Farm and Field

Incorporate nut, berry trees and shrubs in alley cropping system

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 15, 2017 12:01 am

What if a landscape could be designed to provide a variety of nutritious foods, high-quality habitat and ecosystem services while also delivering a healthy profit to the landowner?

According to University of Illinois researchers, it is not only possible now but should be more widely adopted.

"In future environments, people might get paid for ecosystem services or carbon credits, or food might become more valuable. If so, these systems become much more attractive for landowners," said Sarah Taylor Lovell, an agroecologist in U of I's Department of Crop Sciences.

Lovell believes multifunctional woody polyculture is the way forward.

Essentially, the idea is to incorporate berry- and nut-bearing shrubs and trees in an alley cropping system with hay or other row crops. The combination is meant to mimic the habitat features, carbon storage and nutrient-holding capacities of a natural system.

"We wanted to capture that aspect, but we also wanted it to be commercially viable," Lovell said. "The trees and shrubs need to fit in perfect linear rows 30 feet apart, so you can fit equipment. That was a much more practical agronomic consideration."

Lovell and her colleagues are three years into what they hope will be a long-term experiment on the U of I campus. Their trial consists of seven combinations of species in commercial-scale plots, from simple combinations of two tree species to highly diverse combinations including multiple species of trees, shrubs and forage crops. The researchers will measure crop productivity, management strategies and economic potential as the experiment gets established.

Farmers accustomed to traditional row crops may be daunted by the long wait associated with nut crops and the cost of specialized equipment. Lovell said chestnuts and hazelnuts don't produce worthwhile harvests until 7 to 12 years after planting, but other species can bring in profits while farmers wait. Hay or vegetable crops can be harvested from the alleys in year one, and shrubs could start bearing high-value fruit crops, such as currants or aronia berries, within a couple of years.

Meat, dairy supplies

Growing supplies of meat and dairy products apply pressure on farm prices through 2017 into 2019.

With big supplies, strong consumer demand brings good news for producers with prices near or above last year.

The outlook comes from a "Baseline Update for Livestock and Dairy Markets" from University of Missouri Extension economists.

This is only the fourth year since 1980 that per capita supplies of beef, pork and poultry increase at the same time and prices stay strong, Scott Brown said. While more products are welcome news for today, they may set up future price drops if demand fails to keep pace with growth.

This time, economists say, the current surge may not remain. Projected declines in 2019 prices from 2017 include a 12 percent drop for fed steers, 14 percent for feeder steers, 7 percent for barrows and gilts and 2 percent for chicken.

More exports provide price support now, but risks remain with unknowns in those markets. Other exporting nations also respond to price signals for more supply, and the impact of ongoing trade negotiations with major trade partners remains uncertain.

U.S. meat production this year reached nearly 1.3 billion pounds above a year ago in the first two quarters. Exports took more than 60 percent of that meat out of domestic markets.

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