Written By: Leah Chester-Davis
NC Choices, a program of the Center of Environmental Systems in collaboration with N.C. Cooperative Extension, has launched a new project that is seeking to pair beginning farmers with landowners. Lands being considered are solar sites, land trusts, and silvopasture.
Silvopasture combines trees, forages, and livestock into an integrated, managed system. Because nearly a half million families in North Carolina own small woodlots, and there is a rising number of pasture-raised meat producers, NC Choices is exploring pairing the two as a novel way to address the major land access challenge that faces beginning farmers.
Woodland acreage throughout the state has the potential for use in a silvopasture system, says Sarah Blacklin, director of NC Choices.
Dr. Alan Franzluebbers, USDA professor in the department of crop and soil sciences at N.C. State University, has studied silvopasture for several years and agrees that it’s important to consider. While woodland acreage may be a way to help solve beginning farmers’ need for affordable grazing land, silvopasture offers environmental bonuses as well.
“The possibility of sustainably grazing cattle on a diversity of marginal lands in the region offers farmers a unique opportunity to improve the resilience and sustainability of more land for agricultural production,” Dr. Franzluebbers says. “The possibility of widespread soil health improvement with controlled grazing of native warm-season grasses will be interesting to watch develop for the region.”
Silvopasture offers a number of advantages over open pasture. Among them are relief of heat stress by grazing livestock, enhanced wildlife habitat, and improved soil conditions for better water infiltration and nutrient cycling.
“A more diverse agricultural operation allows reduction in risk,” he says. “Off-site water quality is thought to be improved with silvopastures because of reduced water runoff and nutrient loss.” It also enhances wildlife habit with a richer diversity of pollinators and soil microorganisms.
“Sustainable management of trees and grasslands is essential for mitigating against climate extremes in this region with harsh summertime conditions,” explains Dr. Franzluebbers. “Carbon sequestration with agroforestry is a key aspect. Carbon is stored in tree biomass, but also more importantly in soil on a long-term basis as organic matter.”
Despite numerous advantages, silvopasture requires an investment. Woods likely need to be thinned enough to allow sufficient light penetration for forages to grow effectively. Secure perimeter fencing, temporary interior fencing, and water sources for livestock are other considerations. An information package on silvopasture is in the works and will be offered as part of the Beginning Farmers program. It will include how to assess whether silvopasture is for you, economic considerations, choices of tree species, management spacing and density, and choices and management of forages.
“Creating a richer landscape with long-term value and immediate return from livestock production should be attractive, along with the environmental benefits,” says Dr. Franzluebbers. “Creating a legacy for future generations is sometimes a driving force for others.”
For farmer Jeff Byrd, the opportunity to be part of the NC Choices Beginning Farmer project came at the right time. After retiring from Greenville Utilities Commission, he decided to get into small-scale farming. His plans are to raise cattle, goats, and hay. “I like the idea of following more sustainable models moving forward,” he says. He recently put in recommended forages adjacent to timber that needed to be thinned.
“Carolina Farm Credit has a love for beginning farmers and we want to see them do well,” says Lee Renegar, loan officer in the Yadkinville Branch. “We’re happy to share information on this new program. It can help beginning farmers, and it also may provide a solution for landowners who want to keep their land in agriculture.”
To learn more, visit the Beginning Farmer page on the NC Choices website. There are brief interest forms for both farmers and land owners, or contact Lee Menius, NC Choices technical program coordinator, at 704-202-9348 or firstname.lastname@example.org.