May 20, 2019; Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, WI), “The Country Today”
A gift of land that’s restricted to agricultural use provides a perfect place to experiment with agroforestry, working to promote efficiency, efficacy, and equity with an eye toward mitigating the effects of our global climate breakdown. It demonstrates, too, that there is no single answer to the challenges of feeding our communities while protecting the land; more ideas are required.
The mission of Friends of Silverwood Park, a nonprofit working with a tiny budget of less than $50,000, is to develop and maintain 300 acres of land gifted to Dane County, Wisconsin (county seat: Madison), by Irene Silverman before she died in 2003. This is a restricted donation; it must be used for agriculture, along with education and recreation programs, as her husband, Russell—who was involved civically in their community, even serving on the county board—and his father before him, were farmers. The land was purchased by George H. Silverwood, Jr., 117 years ago.
A master plan was approved in 2016 to create a visitor center from the restored 19th-century farmhouse, along with an education center, greenhouses, and trails for hiking and horseback riding. Farmers are using 230 acres to farm.
The Silverwood Demonstration Farm has now been formed to add a public agroforestry piece, a first for Wisconsin. Agroforestry combines trees and crops. Tree roots hold onto soil, preventing erosion, and their leaves offer windbreaks in storms. The combination guards the soil and water and offers a home for wildlife. Silverwood has planted 40 fruit and nut shrubs and trees laid out in alleyways, leaving wide-open rows in-between where herbs or crops like hay, wheat, or soybeans are planted.
The Savanna Institute, another small nonprofit, has partnered with Silverwood to plant combinations of trees on 15 to 18 acres in the front of the park. The first planting alternates black walnut and poplar hybrids; the second includes chestnuts with elderberry shrubs that will have a harvestable crop of berries in three years. The third combination includes blackcurrant shrubs.
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Keefe Keeley of the Savanna Institute describes agroforestry as “agriculture plus forestry, integrating trees with crops and pastured livestock.”
“Forestry has been, in many ways, ahead of agriculture,” Keeley said. “And we’re looking to bring those lessons into agriculture. Keeley added, “But we do have a little catching up to do.”
Keeley hopes to highlight that the chestnut is a viable crop tree in Wisconsin. He has also partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection on the elderberry development, which includes emerging markets for the berry. (Conveniently planted near the parking lot is a “tasting orchard” with 40 species.)
The 80 feet between trees will be planted by Doudlah Farms Organic, who is leasing it, knowing this will be highly visible and studied for both problems and potential solutions. “It can be an added challenge, but it can be tackled with planning,” Keeley says. “Intensive planning leads to the success of a project.”
Irene Silverwood has made a real gift, providing land to help plan strategically for farming changes that are needed to bring the country through global heating.—Marian Conway