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Farm the Forest!

Well it's Thursday again and when getting ready for this blogpost I really couldn't come up with anything more exciting than last week's silvopasturing topic. I've spent more time crunching numbers and doing research and I am ready to share a little bit more of what I am learning about agroforestry with you guys. For all intensive purposes, trees could be described as something like stationary livestock for people with farm brains like myself. They are living things sharing space on the land that you farm. They share the resources (light, water, and ground nutrients) and they provide us with so many things: shade and shelter, wind buffering, carbon sequestration, oxygen creation, soil erosion control, as well as a source of food, heating fuel, and building materials. That is only a general list of benefits; you could go on indefinitely with the vast array of things trees provide for us. That's why it really makes a lot of sense to put in the time and manage them as you would your other crops and livestock, especially if you are surrounded by them like we are here. So think of your forest as a herd of animals; in order to maintain a healthy herd that is economically efficient you have to spend time breeding profitable characteristics into your animals and culling the non productive. Forests are similar, in order to create a favorable growing environment you will have to cull the dead, damaged, or dying trees (aka non-productive) HOWEVER* a forest ecosystem thrives on diversity. Selective cutting of all but one species can lead to parasitic devastation; or from personal experience leave the remaining trees more susceptible to natural disaster. An example being the great loss of sugar and rock maple trees that we experienced in 2016. A portion of our forest near our home had recently been cleared of everything except for the maple trees in an effort to generate more sap for syrup production. A macro burst swept through our forest that year and because of the broad leaf structure of the maples and the lack of natural wind barrier due to the removal of the other trees; our maple stand was absolutely decimated. The cleanup was a tremendous undertaking and we lost around 50 mature maples in that area alone. It was discouraging to say the least but it taught us a lesson in biodiversity that we wouldn't forget. It takes approximately 20 years for a maple tree to reach a size suitable for sap production ( generally a circumference of 12 inches is desirable before tapping) and the best trees are usually over fifty years old. Because it takes so long to get these trees to productive age a loss of so many mature trees isn't easily recovered from. It will be many years before that portion of the woods is repopulated. With that in mind, our silvopasturing plan will include sharing grazing space with a variety of species; mainly: fir, pine, white birch, white ash, maple and a few other varieties such as beech and oak. The removal of trees from the area will be based on the individual health of the trees or thinning to avoid overcrowding rather than selection based on species alone. An exception being plants such as yew and cherry that can pose a danger to the livestock. So if we put these practices to use on the 3.5 acre parcel behind our barn I came up with the following values: the lot would be capable of producing approximately half of the feed for our cattle from June through November (a feed savings of approximately $1,900.00), maintaining a group of fifty maple trees capable of producing roughly 525 gallons of sap (an approximate value of $918), a yearly thinning resulting in approximately one cord of hardwood for firewood (worth around $300), enough fir to provide boughs for our Christmas wreaths (an income of approximately $2,000 based on last year), and a couple of trees to be used for lumber yearly (around $200.00 savings depending on the type of wood and number of board feet). So the grand total of estimated economic value for that three and a half acres of previously unusable land is $5,318.00 (or $1,519.42 per acre. Another thing to keep in mind is that management of this area for grazing will allow us to use 2.5 acres of open pasture that was previously in rotational grazing for grass hay production to be used as feed through winter. We also have an additional 3.5 acre piece in another area that will be going into silvopasture. While it is covered in younger tree growth it has other advantages such as a stand of crab apples that will be used for jelly making. There are so many possibilities and I can't wait to share the progress with you later this summer!

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