Black Walnut Timber, and The Woody Perennial Polyculture Research Site

On Saturday, October 1st, Jeremy and I departed from New York City on a road trip across the midwest. We’ll be on the road through mid October, researching agroforestry. Our first stop was Polyface Farm, in Swoope, Virginia. Polyface has excelled in ecologically-responsible meat production since 1961. You can read an introduction to our trip and learn about our experience at Polyface in our first blog post, here. After Polyface, we continued on to The Martell Research Forest at Purdue University and the Woody Perennial Polyculture Site at The University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. To preface this post, you can find photos here.

There is no such thing as a vegan ecology, and strategic disturbance from animals is a cornerstone of regenerative agriculture. Even so, Propagate Ventures’ first asset class is backed by timber and tree crops. Black walnut yields timber, and chestnuts yield carbohydrate in perpetuity. Phrased as an annuity, the yields of chestnuts compete with the the lump sum of a 50-year timber rotation. What that means is that we need to juxtapose: the sale of chestnuts, every year for the next 500, phrased in 2016 dollars, and the present value of black walnut timber harvested in 50 years. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but rather that we have confirmation that chestnuts are an extremely profitable crop.

The Martell Research Forest at Purdue University breeds superior black walnut genetics. In the short run, it is more desirable to harvest the most valuable trees in a timber stand. These trees are often robust, straight, tall, and have grown quickly. However, when we take them out of the forest, we take their genetics out of the ecosystem. This is similar to the social “brain drain,” which is when intelligent people leave underdeveloped regions, leaving only “difficult people” to shape the culture and genetics of a region. If we create forests full of inferior genetics, we compromise our ability to harvest superior timber trees in the future. 48 years ago, Purdue gathered seed from wild specimens that were already straight and disease-free and started breeding trees. Currently, they supply both grafted stock and seed stock from superior trees. Below are several photos from their plots.

Jeremy with the older black walnuts
Harry with a large Chinese (seemingly American) chestnut

Recreation is an integral part of life and land use. Push-back against tree planting is something I, Harry, have experienced, due to the perception that trees prevent us from using the land in other ways. To the contrary, walking through and simply being in the black walnut groves was incredibly enjoyable.

Uses for the understory could include grazing poultry and small ruminants, human recreation such as running trails, or even shiitake mushroom cultivation. If farming shiitakes underneath an established canopy interests you, be sure to look into Farming The Woods, an excellent book by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel. Steve runs a shiitake and duck egg operation near Cornell University.

On our way to Purdue, driving down the highway, something caught my eye on the side of the road. I said, "Jeremy! That was a black walnut plantation! I'm turning around." We stopped in and talked to the owner, who was very friendly and willing to speak about his experience.

The oldest grove of trees was 33-years-old, and right next to it was another that was 8 years younger. The understory was mowed for a long time, but had grown in with grape vines, cedar, and various rubus canes (blackberries etc.). Like the Martell Research Forest, the paths through the plantation were peaceful and enjoyable. The owner informed us that senior citizens from the area often stop by to walk through the trees, and that younger people use the area for camping.

After Purdue, we continued on to Champaign, Illinois. The University of Illinois Urbana Champaign hosts The Savanna Institute at the Woody Perennial Polyculture Research Site. The site does trials of polycultures of chestnuts, hazelnuts, raspberries, and currants. Two sections, one five years old and the other two, display (among other things) what is possible even within a conventional mindset.

A graduate student named Dane gave us a in-depth tour of both sites. Dane is most interested in light capture and how it relates to nutrient and water capture. In a multi-strata agroforesty context, a canopy species such as chestnut or black walnut has the first chance to capture light. Shorter, shade-tolerant shrubs such as currant go on to catch residual light, and the grass underneath everything catches what is left. Roots of different depths work in a very similar manner, but doing what roots do, they uptake water and nutrient. Do deep rooted, multi-story perennials use light, water, and nutrient more efficiently than annuals do? One would think so, but conventional minds need proof. As a non-sequitur, they use a subsoiler to root prune the trees and shrubs, such that their roots don’t invade the alleys and inhibit annual crop production.

The WPP site is focused both on perennial productivity and alley cropping. Dane’s family farms 1200 acres of corn and soy, and he will be investigating how chestnuts and alley-cropped annuals will interact with each other. We inquired as to why they weren’t grazing animals in between the rows of trees. Apparently, they aren’t allowed to. As we know, animals are meant to be kept inside and should not see the light of day. Food should be brought to them, and they should not be brought to their food.

Our main takeaway is that these systems are appealing to everyone. Much of the regen-Ag and “permaculture” sphere is comprised of jort-wearing dirt worshippers like myself (Harry), though I hide it well. Why would an educated, innovative corn and bean farmer not be interested in diversifying his or her income? Why would he or she not be keen to decrease the amount of soil flowing off of their property? Over the past six months, I’ve talked to more conventional farmers than I had over the rest of my life. Some think trees aren’t worth ten seconds of their time, while others are 100% open to someone else coming onto their land and planting trees. At the end of the day, it would seem as though the willingness to use herbicide and synthetic fertilizer does not correlate with the desire to plant trees.

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