Agroforestry for Food project
The 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.”
- USDA invests in A4F research
- Team Publishes on Benefits of Alley Cropping
- Summer 2017 Progress Update
- New paper in Agroforestry Systems journal
- Summer 2016 Progress Update
- First Harvest!
- New Planting at Research Site
In March 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced a grant for $460,000 to support research led by University of Illinois scientists Sarah Taylor Lovell, Andrew Margenot, and Alexandra Harmon-Threatt.
Lovell, an agroecologist in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I, has been investigating the benefits of multifunctional woody polyculture — a mix of perennial trees and shrubs in the same planted area — for years. In 2014, iSEE seed-funded the planting of her 30-acre Agroforestry for Food test plot.
Polycultures have the potential not only to create habitat, regulate nutrient cycles, and hold soil and carbon, but also to provide harvestable and profitable edible products.
“You’re getting all these benefits, plus the added yield component,” Lovell said. “In this project, we’re asking whether there’s a downside ecologically to choosing this productive type of system instead of traditional species in a Conservation Reserve Program.”
This grant follows a $495,000 USDA NIFA grant awarded to A4F Co-PI Wendy Yang and others in 2016.
Members of the Agroforestry for Food team recently published an opinion paper in Global Change Biology about the transformative potential mixed-species alley cropping has for agricultural landscapes like that of Illinois and most of the U.S. Midwest.
Alley cropping is an agroforestry practice in which trees are planted alongside or in between rows of grain crops in a main production field. In most modern applications, it takes the form of a single tree species comingled with a single grain species. While this arrangement offers many benefits — habitat creation, carbon sequestration, and diversification of farm products — the University of Illinois authors argue that greater benefit could be realized by increasing the number of tree species included and leveraging them for food and fodder production.
For example, stands of trees with multiple species have been shown to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in soil than stands with only one kind of tree. This could be a powerful climate mitigation strategy.
More and more diverse trees in fields can help adapt agriculture to global change by protecting crops from wind stress, stabilizing air and soil temperatures, increasing soil water infiltration and storage, and reducing evaporation of soil moisture.
To bring these ideas from paper to practice, the team suggests four key considerations that could enhance scalability and speed adoption of multi-species alley cropping:
- Start on marginal lands;
- Determine core tree crops that produce the same carbohydrates, proteins and oils, as corn and soy do now;
- Iteratively develop and employ practical polyculture designs; and
- Find woody species that biologically complement one another.
“Currently, the primary barriers to adoption of AC are the high establishment cost, insufficient tree crop breeding, and relatively high management complexity,” the authors wrote. “These barriers, however, are surmountable with investment in research and updates to agricultural policy.”
A4F team members Kevin Wolz, Sarah Lovell, Bruce Branham, William Eddy, Ron Revord, Michelle Wander, and Wendy Yang were co-authors along with iSEE Director Evan H. DeLucia and Savanna Institute Director Keefe Keeley.
Principal Investigator Sarah Taylor Lovell reports the following accomplishments during Year 3 of the Multifunctional Woody Polyculture (MWP) trial:
- Field establishment was completed, maintenance continues, and harvest begins:
- Improved varieties of chestnuts were grafted onto the seedling rootstock, and grafted apples were planted in designated treatments;
- A weed management program has been established and implemented to ensure success of the woody plants in the early years; and
- Harvest of hay from the alleyway has continued throughout the growing season —and this past summer, Aronia berries (pictured, right) were the first fruit harvested.
- MWP assessment of water quality and quantity continues:
- Analysis includes resin lysimeter samples deployed in the growing season versus non-growing season, and soil moisture tubes in rows and alleys in all plots;
- In selected plots, analysis was expanded to quasi-continuous soil moisture data along the soil profile to 1 meter deep, and wells were added to monitor water table depth; and
- Datasets together with precipitation data from the met station on the eddy flux tower will be used to estimate water flux in each of the treatments.
- Performance trials for individual crop species provide results:
- A replicated study of black currants grown under varying levels of shade (20%, 30%, 50%, and 70%) demonstrates that in the first year of shade, yield is not negatively impacted at levels up to 50%;
- Hazelnuts accessions have been procured and asexually propagated for transition to field-establishment in replicated performance trials;
- An extensive study of the inheritance of eastern filbert blight (EFB) resistance from the endemic Americana hazelnut is being conducted with collaborators at Rutgers University, and a confocal microscopy technique has been developed to gain insight into the molecular mechanisms that underpin EFB-resistance; and
- Trials on alley crop alternatives have been established to study light interactions.
- On-farm research at Red Fern Farm in Wapello, Iowa, shows greater carbon sequestration in polycultures compared to the monocultures and adjacent corn-soy fields — but adjacent forest plots have the highest soil carbon storage; a manuscript presenting the results to a peer-reviewed journal is expected by the end of 2017.
- On-farm research has been expanded to study fertilization effects at three working woody polyculture farms for a U.S. Department of Agriculture project to investigate the tradeoff between yield versus nutrient leaching and soil greenhouse gas emissions.
- A preliminary Life Cycle Assessment model is complete and scenario development has begun to expand the scope of MWP. Scenarios have been identified — focusing on options for the alleyway area as alternatives to hay production, including livestock grazing, organic grain production, additional berry production, and others — for integration of other profitable activities.
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.
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 …
- Maintenance has been a primary focus over the past year: weed control, wildlife damage, etc.
- An eddy covariance tower was set up to measure carbon and water flux.
- 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 …
- New hybrids of hazelnuts are being studied for resistance to Eastern Filbert Blight.
- Black currants are being tested for tolerance to shade, to simulate conditions of growing in the understory, beneath chestnuts and hazelnuts.
- 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) …
- 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.
MAY 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 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.
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.”
- Sarah Taylor Lovell, Associate Professor of Crop Sciences (front left). Her departmental page. Her lab page.
- Nick Paulson, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (back second from right). His departmental page. His Farmdoc page.
- Michelle Wander, Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (right). Her departmental page. Her lab page.
- Wendy Yang, Assistant Professor of Plant Biology (front right). Her departmental page. Her lab page.
- Jeremy Guest, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering (back far right). His departmental page. His lab page.
- Bruce Branham, Professor of Crop Sciences (right). His departmental page.
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).
- Sophie Fruchter, iSEE Field Technician for U.S. Department of Agriculture study (not pictured).
- William Eddy, Postdoctoral Researcher in Plant Biology (not pictured). Read more about William and his work >>>
- Dane Hunter, Ph.D. Candidate in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (not pictured).
- 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 >>>
- Ian Goller, M.S. Candidate in Environmental Engineering (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).
- Osenkyerewa Bannerman-Blankson, Undergraduate in Molecular and Cellular Biology: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
- Taylor Bozman, Undergraduate in Integrative Biology: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
- Harley Carlson, Undergraduate in Agricultural Leadership and Science Education: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
- Sylvia Gewont, Undergraduate in Agricultural and Consumer Economics: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
- Audrey Gomez, Undergraduate in Bioengineering and Pre-Medicine: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
- Sharell Hicks, Undergraduate in Molecular and Cellular Biology: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
- Kelsey Pugh, Undergraduate in Agricultural Communications: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
- Kathleen Ross, Undergraduate in Molecular and Cellular Biology: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
- Brianna Sarley, Undergraduate in Molecular and Cellular Biology: Work Study/Hourly (not pictured).
Former team members
- 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).
- Chloe Mattia, M.S. Candidate in Crop Sciences (not pictured)
- Sameer Andani, Undergraduate in Cellular and Molecular Biology (not pictured).
- Annette Manusevich, Undergraduate in Crop Sciences (not pictured)
Publications & Presentations
(iSEE project members’ names in bold):
- Publication: “Frontiers in Alley Cropping: Transformative Solutions for Temperate Agriculture.” Wolz, K.J.; Lovell, S.T.; Branham, B.E.; Eddy, W.C.; Keeley, K.; Revord, R.S.; Wander M.M.; Yang W.H.; DeLucia, E.H. Global Change Biology, Vol. 24, No. 3. (March 2018)
- 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).
- Organized Session: “Novel Agroecosystems: Using Biodiversity to Enhance Food Production and Ecosystem Services in Perennial Polycultures.” Ecological Society of America 101st Annual Meeting, Fort Lauderdale, FL, August 2016.
- Presentation: “Ecosystem Services Production in Temperate Woody Polyculture: Observational Evidence from Two Farms in the Midwest.” Eddy, W.C.; Lovell, S.T.; Yang, W.H. Ecological Society of America 101st Annual Meeting, Fort Lauderdale, FL, August 2016.
- Presentation: “Designing Optimal Multispecies Woody Cropping Systems: From the Field to the Model.” Wolz, K.J.; Stanek, E.; DeLucia, E.H. Ecological Society of America 101st Annual Meeting, Fort Lauderdale, FL, August 2016.
- Presentation: “Exploring the Potential for Multifunctional Perennial Cropping Systems on Marginal Lands.” Lovell, S.T.; Mattia, C.; Stanek, E.; DeLucia, E.H. Ecological Society of America 101st Annual Meeting, Fort Lauderdale, FL, August 2016.
- 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.