Virginia Farmer Improves Farm Sustainability with Silvopasture
The benefits of trees are widely known. They reduce air pollution, control stormwater, capture carbon, improve water quality, and decrease energy consumption. When incorporated into a pasture setting to create a silvopasture, the rewards from trees can even greater.
However, creating silvopasture where there wasn’t any before can be challenging. The learning curve is steeper, a greater financial investment is initially required, and the return on investment isn’t seen until much farther down the road. For some farmers like Buck Holsinger in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, though, it’s the only option if all you have to work with is open acres.
‘When you’re talking about going from open pasture to silvopasture you’re working with the slower of the two growing species (i.e. trees),” notes Holsinger.
Holsinger, also a veteran, served two tours in Afghanistan and today is still active in the Air National Guard. In addition, he runs his family’s cattle operation, Holsinger Homeplace Farms, with his wife Amanda and their four children.
Holsinger brought his family back to the family farm in 2009. He wanted his children to grow up with the same lifestyle he experienced as a kid. In addition, he saw it as his responsibility to continue to sustain and improve the farm for future generations.
“My grandfather worked really hard to make sure the farm stayed with the family for me,” says Holsinger. “It’s my turn now. I consider myself the caretaker of my grandchildren’s farm.”
In line with this thinking, Holsinger began developing a conservation plan with the National Resource Conservation Service in 2010. He has focused strongly on regenerative methods which improve soil health and pasture ecology.
“Our conservation plan started with setting up rotational grazing,” says Holsinger. “We split up our property into 10-acre paddocks.”
In total, Holsinger farms approximately 112 acres, with 40 of those acres being rented land. The rented acres are sectioned off into 9-acre pastures. After a year, he quickly realized his pastures were lacking something. Without trees, there was no shade for his cattle in the summer and no wind breaks for them to find shelter in the winter.
Enter silvopasture. Randomly, Holsinger came across a book called “Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture” by J. Russell Smith. In it Smith, discusses the idea of two-story agriculture. In this system, the shade from trees helps provide a microclimate underneath the trees that allows things like grass and forages to grow. With proper management, two-story agriculture decreases water evaporation in soil and slows down transpiration in plant leaves.
Smith’s teachings inspired Holsinger to pursue implementing silvopasture on his own operaiton. Working with NRCS, he did this in two stages, planting trees in key pastures first in 2014 and again in 2017. He currently has about 38 acres planted in a variety of tree species.
“We planted about one-third hardwood species which are our money trees,” says Holsinger. “The other two-thirds are softwood varieties. They are our trainer trees. We put in the softwoods hoping they will grow faster and straighter which, in turn, means the hardwoods also have to grow straight up.”
Hardwood species Holsinger chose for his farm include black walnut, locust (both honey and black), persimmon, yellow poplar, northern pecan, and more.
“All of this is done to try to get that two-story agriculture, whether being able to sell black locust logs eventually or allowing hogs to forage on honey locust pods and persimmons in the fall,” says Holsinger.
Holsinger is likely still a year out from letting cattle graze around his trees. In the interim, he uses temporary electric fence to keep the animals away from the trees while they are still in their establishment phase. Once established, he says, he looks forward to benefits like soil stabilization, nitrogen fixation by the locust trees, and windbreaks and shade for his animals.
If Holsinger had picked one single tree species or only fast-growing varieties, he speculates his implementation period could have been much shorter. On average, however, farmers can typically expect at least a five to six year period until most trees are fully-established.
“I calculated I gave up around 13-15% of my one pasture from complete grazing,” says Holsinger. “But what I’ve found is because we rotationally graze, the young calves still graze underneath the fence and don’t bother the trees. So I really didn’t lose that much.”
Holsinger hopes to be able to take down some of the fences around a few of his first silvopasture projects in the coming year. He points out, it’s important to remember when building silvopasture from the ground, change will be slow. This method isn’t for everyone and those that decide to go down a path similar to his must understand the value of playing the long game.
“We’re still in the infancy right now,” says Holsinger only a handful of years into his silvopasture projects. “For example, I’m looking at a return on investment in the area of at least 30 years on our black walnut trees. Like I said, I’m the steward for my grandkids.” Once his first silvopasture projects are mature enough to start grazing completely, Holsinger plans to continue to put more trees into other areas of his pastures.
“I hope to have more trees and a growing plan, where for example, every 10 years there’s wood to harvest while still keeping shade for the animals and another tree crop maturing behind that,” says Holsinger. “I’m really trying to create a sustainable cycle for the farm.”
Learn more about Holsinger Homeplace Farms by visiting their website and following them on Facebook.