywhere, the caloric intake of pigs and poultry will come from virgin grain. Although I don’t buy meat chickens, I am okay with buying laying hens, at what seems to be a liquidation value. Pine Island sells Maple Wind Farm’s old laying hens for my city’s refugee and recent-immigrant population to eat the kind of chicken they like. We bought a laying hen. I might continue to buy laying hens: if I’m okay with buying eggs, I should be okay with paying for the liquidation value of the bird. Joel says that if you eat eggs, you should eat 4 roosters per year. Americans don’t raise roosters, and it isn’t worth the money to raise them so I’ll stick with eating retired laying hens that I kill myself, if I plan to eat more birds than the ones I’ve already killed. Hens are essentially a waste stream, so In buying them I'm paying for someone’s time, rather than for the energy used to raise bird. I am happy to buy hens. Jeremy and I bought a hen at Polyface's farm store, and cooked it at an Airbnb in Urbana, Illinois. We ate the fatty meat, and made a fantastic soup with the carcass.

In reference to the autumn olive tree shake at the end of the first video above, autumn olive is a nitrogen-fixing shrub that produces an edible berry. I think it tastes good. It is native to Asia, from the Himalayas, east to Japan. It is considered highly "invasive." But, to when is it invasive? Humans are invasive. Apples are invasive. Let's get over ourselves. Are we okay with eating CAFO meat and driving gasoline-powered vehicles, but demonize the planting of autumn olive?

Polyface has made me interested in raising rabbits. Who knows if I have time for something like that. They eat hay, and not grain, and they turn it into manure that can be applied directly to plants without burning them. How good of a yard animal are they? Could I raised them in a small high tunnel in my yard over the winter? Rabbit meat isn't readily available in Vermont, so perhaps I'll find one when I'm back in Boston. It's generally a good idea to eat something before you raise it yourself.

First and foremost, we'd like to thank Heather Juda (right) for the tour. She was an intern that moved onto the apprentice program, and now runs her own farm down the road. Fortunately, Joel was home, and was interested in our financial model. He pitched one of his own that puts people back onto farmland to farm in the way that Polyface does. However, even a Polyface farm itself cannot pay a 4% dividend with current land prices. The price of cattle to the price of an acre of land ratio was 1:3 in 1961, and it is now 1:55. The opportunity cost of oil-based professions that are based on stored solar energy inflates the cost of land and comparatively suppresses the value of good food. We'll save that discussion for another time. It was great to talk to Joel.

Stick around for more blog posts!

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