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Agroforestry for Food project


Project Overview

icon-natureThe Agroforestry for Food Project fits into the iSEE research theme of Secure and Sustainable Agriculture.



In Lead Investigator Sarah Taylor Lovell’s words:

“My Agroforestry for Food team is studying an alternative option for agriculture in the Midwest, initially targeting areas that are not best suited for row crops. We are comparing a variety of systems — mixtures of trees, shrubs, and forage or hay — that yield multiple food (and fuel) products including fruits and nuts.

“We call them ‘Multifunctional Woody Polycultures’ because of the potential benefits of a more complex mix of permanent species. In addition to providing harvestable products in abundance, these alternative systems could offer environmental benefits such as permanent wildlife habitat, efficient use of nutrients, and storage of carbon — all of which we will measure.

“We recognize that these systems must be profitable for the farmer, so we are accounting for all costs and income streams to compare with the conventional corn-soybean rotation. We will also explore the potential for alternative agriculture to contribute to healthier rural communities by improving the agricultural landscape and providing job opportunities for residents.”

Project News

In March 2017, the Lovell research team published a paper in the international journal “Agroforestry Systems” encouraging peers in the agroforestry research space to take up live-scale research on multifunctional woody polyculture (MWP): an agricultural system of fruit- and nut-bearing tree species cultivated for profit, ecosystem services, and human health benefits.

While the overall benefits of such systems are well documented, not enough detail is known about how MWP achieves them — from plant-to-plant interaction to water demand. A4F Principal Investigator Sarah Taylor Lovell and her co-authors argue for a network of institution-controlled studies and field trials that could unite “the innovation of growers and the resources of agricultural experiment stations” at land grant universities.”

Continue to the article to read descriptions of three experiments — including the iSEE team’s own 20-acre plot in Urbana-Champaign — used as case studies, and hear the team’s thoughts on the challenges of establishing, maintaining, and funding long-term research trials like these.

Keep reading in “Temperate agroforestry research: considering multifunctional woody polycultures and the design of long-term field trials” >>>

Sarah Taylor Lovell Pulling samples from lysimeters to measure nutrient leaching (April 2016).

Sarah Taylor Lovell photo
Pulling samples from lysimeters to measure nutrient leaching (April 2016).

PI Sarah Taylor Lovell reports:

  • Updates on the Multifunctional Woody Polyculture (MWP) long-term field trial, established in May 2015 at the Energy Farm on a 30-acre site with seven treatments replicated four times …
    1. Maintenance has been a primary focus over the past year: weed control, wildlife damage, etc.
    2. An eddy covariance tower was set up to measure carbon and water flux.
    3. A first cutting of the hay grown in the alleyways between crops was harvested in May 2016 (see next tab).
  • Performance trials for individual crop species are underway …
    1. New hybrids of hazelnuts are being studied for resistance to Eastern Filbert Blight.
    2. Black currants are being tested for tolerance to shade, to simulate conditions of growing in the understory, beneath chestnuts and hazelnuts.
    3. Light interception has been modeled for component species at system maturity.
  • A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) has focused on the unproductive years (prior to harvesting) …
    1. The nursery phase of chestnut trees was completed based on inventory data from a large Midwest nursery, and data for establishment was collected from MWP trial.

13254256_1021549617936194_4730552129281530989_nMAY 2016 — The iSEE project team collected its first dividends on its multi-species agricultural experiment. Grass forage was harvested from the alleys between rows of young trees and shrubs on 25 acres of the Agroforestry for Food research plot. Mowing, tedding (fluffing to help it dry), raking and baling took nearly 21 hours over a few days. The fresh bales of hay will be given to the university’s Department of Animal Sciences to feed farm livestock.

Annual forage crops grown around and between adolescent fruit and nut trees are an important part of a multi-species agricultural model because they can provide some income on the farm before the slowly maturing perennial shrubs and trees are old enough to produce high-value crops.

May 5 planting

MAY 2015 — Sarah Taylor Lovell’s team has begun planting trees and shrubs on a 20-plus-acre plot near the University of Illinois Energy Farm. In the first full week of May, more than 12,000 trees and shrubs were planted, with hazelnuts still to go into the ground in late summer. Each acre plot will feature a different combination (or treatment) of trees and shrubs, in addition to forage and legumes.

Seven different mixtures of plants and placements were planted in May at the 40-acre research site. Click to view the master map.

Seven different mixtures of plants and placements were planted in May at the research site. Click to view the master map. (Graphic by Paul Littleton.)

On one plot, graduate students Kevin Wolz (above left) and Dane Nelson were planting rows (above center) that contained a Chinese chestnut tree, five currant shrubs, an apple tree, five currants, chestnut, five currants, apple, etc.

Another treatment (above right) included pecan trees and elderberries.

“We envision acreage like this — in which we will actually be storing carbon — as an alternative to traditional corn and soybean farming,” Co-Investigator Bruce Branham said. “With this type of plants, we could start actually reversing the amount of carbon that goes into the atmosphere.

“This project is another step toward mitigating carbon, and if the world starts getting serious about it, we want to move toward being ready to do something like this on a large scale.”

The project will examine how well these different treatments work: Which combinations of plants do better (produce more together) or worse (compete with each other for nutrients) in producing food, feedstock and fuels, Branham said.

“It might take us some time to get the best combinations and breeds of plants,” he said. “After all, it has taken decades to refine corn breeding to achieve maximum production.”

The Team

ISEE Sarah Lovell Principal Investigator and co-PIs

Operating team: Staff, Postdocs, and Students

  • Tito Lavaire, Academic Hourly Researcher and Technician in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (not pictured).
  • Michael Douglass, Research Specialist in Crop Sciences (not pictured).
  • William Eddy, Postdoctoral Researcher in Plant Biology (not pictured). Read more about William and his work >>>
  • Ronald Revord, Ph.D. Candidate in Crop Sciences (back far left). Read more about Ron and his work >>>
  • Kevin Wolz, Ph.D. Candidate in the Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (back second from left). Read more about Kevin and his work >>>
  • Chloe Mattia, M.S. Candidate in Crop Sciences (not pictured).
  • Erik Stanek, M.S. Candidate in Crop Sciences (not pictured). Read more about Erik and his work >>>
  • Matthew Wilson, M.S. Candidate in Crop Sciences (not pictured).
  • Eric Wolske, M.S. Candidate in Crop Sciences (not pictured).
  • Annette Manusevich, Undergraduate in Crop Sciences (not pictured).

Former Students

  • Diana Kapanzhi, Ph.D. Candidate in Environmental Engineering (not pictured). Read more about Diana and her work >>>
  • Joseph McAsey, M.S. Candidate in Crop Sciences (not pictured).
  • Sameer Andani, Undergraduate in Cellular and Molecular Biology (not pictured).

Publications & Presentations

(iSEE project members’ names in bold):

  • Publication: “Temperate Agroforestry Research: Considering Multifunctional Woody Polycultures and the Design of Long-term Field Trials.” Lovell, S.T.; Dupraz, C.; Gold, M.; Jose, S.; Revord, R.; Stanek, E.; Wolz, K. Agroforestry Systems, Vol. 91, No. 267 (April 2017).
  • Publication: “Agroforestry – The Next Step in Sustainable and Resilient Agriculture.” Wilson, M.H.Lovell, S.T. Sustainability Journal, 18 June 2016.
  • Publication: “Preliminary Modeling of Light Availability in a Diverse Agroforestry System Using a Spatially Explicit Forest Simulator.” Stanek, E.; Wolz, K.; Lovell, S.T. i-ACES (inquiry-ACES), Vol. 2, No. 1 (2016).
  • Presentation: “Diverse Agroforestry Systems as Both Restoration and Agriculture: a Meta-analysis and a New Long-term Research Site.” Wolz, K.J.; Lovell, S.T.; Revord, R.; DeLucia, E.H. Ecological Society of America, Baltimore, MD, August 2015.
  • Presentation: “Multifunctional Woody Polyculture: A New Research Direction for the University of Illinois.” Revord, R.R.; Lovell, S.T. Northern Nut Growers Association, July 2015.
  • Presentation: “Agroforestry for Food and Function — Multifunctional Woody Polyculture for UIUC.” Lovell, S.T.; Revord, R.R.; Wolz, K. (Poster)North American Agroforestry Conference, Ames, IA, June 2015.
  • Presentation: “A Plan to Broaden Midwestern Agroforestry via Tree Crops and Multifunctional Woody Polyculture at UIUC.” Revord, R.R.; Lovell, S.T.; Wander, M.; Wolz, K. North American Agroforestry Conference, Ames, IA, June 2015.

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