Innovative Thinking on Agroforestry and Land Access from the Savanna Institute

Food Forest
The developing perennial food forest of Prairie Wind Family Farm on land leased from the Liberty Prairie Foundation in Grayslake. The fruit and nut trees are protected by white tree tubes.

There are so many beautiful things about farming with trees.

Whether you are using agroforestry practices like alley cropping (growing crops between rows of trees and shrubs), windbreaks, and silvopasture (where livestock graze among trees), you are mimicking nature.

Perennial plants don’t require the plowing, planting, and weed control that many annual plants do. Their use prevents erosion and builds soil health. What’s more the trees and shrubs of agroforestry provide habitat and sequester carbon. 

But applying agroforestry comes with unique challenges if the farmer can’t afford his/her own land. A long-term lease in grain or vegetable farming would be 5-6 years and that can feel pretty long for some landowners. But a good number of tree crops might not even be producing many fruit or nuts until seven years or later. 

So what’s a fair rental price in those first years when the agroforester has nothing to sell? Because so much can change over five, ten, and even 15 or 20 years, how can one design a lease for every eventuality? And since agroforestry practices can coexist with other farming types on a piece of land, how does one integrate all of these moving parts together in a farming arrangement?

We’re happy to say that not only are landowners increasingly doing agroforestry on their properties themselves but farmers and landowners are together working out creative agroforestry leasing arrangements as well. 

The staff of the Savanna Institute, a non-profit dedicated to promoting and advancing real-world agroforestry in the Midwest, are doing what they can to help foster these land access innovations. 

We want to share two useful resources that their team and other partners have developed that you should be aware of.

Brix Cider Image
Nathan was so inspired by the agroforestry land access success story of Brix Cider that he had to test their product. Thumbs up!

 

The first is a paper entitled Multi-Party Agroforestry: Emergent Approaches to Trees and Tenure on Farms in the Midwest USA, which a number of Savanna Institute staff members contributed to. 

The highlight of the paper for us was the collection of 11 case studies of Midwest farm operations, each with its own unique arrangement between farmers, landowners, and other parties. We found the case studies genuinely interesting to read for the information as well as for the admiration they inspired in us for the cooperative, inventive spirit among the parties involved. 

One example that stood out was the case of a landowner who invited an agroforestry farmer to establish rows of trees to provide fodder and shelter for the animals that the landowner grazed on the property. The farmer and landowner shared planting costs fairly by designating together which tree varieties were of particular benefit for the livestock (which the landowner agreed to pay for) and which were strictly of value for their fruit and nut production (which the tenant farmer paid for).

The second resource is the result of a collaboration between the Savanna Institute and Farm Commons. It is entitled Inspirations for Creating a Long-Term Agricultural Lease for Agroforestry: A WorkbookThis workbook is a comprehensive, practical look at the intersection of lease law and the unique aspects of agroforestry. The workbook includes a section of questions that will prompt both a farmer and a landowner to think carefully through all of the topics they need to address. This is an extremely useful resource for agroforestry and, by the way, is also a grounding in thoughtful lease design for any kind of farming.

“We have a lot of enthusiasm for the opportunities there are for multiple parties to come together around a piece of land and carry out multiple forms of agriculture,” says Kaitie Adams, the Savanna Institute’s Illinois Community Agroforester. “There are so many ways to mix different kinds of agriculture.”

“But we’re also very aware of the trends of growing land consolidation and rising land prices that pose big challenges to regeneratively-minded farmers and landowners.”

“Nevertheless,” continues Kaitie, “I see the potential for people to shift perspectives. When farmers and landowners start talking about arrangements around trees and other perennial crops, that forces everyone to switch from short-term, annual thinking to long-term thinking. And isn’t that the shift that we need?”

To learn more about the Savanna Institute, visit them at www.savannainstitute.org. Their site provides a wealth of resources, and they also offer a host of other programs, including an on-farm agroforestry apprenticeship program and multiple demonstration farms you can visit throughout our region. They even offer a series of free online courses that guide you through the foundations of agroforestry. To ask specific questions about agroforestry in Illinois, please reach out to Kaitie Adams at kaitie@savannainstitute.org.