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Don't ever become a pessimist, Ira; a pessimist is correct oftener than an optimist, but an optimist has more fun--and neither can stop the march of events.
Robert A. Heinlein

Alt

It's a forest if there is a mix of stuff, and it's not in rows. It's a plantation if it's largely a single species planted at the same time, and is in neat rows.

This is part of the reclamation project on the coal mine next door. Thousands of okanese poplar on a 10 foot grid. Here they aren't maintaining a bare earth system between trees. This slows down the tree growth some, but protects the soil from erosion. At this spacing, harvesting the aisles for hay isn't practical. While a small tractor with narrow mower/conditioner might fit, how would you pick up the bales after without having to back all the way out of each aisle?

Now at this size, the forest could be grazed during the winter or in late summer when the ground is hard. Grazing when the soil is soft breaks too many roots.


Agroforestry

More Crop, less land disturbance.

Eventually I will be stuffing this page with ideas for how trees can help farms. If you haven't yet, read the page on shelterbelts. Here are a few more ideas:

Synergy

Biologists talk about 'productivity' in a different way than farmers. To a biologist, productivity is the net increase in biomass. Much of the woody part of a tree isn't useful directly to a farmer. However a mix of perrenial tree crops, pasture, and multiple types of livestock can be more productive in terms of actual crops than the traditional monocropped field. The notion is that while each crop produces less output, the value of the combination is substantially higher. The cost of this is more intense management. You need to pay more attention. You have a lot more edges.

If you are interested in this, I highly recommend the book Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard. Available here from Amazon.ca.

Shepard has several themes that run through his book:

A lot of the crops he mentions don't do well (or at all) in central Alberta. But the book is worth a read if you are looking for an alternative way to farm.

Farm benefits of Trees

Wind in our climate is all too often a negative influence. In winter it's cold. Overall what grows here is often limited by available water. And wind vastly increases water evaporation.

All this is covered in more depth on the Shelterbelts page.

Other benefits of trees: Trees are perennials -- they are going to start photosynthesis in early May, and be in full production two weeks later. They are still producing late into the fall, so they are more efficient than annuals for turning sunlight into something. The flip side of that: Less of what they produce is usable by us.

Tree crops

"So how can I make money with trees?"

Grow poplar as a crop This has been commonly done much like growing corn or wheat, with bigger spacing. Keep the dirt bare between the rows. It can work this way, but I'm not fond of it as a crop -- dirt kept bare isn't producing anything. In principle you can grow grass between the trees. This will substantially increase the time of the crop cycle, but once the trees are out of risk of being trampled, you can graze it when the ground is dry. (Cow's hooves will break poplar roots when the ground is soft.)

Siberian Larch If you plant larch on close spacing -- 8 foot centers, you end up with tall skinny trees. You need to grow them to the point that the heartwood is about 4-5 inches across. At this point you have a crop of organic grade fence posts. The heartwood of larch is very rot resistant. Larch heartwood also makes good hardwood flooring, but at present there is no local market for it.

Because Larch has a tap root, it's more resistant to cattle hooves. You still don't want the cows in there during the soft season if you can avoid it, but you can graze a larch forest somewhat harder than a poplar forest.

Black Walnut Yes it grows here. Again difficult to market, but logs should get premium prices because of the fairly tight grain. The price on premium logs would easily cover shipping anywhere in North America. This is a long term proposition, as it will take at least 50 years to get to commercial size. Black walnut raised for lumber is planted closer together than for nut production.

If you grow for nuts, you will start getting a return in 20 years. Commercial nut harvest is not trivial, and you have to figure out how to deal with squirrels.

Sugar Maple Potentially a dual value crop, for both hardwood, and for maple syrup. I planted 6 sugar maples on my property here: Two in my yard, two on the edge of my poplar bush, and two near the creek. The latter ones got eaten. The other 4 are doing well, with the ones in the poplar bush doing best. We are right on the edge for sugar maple. The seed source of these in in extreme northwest Minnesota.

Silver Maple Silver maple can also be used for maple sugar. It runs about as sweet, grows faster, tolerates wet conditions. Silver maple can be used as a replacement tree for balsam poplar or cottonwood if your poplar bush is dying of old age.

Note that our usual spring climate doesn't have enough days that cycle above and below freezing to get as good a sap run as in the east. But worth experimenting with.

Fuel Wood Natural gas in winter typically has been running 5 bucks a gigajoule, which is about 50 cents per therm. Assuming 85% efficiency for gas, and only 70% efficiency for wood, it is worth about 60 dollars a cord for heat. (Edit March 2019: Natural gas has been running 2/GJ wholesale = 3/GJ retail for my Gas Co-op. Refigure at 36/cord. May not be worth it.)

Is it worth it? Maybe. Wood cutting is one of those filler jobs that you can do after harvest, before freezeup. If you aren't working at that time of year, cutting wood may well be worth it. There's a fairly big investment for an outdoor boiler. There's the hassle of filling it once a day.

My take on it is that if you have some form of wood crop, and you produce firewood as a side effect, it's likely worth it. E.g. If you make hardwood flooring out of larch, you will have lots of scrap.

Mixing tree and lifestock

For the most part animals and trees get along. But forest grazing should be limited to times when the ground is solid. Hooves put a lot of weight on a small area, and in soft ground will punch in, and break roots. You see this in pastures where the farmer has left a grove of poplar for shelter. After a couple of years you have a park with neatly mowed grass, fallen trees, and no new trees. After a few more years you see a lot of dead tops, and some fallen trees.

Fruit crops

Fruit on the prairie is not common. Make sure that the busy season for the fruit crop is compatible with the rest of your operation.

Orchard crops have an appeal if you market either to the organic crowd or the eat-local crowd. Marketing is a big part of your effort. Start small and ramp up.

Most prairie hardy apples have a tendency to drop when ripe. This decreases their value for commercial use, as many are damaged. However if you can get to them fast enough, they can be used as cider apples. Some varieties are quite firm when ripe (Kerr is like gnawing on a golf ball until you've stored for a few months) It may be possible to rig some form of net to catch the fruit without bruising it.

Apples are a tough market. They store and ship well, so you have a commodity market -- you are competing not just with B.C. but with New Zealand. Given the rather saturated market for apples, you need to have some form of value added to make this work.

Plums have some promise, especially if you can figure out a way to dry them, jam them, juice them. They don't ship well when ripe, and don't store well. A local plum operation, especially if you can arrange for a lengthly harvest has possibilities.

One of the problems with apples and pears is the propagation of disease through the cull fruit. Pigs, however love the culls. If you have a small pig operation, let them into the orchard (with nose rings) to pick up the thinning crop, and bring them out again during the harvest. Anything that is not useable as an eater, cooker, or juicer gets dropped immediately to a pig.

The pig, by eating the cull apples, is also eating the source of coddling moth larva, and apple scab spores.

Deer will browse the tree to 4 or 5 feet. Not a bad thing, as having reasonable clearance makes it easier to mow or cultivate under the trees, and it's harder for soil born fungus spores to be splashed up onto leaves and fruit.

Orchards should be kept in grass, not bare earth. Orchard land can be part of a rotating pasture system. If you size your aisles to twice or three times the mower/baler width, you can take hay off of the aisles. Consider how you will pick up bales. You want room to drive past a bale with a bale, or you are going to do a lot of backing up.

Geese If fenced appropraitely, and provided with a livestock dog, a crop of geese can be raised in combination with various tree crops. My uncle rented his orchard out to a goose rancher. Set up an electric fence 9" off the ground. Brought the geese in as about 1 pound goslings. Old enough to be independent, but not yet fly. Each gosling nibbled at the wire to see if was good to eat. The wire bit back. The enraged gosling bit the wire hard. After two days they turned off the power.

Hawthorn The small apple-like fruit, "haws" have medicinal value, and also can be used for dried fruit in upscale bird food. Wear armour to pick. This tree has notable thorns. Branches have some value either plain, or painted for halloween decorations.

Shrub Crops

Browse Cattle will eat certain willows. If you have land too wet for pasture, managing it for willow may be an option. The willow shoots are still available when there is snow on the ground. Willow should be mowed every 2-3 years to get fresh tender shoots. This is best done in late winter, after the snow is gone but before the ground thaws. In a wet spot this may not be possible. In that case do it in fall. If you raise any form of wildlife for food -- elk farming -- then having browse may be worth doing.

Berries Hascaps, Saskatoons, goji berries are possible. There are a bunch of berry picking machines out there. They are expensive -- can be as much as a combine. A berry operation has to be diverse to get reasonable use out of the machinery and processing infra-structure. Look at different varieties and a different species to spread the picking season out. Sea Buckthorn and raspberries require different equipment.

Most berry operations require that the fruit be chilled immediately -- same day as picked. This requires two type of coolers: A small "blast cooler" that has rapidly moving air to chill the berries quickly. And a larger cold storage unit. The blast cooler may be 1/10 the size of the cold storage unit and use a larger cooling unit.

Cherries U of Saskatoon has released six hybrid bush cherries that stay under 8 feet, and can be picked mechanically. More details here: Dwarf Sour Cherries

Haskaps Another possibility from the folks at U Sask.

Saskatoons There are a bunch of different varieties that are used commercially. You will want to choose so that not everything gets ripe at once.

Currants Both red and black currants do well on the prairie.

Raspberries While all the above can be machine picked, I don't know of a raspberry picker. However I've seen a field near Stony Plain, about 10 acres in size with neat rows of raspberry bushes. I think it's a U-pick.

Sea Buckthorn The berries are high in vitimin C, carotenes, and bio-flavinoids, and have some market to the health food crowd. The leaves can be used for herbal tea. There are selected cultivars for bred to be high in one or another. I've not discovered how they are picked commercially.

U-Pick.

One of the ways to make a buck is to grow the fruit, but let other people do the picking work. Sounds great. Most people give up after a short period, and would rather buy fresh picked from you. If you can find local pickers this can work well, as you can get a premium price from the U-Pick crowd, then sell the rest through other channels.

If you're considering a u-pick operation, select varieties to have the maximum length of ripening. Ideally you want something available from midsummer to mid fall.

Do you have other ideas? Am I full of crap? Start the discussion below!


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