By Shira Lynn
After attending a talk by an edible-perennial-landscape-farmer, my pro-pollinator friend was beside herself with concern. “That farmer is doing so much good,” she exclaimed, “but she’s not using native plants!”
I started to trot out my usual counterpoints to the native plant hysteria: In climate change conditions we no longer know what will thrive. We are suffering from global toxification and habitat fragmentation that are broader causes of insect population collapse. “Bad” plants are presently bio-indicators of micro and macro conditions more often than the cause of native plant decline. While native plants have co-evolved with local fauna, many non-native plants are also reliable medicine and food sources. The emphasis on native plants at this moment in history is perhaps subconsciously an attempt to make amends for the devastation of native peoples and their cultures while doing so in a way that doesn’t threaten the private land ownership model…
Then I had a revelation.
I realized that I don’t know anyone who goes to the store, even if seeking to eat organic, non-gmo, or in-season, and thinks, “I’m not going to eat hybrids because they are not native.” We don’t generally question the validity of annual vegetables that would not readily fruit here if not started in greenhouses ahead of exterior temperatures and then transplanted into highly-prepared, mono-crop contexts. Many of these staples cannot successfully reproduce themselves in farm conditions. And although many rely on wild insect pollination, most do not support insect or bird population lifecycles.
Enter permaculture-based agroforestry, the junction of market-scale food and habitat.
At Big River Chestnuts, a proof-of-concept agroforestry site in Sunderland, MA, Jono Neiger has been seeding a regional chestnut hub. The lush 8-acre farm is surrounded by miles of flat, dusty fields, many organic, with many others that display pesticide application warning signs. Jono has interplanted his perennial tree crops (that began to fruit within five years) with blocks of improved elderberry, aronia and currants, and with food forest plants throughout such as Rutger’s hazelnuts. Matt Kaminsky and Rachel Haas of Carr’s Ciderhouse now rotate their sheep through the field in a symbiotic relationship that feeds, mows and fertilizes while Gregory Mori of Forestopia edible tree products works out of the site as well. Collective processing machinery is being obtained for Big River and for the New York Tree Crop Alliance in Cortland, NY.
Jono loves cultivars — and the first thing everyone wants to know when they hear about chestnuts is, Are they American? Well no, they are not. Jono believes that if we are going to cultivate viable, staple food production for our region asap, we need to be experimenting with the best stock available no matter where it comes from.
Because intentional intensive farming of these crops in this region is new, we start with cultivated clonal stock where it exists in order to hit the ground running. In the meanwhile, we also densely plant out open-pollinated seed from our best known trees to cull over time based on performance. This affords us a strong starting point from which to experiment for a diversity of conditions within an unpredictable climate.
Seva Water of Nutwood (hazelnut) Farm in Cummington, MA, says that by collecting seed, we are participating in the seed sovereignty ethic rather than handing over control of our food system to global corporate trademarking. We keep diversity alive by opting out of the narrow offerings of a crazy food system that decides what we eat by what can be packed and shipped distances. So we plant out lots and lots of seedlings to increase the chances of finding the most exciting ones for our region. We keep selecting, and when we find something really amazing, that’s when we start grafting clones.
Jesse Marksohn and Eric Cornell of Yellowbud Farm in Northfield, MA, have been traveling the countryside gathering nuts from champion trees which they cultivate into seedling stock for bulk planting projects such as those of Big River and Breadtree (below). They are growing mulberry and persimmon for human and livestock fodder and cultivating hickories for cooking oil. The founders see themselves as, “contributing to a new agricultural system that honors the earth instead of degrading it.”
In the meanwhile, Breadtree in Greenwich, NY, has been swiftly planting out acres of chestnuts. One site where I helped plant was a steep abandoned quarry a year ago and is already a vibrant meadow dotted with hundreds of trees. The founders, Noah, Bug and Russell see their mission as working to, “counter climate change, build soil and improve soil health, enhance food security & climate adaptiveness, reduce agricultural pollution and resource extraction, improve water cycling & watershed health, increase biodiversity & wildlife habitat, and improve livestock health. We do this to restore land, to support a healthy climate, and to build food security for future generations.”
Shira Lynn is a food forest farmer. She currently sits on the NOFA MA Policy Committee and is the founder of the Leaf Blower Hater Club.