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Exploring silvopasture in New England

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 October Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

At Gray Dog’s Farm in Huntington, MA, Ross Hackerson is exploring a novel question: how can livestock, forage grasses, and nut, fruit, and other useful trees all be integrated together for maximum ecosystem benefit while also producing high-quality food? This integrated system, called silvopasture, is modeled after a savannah ecosystem where large ruminants and predators roam through grasslands dotted with trees. Each element (ruminant, predator, understory grasses, trees) is integral to the functioning of the system as a whole.

Several permaculture pioneers and graziers, such as Mark Shepard, have demonstrated the virtues of this type of complex multi-species system, but it has still struggled to gain a foothold here in Massachusetts. Undeterred, Ross Hackerson has already converted 14 acres of his woodlot to silvopasture and is working on converting 40 more acres at the moment.

In anticipation of the NOFA/Mass workshop that Ross will be co-teaching on November 13th (see details below), I recently caught up with him to learn more about his systems and why he’s chosen to blaze the path that he’s on.

Dan Bensonoff (DB): Can you tell me a bit about your personal history and how you got started farming?

Ross Hackerson (RH): I grew up on a ranch in Southern Idaho with cows and sheep and hay. When I was in college I was working on a dairy farm and interested in going into farming. But then I severely injured my back which completely changed my plans. My doctor told me I should forget about farming and focus on my studies. And I thought, well, I guess he’s right. So I went on to study psychology and become a therapist. And then about 14 years ago I read that terrible book, The Long Emergency, about peak oil, and I told my wife that we ought to buy a farm. That way if the world falls off the edge we’ll be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And if the world doesn’t fall off the edge, then we’ll still be part of the solution. And so, she said fine, and that’s what we did.  We managed to buy about 100 acres in the hill town of Huntington. It wasn’t exactly good land, but it’s what we could afford.

DB: How did you determine what the most proper use of your land would be after you bought the property?

RH: The property we got needed a lot of work. It had been pasture before WWII, but then it had been left unmanaged, and it soon returned to forest. Unfortunately when we got there, it was mostly junk wood, no valuable timber. We knew it was going to take a lot of work but we decided that we were going to make this land sustainable and productive.

At that time I was reading and studying a lot about permaculture and perennial agriculture. That started us into what we’re doing. We determined that our land was too rocky and steep for hay fields, but we knew it makes great pasture once it’s opened up. So, we realized that this was a place that we could raise goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and cattle.

DB: Why did you decide to incorporate trees into your new pastures, rather than just have open fields?

RH: For one, most of our tree products help toward feeding the animals. They provide fodder, berries, nuts that the animals can eat. The trees also improve the pasture by helping to hold water and introducing complex fungal networks in the soil. Plus, the trees provide shelter and other elements that improve the welfare of the animals.

DB: What kinds of trees are you growing?

RH: We have mulberries, hazelnuts, hickories, oaks, honey locust, and black locust. All of these trees are valuable in different ways. Some are Nitrogen-fixers, others produce berries and nuts for humans and animals.

DB: What was the process of going from forest to silvopasture?

RH: First, we took out trees that were dead, diseased, or junky. We also took out trees that were being affected by climate change and disease like hemlock, beech and ash, all of which are dying from disease and pests. We saved anything that produced mast or anything that was going to make a good timber tree in the future.

We cut the canopy back to about 40%. What we were trying to create is basically a savannah. We want to have the most productive aspects of grassland and forest together.

DB: What animals are you currently running through this system? And how do they interact?

RH: Right now we have goats, sheep, and cows. The animals run together as a herd, which works quite well, if you train them to do that. You have to raise them together for that to happen.

DB: How often do you move your animals?

RH: You have to know management intensive grazing to figure this out. Right now, we try to move them every 1-3 days, but it all depends upon the grass. Ideally, we’d be moving them every day but we just don’t have the man power right now.

DB: How do you manage the animals in the winter?

RH: The way we manage our grass we’re able to graze them on pasture into December or January. After that, we’re feeding them hay. But we’re really working to feed less hay because it’s really expensive.

DB: How long have you been practicing silvopasture?

RH: We’re only three years in. We’re still learning so much and figuring things out as we go. The past two years have thrown a lot of extremes at us and all the rules have been off the table.

DB: What are some of the challenges of creating and running a silvopasture system in New England?

RH: For one, finding a forester who knows what they’re doing and is willing to do things differently. We’re lucky to be working with a forester who was interested in learning about perennial agriculture and wanted to work with us on this.

We’re also working on really challenging terrain. We have steep, rocky hills. You have to learn how to deal with that, as well as stumps and coppices. It’s not what traditional graziers are dealing with.

The other big challenge is that there are no good models for this in New England. Because of that we are learning as we go. But I think we’re on the right track, based on what I’m seeing.

RH: What’s your vision for the future of the farm?

DB: I want to turn the farm into a multi-species, grazing-based, worker-owned coop over the next few years. I think the farm can be self-supporting and self-sustaining in 2-5 years and actually make a living for people. I’ll be one of the worker-owners, but I’d like to partner with a handful of other experienced farmers to share the adventure with.

To learn more about silvopasture and see the work happening at Gray Dog’s Farm join us for our upcoming workshop:

Integrating Trees, Pasture, and Livestock With Silvopasture

November 13 – 10am to 4pm

Gray Dog’s Farm  |  Huntington, MA

Presenters: Ross Hackerson, Jonathan Bates, and Jeff Jordain

Cost*: NOFA/Mass Member - $60; Non-member - $75

Click here to sign up now or for more details

*We offer scholarships of 50% off for beginning farmers (those growing 10 or less years) who are active NOFA/Mass members. To apply please click here.

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