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New ways for old terrain

With support from Extension, farmers look to trees to help increase their productivity and become better stewards of the land.

There's an old saying that it's sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. But some Minnesota farmers are looking to the trees to help them increase productivity and reduce problems with air pollution, declining water quality and degraded agricultural landscapes. These farmers aren't simply planting trees and shrubs, but intentionally combining trees with crop and livestock systems. This is agroforestry, an ancient practice that's only been recognized as a science since 1977 and is undergoing a mini-revival.

Diomy Zamora and Tyler Carlson talking about trees

Extension agroforestry educator Diomy Zamora (right) advises Sauk Centre-area farmer Tyler Carlson, who decided to manage trees to his advantage rather than cutting them down. Carlson is making plans for a grass-fed beef operation.

As interest in sustainable agriculture grows, Extension educators are teaching Minnesotans about agroforestry and its benefits, including healthier soils, water conservation, and increased crop and forest yields. For Tyler Carlson, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, the timing for learning about agroforestry couldn't have been better.

Carlson, 25, plans to take over management of the Sauk Centre-area farm that has been in his family for nearly four decades. He got to know Extension educator Diomy Zamora during an agroforestry class through the University's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

But Carlson and Zamora didn't part ways when the class ended. Zamora's Extension position keeps him involved with people who want to adopt integrated land-use systems but aren't sure where to start.

The agroforestry practice Carlson plans to implement is called silvopasture, managing woodlands for livestock grazing and timber. Silvopasture, one of the five integrated agroforestry practices, allows landowners to plant or utilize money-making trees without losing use of the acreage. It also reduces erosion, leads to cleaner stormwater runoff and improves timber value for long-term profit, according to Zamora.

"More than 800,000 acres of Minnesota woodlots are grazed, but the majority is not managed," Zamora says. "Farmers who turn cattle out into woodland without planting proper forages or strategically rotating the animals eventually downgrade the trees, plants and soil."

Carlson's family has never raised livestock, although he's working on a business plan to market grass-fed meat like sheep and beef cattle.

"The shade offered by the right selection of trees will reduce heat stress on my animals, helping them gain weight," says Carlson. "And the right perennial forages will require fewer inputs and be more digestible when they are grown in the shade of the trees."

Carlson will also attend Extension agroforestry workshops to learn about tree selection and management, "like how to thin the timber stand so the trees will let in the right amount of sunlight needed by the growing forages and provide a long-term investment in the timber," Carlson says.

Extension agroforestry educator Gary Wyatt teaches farmers how to adopt practices that protect Minnesota's natural resources and fit into their existing operations, too. "Individual landowners can plant crops that offer environmental benefits and are eligible for state and federal incentives," he says. "But the collective benefits—to water quality, air, soil and wildlife habitat—impact all of us."

At 200 acres, the Carlson farm may seem small in the middle of dairy country. But Carlson fits the profile that proponents are starting to identify as the modern-day pioneers of agroforestry.

"We expect small farms—some of them managed by the new generation—to be some of the earliest adopters," Zamora says. "Tyler is in a great position right now to assess his farm's use of land and to make decisions that protect natural resources for generations to come."

For more Extension resources, visit Agroforestry.

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