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At the Savanna Institute, we see opportunities for farms to be a part of transformative solutions. With this aim, we bring farmers and researchers together to develop agricultural systems that mimic an exceptionally productive ecosystem once common throughout the corn belts and bread baskets of the world: the savanna. We propose that agricultural savannas can be intentionally designed and intensively managed to produce food, fuel, and fiber, all the while maintaining or even restoring our natural resources. This approach adapts diverse agroforestry practices, including alley and multistory cropping, silvopasture, edible buffers, and forest farming.

It was only a couple years ago that the Savanna Institute’s yearly get-together, the Perennial Farm Gathering, fit into the living room and kitchen of a farmhouse. We’ve come a long way since then. This year we teamed up with the regional network - Green Lands Blue Waters - to pull together their annual meeting with our Perennial Farm Gathering, and the connections made among farmers in our community, scholars, business leaders, and community organizers have already catalyzed regional teamwork toward collective impacts. Below are some of the highlights of this regional teamwork.

During the ever-popular 5-minute ‘nutshell’ presentations, farmers had a chance to share about their farms and projects. Anecdotes and inspiration abounded: topics included repairing worn-out cropland by planting trees and grazing livestock, using pigs to clear invasive species in woodlands, conducting on-farm research and variety trials for promising fruits and nuts, novel investing strategies for agroforestry, and multiple-generation families working together to make their land better (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The 5-minute Nutshell presentations give farmers a chance to share their agroforestry stories and projects.

In a break-out session, Matt Wilson and Leah Potter-Weight presented about two tools that will be available soon: an edible agroforestry handbook series called Perennial Pathways and an economic budgeting tool for mixed fruit and nut plantings called The Fruit and Nut Compass (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Leah Potter-Weight from the University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrates the soon to be released Fruit and Nut Compass, an economic planning tool for mixed fruit and nut systems.

In the “Advancing Agroforestry in the Heartland” Plenary Session, a panel of agroforestry researchers, advocates, and practitioners gave updates about their work and shared wisdom as listed below.

Dr. Sarah Taylor Lovell: University of Illinois

  • Sarah presented on “Agroforestry for Food” project at the University of Illinois, a long-term alley cropping research trial that integrated fruits and nuts in multi-layered, diverse polycultures. The initial focus was on targeting marginally productive or hard-to-reach areas on farms to transition to production-scale agroforestry.

Dr. Mike Gold: University at the Missouri Center for Agroforestry, founding member of AFTA

  • Mike reminded us that unlike commodity crops, agroforestry has little support structure. Therefore, it is vitally important to share information and to have pioneer farmers that can act as an example to others. He also stressed the importance of “market-based conservation”, which is the concept of including species that produce a salable product when designing conservation practices.

Tom Wahl: Red Fern Farm in Iowa

  • Tom and his wife Cathy have tried just about every crop that is suitable for their zone 5 climate, and they say that chestnut stands out in a class of its own as a transitional crop: it is productive, has an established market, and is relatively easy to grow.

Lindsay Rebhan: Ecological Design

  • Lindsay shared a model of creating “hubs” of farmers in an area to help educate, connect, and inspire. Another exciting tool they are exploring is flexible easements, which prohibit growing corn or soybeans, but allow any other kind of production, including agroforestry!

Kate MacFarland: National Agroforestry Center

  • Recognizing that often forestry, agriculture, and conservation can suffer from being separated into distinct “silos” with very little exchange or interaction, Kate encouraged us to continue to seek out partnerships that bridge these boundaries to tackle universal challenges like land access and climate change.

Dave Miller: Iroquois Valley Farms

  • Iroquois Valley is a farm real estate investing trust that currently owns 50 farms. They help connect investors with up-and-coming farmers. Dave notes the importance of their work: “It is harder to train and transition an investor to invest their money in the right way than it is to train a farmer in new methods!”

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin: Main Street Project

  • Reginaldo urged agroforestry managers to focus on a single enterprise that is built into an optimized system designed to access larger markets. At Main Street Project, they focus on poultry pastured in plantings of hazelnuts, elderberries, and oaks (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin shares the exciting work that Main Street Project is doing during the “Advancing Agroforestry in the Heartland” plenary session.

The Perennial Farmer Gathering is a yearly reminder that there is a group of dedicated, passionate people who are working hard to move agroforestry forward. We look forward to seeing the fruit borne out of the information and inspiration shared within this growing community.

For more information about the Savanna Institute’s work in 2017, check out the Perennial Report: