Trees, crops, livestock mix fights climate change

By Caroline Miller | Great Lakes Echo

Silvopasture in Georgia. Image: USDA National Agroforestry Center, Flickr.

Growing crops, trees and livestock on the same land could help farmers battle climate change.

This technique is known as silvopasture, and it creates a sink to collect carbon responsible for global warming. It also battles erosion and improves soil.

A main contributor to climate change is the release of carbon dioxide that warms our climate. Silvopasture manages forages, forests and livestock on the same land. It draws carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and puts it back into the soil, said Monica Jean, fields crop educator of Michigan State University Extension.

“Naturally, farming already does draw down carbon some, because we are going through photosynthesis, so carbon is coming into those plants,” Jean said. “But a sink would be where you’re actually taking that carbon and putting it back into the soil so that there is a negative.”

If managed properly, silvopasture can achieve a system where none of the resources are managed to the detriment of the other, Jean said.

MSU Extension has been working with farmers around the state to optimize their systems through an environmental lens, she said.

“Over the 30 years that I’ve been observing and involved in silvopasturing, I’ve never really experienced a downside to it,” said Brett Chedzoy, the regional forester for the Cornell University Cooperative Extension.

Chedzoy, who has worked with MSU Extension, has captured carbon with silvopasture on his own land for more than 10 years.

“Simply put, we’re growing more biomass per acre in a silvopasture than a treeless pasture or a woods,” Chedzoy said. “So, we’re both capturing and storing more carbon per acre.”

His first experience with silvopasturing was in the U.S. Peace Corps working in Central Argentina 30 years ago, Chedzoy said. It was there that he saw how the practice limits erosion.

“This is an area where it rains 40 inches a year, about the same as Michigan or New York, and much of that rain comes during the summer months in the form of intensive storms,” Chedzoy said. “Historically, this mountainous landscape was very prone to flash flooding because the rain would hit this treeless landscape, and often an overgrazed landscape, and instead of infiltrating into the soil, it would just run off and cause flash flooding and along with it erosion and other issues.”

Trees he has planted intercept a lot of that rainfall and allow it to infiltrate instead of run off, he said.

“That’s just one environmental benefit of having the trees there,” Chedzoy said.

Not only is silvopasture creating carbon sinks – and preventing flash floods and runoff, it’s also benefiting the soil.

“The trees are also adding a tremendous amount of organic matter to the soil, which further helps improve the soil health and the ability of that soil to absorb rainfall,” Chedzoy said.

Another farm that has worked with MSU Extension and has had success with silvopasture is JNelson Farms in Hope, Michigan.

Jon Nelson, the manager and owner of the farm, introduced silvopasture in the spring of 2018. One of the major improvements from it has been in water cycling and nutrient cycling which has improved soil health and carbon sequestering, he said.

“We’ve been able to hold water better and go through larger rains,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he believes silvopasture is a great solution to climate change and he hasn’t had any problems with it.

“I think it’s a practice that could substantially increase forestry and our situation,” Nelson said.

Even though JNelson Farms hasn’t experienced any drawbacks, Chedzoy said there are limitations to managing silvopasture.

“Our biggest challenge, and this is probably true of nearly all farms, is time,” he said. “It requires more management, and it requires going out and doing new things that can be quite labor intensive.”

One way to overcome that challenge would be to hire others to do the work, like a logging crew or consulting foresters, he said. But it’s not easy to find the best people to do the job.

“Silvopasturing is something that requires more than the status quo of skill and management inputs,” Chedzoy said.

Jean, the Michigan field crops educator, said another drawback is that silvopasture must be used on wooded land, which not every farm has, and it needs to be managed properly.

“You don’t want to damage the trees, that’s one of the main issues is this long-term compaction problem, so you do need to be careful, and you need to manage it well,” Jean said.

When livestock isn’t intensively managed in a silvopasture system, excessive activity from the animals around the root zone can cause soil to compact, damaging root zones in a certain amount of time, she said.

Jean also emphasized the challenge of time.

“You only have a certain amount of time that you can do this under trees for, and then those trees are going to be harvested, and then that land pretty much is going to be closed off to you because you need to allow for regeneration to happen of the trees again,” Jean said.

If a farm doesn’t have a wooded area to implement silvopasture, then it can get costly to plant the trees needed for this system to work, she said.

Even with these limitations, Chedzoy said he believes any grazer can learn to do good silvopasturing management, but it comes down to if the farmer is willing to make the commitment.

Community gardens help Michigan adapt to climate change

By Hope O’Dell | Great Lakes Echo

A car filled with produce from the Western U.P. Food Systems Collaborative.

In the western Upper Peninsula, climate change is hurting local food sources.

Warming water temperatures reduce fish spawning and snow compresses on itself less during the winter –– which hurts wild rice, said Rachael Pressley, a regional planner with Western U.P. Planning and Development Region. Habitat warming allows new species of plants and trees to migrate northward, along with invasive pests.

For example, the Drosophila—a type of fruit fly—lays eggs in berries, causing them to ripen and die too quickly to be harvested. They are now able to survive in the U.P. because the climate has warmed.

As the effects of climate change impact day-to-day necessities like food security, community gardens can operate as one avenue of adaptation, said Jennifer Hodbod, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s department of community sustainability.

Pressley is a member of the Western U.P. Food Systems Collaborative, a grassroots movement working to repair the U.P.’s food system damaged by climate change and a lack of grocery stores in rural areas.

The collaborative helps build gardens through community programs and in schools, shelters and low-income housing. It also encourages edible landscaping and foraging.

“A huge part of our work is remembering and challenging this scarcity mindset, and realigning us with the abundance that we see all around,” Pressley said.

Community gardens can help residents not be solely dependent on grocery stores for their food supply, Hodbod said.

Community gardens can also provide relief from heat islands—urban areas that are hotter than outside the city—and can be an opportunity to use wastewater.

Along with the tangible benefits, Hodbod said these gardens can benefit a community socially through knowledge-sharing and creating a sense of unity. This can teach people alternative approaches to food production.

“There’s also an education opportunity there to really demonstrate to local communities what food you can grow and what diverse diet does look like.” she said.

Hodbod said this is especially true in rural areas, where climate change has impacted growing seasons and created environments suitable for invasive species.

Kirk Jones, the managing director of Project Grow, an Ann Arbor-based community garden nonprofit, said the community-building aspect is another important benefit.

“Community-building, I think, is really a valuable part of this. Like I said, you meet people, and it’s very easy to get involved. It’s not bureaucratic,” Jones said.

This community-building can help fend off the mental stress that comes from seeing and experiencing the effects of extreme climate events, according to a report by Margaret Walkover of the University of Hawaii-Manoa and Linda Helland of the California Department of Public Health.

These mental health issues can range from “transient distress to longer-term symptoms,” even going as far as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Research demonstrates that positive social support is an essential factor in building and maintaining physical and mental resilience for people in all states of health—from robust to highly symptomatic,” the report said.

Community spaces, like community gardens, can help this positive social support. These spaces allow people from differing socioeconomic backgrounds to provide support to one another, according to the report, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Participants in Project Grow’s approximately 20 gardens are not just homogenous, Jones said. They include residents of apartment buildings who wouldn’t otherwise have access to land and homeowners whose lots aren’t suitable for growing.

While community gardens can be both environmentally and socially beneficial, there are limitations due to the efficiency, scale and accessibility of many gardens. Jones said he wasn’t sure if community gardens could be a plausible solution because of their small scale.

“On a national scale, is there really fewer emissions created by somebody growing their own stuff, which might require them driving their car, you know, a couple, three miles, every time they visit the garden, you know, for a very small amount of production,” Jones said.

Hodbod said urban gardens often aren’t the most efficient way to grow produce, and unless tied to an organization that gives the food out to the food insecure, it often doesn’t reach those who need it most.

Pressley said this is because often those who have the time to garden aren’t those who need the food the most.

“Only people that can afford to have the time to garden there are able to do it, and so the people that actually need the garden space are still not getting to it because of the way that community gardens are typically built—typically farther away—and they’re not where people live,” Pressley said. “They’re usually dominated by people who already have their own land or already have the means to buy their own food.”

Hodbod said equitable access can be improved by making tools and seeds free and starting gardens in schools to get people gardening younger.

Pressley said the Western U.P. Food Systems Collaborative works to bridge this gap by making seeds and compost available and through a mutual aid program where those with land plant gardens in their yards for anyone who needs the crops to take.

Residents who grow their own food in community gardens can provide an alternative to buying at the grocery store. In this side step of capitalism, Pressley sees the potential in community gardens to mitigate the effects of climate change on food systems. In growing their own food, residents can become more resilient, she said.

“My vision is the same vision as the people that came before me,” Pressley said. “Which is a more equitable and just food system, where all beings –– not just people –– can thrive, can eat seasonally and can be connected to the land and to each other.”

Michigan farmers markets look to add local distillery samplings

By Danielle James | Capital News Service

Image: Adam Jaime

Sunday morning strolls to the farmers market could include a few stumbles home if distillers are given permits to sell at them.

Small winemakers can buy Michigan farmers market permits to conduct tastings and sell alcohol for consumption off the property.

Some lawmakers want to extend similar permits to local distillers and mixed drink manufacturers.

Farmers markets are a new way to reach customers, said Jon O’Connor, the president of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association and owner of Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids.

“For a long time, winemakers have had the ability to taste and then sell directly to consumers at farmers markets,” O’Connor said. “This is a great opportunity to put our members where we think valuable customers are at.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Pauline Wendzel, R-Watervliet, has been referred to the Regulatory Reform Committee. It does not include craft beer tastings.

Under the proposed legislation, tastings and sales must be limited to a clearly marked area and monitored by the permit holder, said Amanda Shreve, the executive director of the Michigan Farmers Market Association in East Lansing.

Social distancing has also complicated how farmers markets space their vendors and customers, Shreve said.

“Some markets during the peak of the pandemic had to limit the amount of vendors they had in order to allow customers to move safely,” she said.

Shreve said it has been necessary in some cases to allocate additional space in the market to tastings.

“If we’re trying to maintain the ability to sample and socially distance folks, it in many cases has necessitated additional space to be allocated to the winery,” she said.

But those restrictions aren’t unique to drink tastings, said Sara Johnson, the manager for the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market.

“Sampling is a very powerful selling tool, and the pandemic really forced a lot of people to have to change the way they’re doing business,” Johnson said.

The ability to have tastings in farmers markets could lead to more sales, said O’Connor.

“The best opportunity for small-town Michigan companies is to get out and in front of people,” O’Connor said. “People who shop at farmers markets are supporters of things made locally, and with craft spirits we often use a lot of local grain or fruits in our product.

“If you’re at the farmers market, you’re going to be able to meet someone who can explain to you where the grain in the product came from and why it makes a superior product,” he said.

O’Connor said the association has been approached by farmers markets that want distillers included.

And the addition of distillers could help farmers across the state, said Shreve.

“We’re excited about welcoming distillers because we recognize that Michigan distillers are using Michigan agricultural commodities to make their products,” Shreve said. “We’re excited about ways to support Michigan farmers, and we believe this is another way to support them by expanding markets for what they’re producing.”

O’Connor said many farmers can get a better price selling to a distiller than to a mill because distillers pay a premium for high-quality local grain.

“You’re supporting a small business and a farmer,” he said.

Permits would have to be approved by the local police agency and a farmers market manager.

The Downtown Marquette Farmers Market has successfully worked with wine vendors for several years, said Johnson.

“It was really exciting, and more of a unique offering to have at a farmers market,” Johnson said. “Because of their participation in the market, we’ve developed a stronger relationship with them as well.

There’s a new distillery in downtown Marquette, and I would love it if I would be able to welcome them to the market,” she said.

‘Organic growth’ fuels record-breaking agritourism season, experts say

By Nicholas Simon | Capital News Service

Grandpa Tiny’s Farm in Frankenmouth. Courtesy image.

Michigan farms that offer agricultural tourism opportunities have seen record-breaking attendance over the past two years.

Farm tourism operations were already starting to see growing numbers before the pandemic, with 2019 a banner year for many operations. Then, COVID-19, which spread across the country in 2020, made travelers rethink vacation plans to urban areas.

Hot rural travel destinations like cider mills, corn mazes and U-pick farms were supercharged by the shift, said Wendy Winkel, the president of the Michigan Agritourism Association based in Traverse City.

“2020 was record-breaking, absolutely phenomenal, due to the nature of our businesses,” she said. “Last year was a launchpad — we were excited because it was the re-discovery of farmers markets and local produce. It almost created new habits for buyers. We all gained a lot of new customers.”

Some farmers were apprehensive going into 2021 because they thought things couldn’t get better than last season. But as more farms reported their fall numbers, members of the association were surprised to see even more growth, Winkel said.

“Personally, I’m up 20% from last year,” said Winkel, who owns an historic farm that offers a petting zoo and event venue in Frankenmuth.

The growth over the past two years has been organic, fueled by word of mouth and tradition more than by marketing campaigns, said David Lorenz, the vice president of Travel Michigan.

A young visitor holds a rabbit at Grandpa Tiny’s Farm in Frankenmuth. Courtesy image.

“It’s part of our culture,” Lorenz said. “It’s part of what makes the authentic Michigan travel experience so authentic. It’s real Americana, and it’s something people have been doing well before we had all these devices for entertainment.”

Many farms are looking to expand their tourism offerings. New ventures, like event venues for weddings, are also an increasingly popular option, said Theresa Sisung, an industry relations specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

In an effort to innovate, many operations are looking to traditional side businesses like butcheries and dairies to diversify their income. Farms that invested in such operations have been big winners over the past two years, Sisung said.

“Throughout 2020, and now into 2021, there was a really big rise in the locally grown movement as folks were struggling to find things in the grocery store,” Sisung said. “So there was an uptick in profits, especially among operations that have a market at their farm.”

Experts like Winkel say Michigan farmers can expect increased visitation rates to stick around because of broader changes in consumer habits and because a large percentage of first-time visitors return.

“We’re hopeful that the pandemic, as horrible as it is, was an opportunity for agritourism to re-ignite and catch fire,” she said.

Lorenz said farmers should expect more growth in the coming years as local customers come back and out-of-state visitors start returning in large numbers.

The Pure Michigan campaign has increased efforts in recent years to advertise seasonal rural experiences like fall leaf tours and promote brand awareness of Michigan products in cities across the country, he said.

“We have over 130 varieties of deciduous trees,” Lorenz said. “Unlike out East where they tend to grow together in big stands of ash or maple, in Michigan you’re more likely to see a great variety of fall colors all mixed in that same part of the forest.”

Recently, this type of marketing has been effective in Southern cities that can’t offer seasonal or rural opportunities. That brand awareness is beneficial to Michigan farms because it expands demand for their products to markets across the country, Lorenz said.

Trendy restaurants in the Dallas area have started to sell a variety of Michigan products like beer from the Saugatuck, Holland and Grand Rapids area, as well as a $15 plate of french toast that features Michigan-grown blueberries.

Sisung said she thinks growing interest in agricultural products and experiences indicates a broader cultural shift towards authenticity and tradition, a trend farms are more than willing to embrace going forward.

“You see it everywhere now, you see everyone is talking about pumpkin spice,” Sisung said. “I think it was just more people looking for the happy, they were looking for the positive, they were ready for fall instead of pushing it back.

“The same thing is happening with Christmas—people are pulling forward the happy.”

“That definitely bodes well for us,” Sisung said. “It’s definitely a big positive out of all this.”

Federal regulations hinder farming with drones

This scan shows a cornfield as seen from a drone. Green and yellow indicate healthy plants and red indicates bare soil, dead plants or, in this case, an insect infestation. Image: MSU RS&GIS

By Nicholas Simon
Capital News Service

In the sky above one of the largest Christmas tree farms in North America, visitors are more likely to hear the whirring blades of a drone helicopter than the jingle of Santa’s sleigh.

“We fly over a field and, using drones, we collect imagery and create 3-D models that help us determine how tall the trees are and help determine a count of those trees,” said Kate Dodde, a drone pilot for the Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton in Northwest Michigan, south of Traverse City.

Other Michigan farmers across the state say that the use of drones could revolutionize farming, but researchers working with drones say federal laws fail to meet their needs.

“You have to be in sight of the aircraft with unaided vision and you can’t use binoculars.” said Robert Goodwin, project manager for Michigan State University’s RS&GIS, which stands for Remote Sensing and Geographic Information System. “You can use extra people in the field with radio contact to keep an eye on it. But, if your using drones you’re trying to limit labor, not bring more people into the field.”

Farm advocates say that regulations confuse farmers who would otherwise adopt the technology.

“I think a lot of farmers are still trying to figure out what they all need to do for regulations,” said Theresa Sisung, the industry relations specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “It depends on what they want to do with their drone.”

Custom software allows the drone to identify the quantity and height of Christmas trees in a certain plot. Inventory like this used to require a team of people taking measurements for each tree by hand. Image: MSU RS&GIS

The Federal Aviation Administration determines which regulations and permits apply to drones based on how high they fly, how much they can lift and whether they are for commercial or private use, Sisung said.

Farmers have found temporary workarounds to restrictions, such as the need to keep the craft in sight.

“We bought a bigger drone; we went from a (12-inch) drone to a 3-foot-wide drone   that’s bright orange,” Dodde said. “With that, we can fly further and farther because we can see it.”

The FAA uses the Advanced Aviation Advisory Committee to regulate commercial drones. Until recently none of its members represented farmers.

In January, Congress passed a bill introduced by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, that expanded the advisory committee to include farm and local government organizations and representatives.

“Rural America deserves a seat at the decision-making table, and farmers across Michigan must have access to every opportunity to utilize drone technology to improve their business,” Peters said in a prepared statement.

The primary use of drones is surveying and determining a plants’ health by the color of its leaves. Farmers can tell much about a crop based on this data, researchers say.

Goodwin’s team is working with a drone that carries cameras that gather 10 times as much data as earlier drones. Researchers can view over 500 color spectrums to find the best one for an application. Identifying emerging diseases and novel insect infestations are two applications for this technology, Goodwin said.

The industry is in its infancy and farmers are discovering new applications daily, Dodde said.

Getting nearly instantaneous measurements is an improvement over the old system of sending an army out into the field with measuring sticks and a tally counter, she said.

This is especially true during a nationwide Christmas tree shortage, which gives the farm an advantage over the competition.

“In our industry, you sell a tree based on how tall it is,” Dodde said. “So it’s really helped, especially right now where supply of Christmas trees are tight.”