LISA DEPIANO, UMASS SFF Faculty featured on cover of local story about silvopasture

Lisa DePiano, a lecturer in the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at the University of Massachusetts, reseats a netting support around a young chestnut tree in the silvopasture demo lot of the UMass Agricultural Learning Center in Amherst on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Original Gazette article can be found here by Rema Boscov

It doesn’t look like it could save the planet — long grass dotted with 4-foot high chestnut trees, inch-thick trunks with a few broad leaves on short, thin branches, surrounded by plastic mesh tubes to protect them from the sheep not yet here. But it’s what you don’t see on Lisa DePiano’s research plot that gives hope. There’s carbon, lots of it, pulled from CO2 in the atmosphere, now sequestered in the soil — with more to come, explains DePiano, a Sustainable Food and Farming lecturer at the University of Massachusetts’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

This farming method, called silvopasture, is an adaptation of a very old agricultural practice, grazing livestock in forests. It’s one of many forms of regenerative agriculture, also called carbon farming, and the benefits are astonishing. A third of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has been released through deforestation and agricultural practices such as plowing and using synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. But plants can reverse that if we let them. They take in carbon dioxide, and by photosynthesizing, send the carbon down through their roots as sugars, where living organisms such as arthropods, nematodes, fungi, protozoa and bacteria turn it into stored carbon. Tilling, or plowing, exposes the carbon to air, where it unites with oxygen to become CO2, and turns up the soil organisms, killing them.

An amazing story happens beneath our feet. Bacteria and fungi play a crucial role, combining minerals found in rocks, clay and sand with the carbon in the sugars, creating pea-sized aggregates, multi-surfaced lumps with spaces between them. Those spaces act as a sponge, holding water in times of drought and preventing runoff and erosion in times of heavy rain. If the soil isn’t tilled or saturated with synthetic chemicals, retaining its living organisms and its structure, tons of carbon can remain there, for centuries.

Scientists indicate that, in addition to cutting carbon emissions, afforestation and widespread application of carbon farming techniques could dramatically slow and even reverse global warming. After the oceans, soil is the next best carbon sink. And it’s happening here now.


Silvopasture isn’t just grazing livestock among trees. Using electronic mobile fencing, farmers move their animals from one area to another, sometimes every day or two, to avoid compacting the soil, causing erosion, damaging surface roots and trees, and eating the grasses and pasture plants too close to the soil, killing them. Plants need time to regrow, and as they do, they continue to photosynthesize, sequestering more carbon and increasing soil fertility and water retention. Rotational grazing mimics the movement of wild herds, closely grouped for protection, nibbling, leaving their valuable waste, and moving on. If bare soil shows through, it’s past time to move the livestock.

Both the animals and the soil benefit. In mixed pastures of trees, grass and other plants, animals choose the forage their bodies require, reducing disease and parasites. Shade in summer reduces stress leading to greater weight gain and increased milk production.

But wait! What about methane and nitrous oxide that ruminants emit, greenhouse gases far more potent than carbon dioxide? Can silvopasture sequester enough carbon to offset methane emissions? Yes, by a lot. Project Drawdown, an analysis of 80 climate change mitigation solutions, lists silvopasture 9th, with carbon sequestration rates much higher than all other carbon-farming techniques. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other scientists concur. The figures vary. Pasture situations differ, yearly rates fluctuate, and carbon sequestration reaches a saturation point. But researchers agree that silvopasture sequesters carbon up to three times faster than other managed grazing systems, averaging three tons per hectare per year (about 1.2 tons/acre), with a maximum lifetime carbon stock from 60 to 250 tons/hectare (about 100 tons/acre).

“We’re showcasing this technique,” explains Lisa DePiano, standing in her research plot of one-stemmed chestnuts at UMass, where, minutes before, students gathered, looking and listening. “We’re training the next generation of farmers and giving presentations to people interested in ways we can grow food to mitigate climate change.”

University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture senior Paxton Reed scythes the grass around young chestnut trees, in sight of a red-winged blackbird perched in the silvopasture demo lot of the UMass Agricultural Learning Center on Wednesday, May 15, 2019.

Chestnut trees, once prevalent here before the fungal blight in the early 1900s, could be an ideal silvopasture food crop. The small blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts in DePiano’s plot should yield nuts in five to six years. While waiting for an investment to pay off, berries and other carbon-sequestering perennial crops can grow between the trees. “We are trialing it out for farmers to risk a different method of growing,” DePiano says.

From his orchard on a steeply sloping hill in North Hadley, Jonathan Carr looks across the Connecticut River to Mt. Sugarloaf. That’s what his sheep and goats would see if they looked up from the pasture under his chestnut and apple trees.

Carr and his wife, Nicole Blum own Carr’s Cider House. They grow old-fashioned “high-headed trees,” Carr says. “It doesn’t matter if the apples are up in the air. We don’t spray. We’ve selected traditional varieties that have natural resistance. And we are exploring modern varieties bred for that purpose. Apples have their own special tannins, a natural pest deterrent and anti-fungal.”

Steep slopes like Carr’s, inappropriate for annual vegetable crops, are ideal for silvopasture. Carr slides a bundle of young chestnut trees from a long cardboard box, digs three holes, divides the bunch into thirds, and shovels soil over them, heeling them in. He will plant these and other trees — persimmons, Japanese walnut and heartnuts, which taste like a hickory and pecan hybrid. Fortunately, deer and rabbits dislike their leaves. “We have a lot of wildlife here,” he says, pointing to deer-nipped tips of low-lying apple branches. “Chestnuts are not preferential browse. There are so many yummy apples here to eat.” And the chestnuts, which bloom later than apples, won’t be affected by late frost that can kill early apple blossoms. That happened twice in Carr’s orchard. “It decimated our crop,” he says.

But Carr is thinking long-term. “This is a farm experiment. Our planetary food system is on the brink of crisis. It feels important to bring attention to ways of farming that we have to figure out in short order. We have to get down to one-fourth the fossil fuel. If we’re grazing, I’m not on a tractor mowing, burning diesel.”

In a very different setting, Jono Neiger walks through his flat seven acres bordering the Connecticut River, suitable for another kind of silvopasture. At Big River Chestnuts in Sunderland, he has recently installed chickens in mobile coops between rows of young chestnuts, partly to increase soil fertility on this land depleted by conventional farming. “We’ll run the chickens down the alleys,” he says. Plants adding organic matter, and chickens adding manure, “scratching and aerating, could create soil with lots of life in it.”

Neiger, a principal designer at Regenerative Design Group, indicates sections for planting new crops and points to established perennials–elderberry, persimmons, pawpaws, basket willow, and berries, “crops we can grow while the chestnuts are growing,” he says, “to show how to make it economical for people.” Why? “This soil has 2 percent organic matter. It could be 5 to 8 percent. Every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter sequesters 21 tons of carbon per hectare,” about 8 tons per acre. And the improved soil quality and structure “holds and filters water so it will go to the river clean. Farmers will see that management won’t be as intensive. If the land has more fertility it’s more profitable. We need to make these changes. We shouldn’t be buying vegetables from California and Chestnuts from Italy.” He hopes “some farmer whose land is worn out or steep might say, ‘I’m gonna plant tree crops for my grandchild.’”

Mark Fraser, in Montague, created a silvopasture from a forest already there, partly because he loves seeing animals among large trees in pasture. “I started thinning mostly firewood trees,” he says. “The trees I can’t burn, white pine and poplar, I drop and cut into pieces I can move by hand.” He has placed those logs on a rock ledge where “it’ll be the next generation before it becomes soil.” He then limed and planted a pasture mix specifically for wet soil. He rotates sheep, goats and cattle every couple days on his silvopasture and two leased pastures. “The goats eat bittersweet, poison ivy, multiflora rose, barberry, grapevine. Goats are wonderful browsers!” he says. “The systematic defoliation eventually kills the plant. Japanese knotweed is the exception. It makes great goat feed because it’s always coming up.”

With our changing climate, “silvopasture is good for wet weather and drought,” Fraser says. He began creating his silvopasture in 2011. It took only a short time for the soil to become nutrient-rich and able to retain water. In 2016, a dry summer, “my land was much greener than anyone else’s.”

And what about the beauty of the large trees, animals beneath them? “You would not believe how many people stop to look at the animals,” he says. “If nothing else, it makes people happy. It gives them a connection to the land.”

In Amherst, Jeremy Barker Plotkin, co-owner with Dave Tepfer of Simple Gifts Farm CSA, walks down the farm road, past a greenhouse, a field of raspberry canes, and open pasture. “We’re looking at reducing tillage,” he says. To do that, “one-fourth of the land per year goes into pasture.” Each plot taken temporarily out of vegetable production becomes grass and clover for chickens and pigs. The farm’s topsoil is “loamy sand, not a sandy loam,” he says. “Pasturing has improved the soil a lot.”

“We move animals around faster in May and June if you want to get them everywhere,” he says. “We let them munch a little bit. We plant cover crops animals eat.” The Simple Gifts farm store sells pork and beef grown here, and chicken and lamb from friends.

Barker Plotkin and Tepfer haven’t planted trees yet. “We’re looking for crops, maybe nuts and berries, that have a similar production in dollars per acre. Not every farmer can do this. It’s about our philosophical outlook. The reason we farm is to do things like this.”

Lisa DePiano’s research provides a start. “Farmers don’t make a lot of money and they work hard. It’s a risk for them to change. We really need funding from policymakers,” she says. “We’ve given tours to state representatives and senators.” She’s hoping people will “pressure their politicians to incorporate bills to support regenerative farming. We need to move quickly,” she says.

Connor Stedman, a Hatfield-based consultant dealing with the business, practical and environmental aspects of farming, does “a lot of public and industry education around climate change,” he says. When people ask, “What can I do?” he asks them, “What is your situation in life, your sphere of influence?” Each person has a unique opportunity, he believes. “A lot has to do with organizing, figuring out how to build coalitions together.”

Russell Wallack of Amherst, owner of Breadtree Farms, doesn’t in fact have a farm. But he has chestnut trees to sell to silovpasturists because a friend offered him a quarter acre in Leverett on which he has planted 700 seedlings, a foot apart. That’s working together.

And according to Eric Toensmeier, Yale lecturer, author of The Carbon Farming Solution, and senior researcher at Project Drawdown, “We can bring atmospheric carbon dioxide back to 350 ppm if civilization decides to take it seriously. We just have to want to do it enough.”

Rema Boscov has been an Artist-in-Residence at three U.S. National Parks and has written for Hampshire Life, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. She lives in Leverett.

UMass students and faculty engage in farm to institution conference

On April 2-4, University of Massachusetts Amherst was the host of the Farm to Institution New England (FINE) Summit. The themes for the summit were “Celebrate, Mobilize, Transform” and the program included field trips to local farms, food processing facilities and, of course, the UMass Agricultural Learning Center. Presenters and attendees gathered from a breadth of sectors: education, culinary, farmers, policy/advocacy, county jails, and government.

Each day, in the presentations and audience, there was a strong presence of UMass alumni, current students, and faculty. The Stockbridge School of Agriculture was well represented in all of these areas. One thing this summit did really well was showcase the diversity of opportunities that exist and are required for effective food systems change.

Sustainable Food & Farming students, faculty, alumni and staff presented on a range of topics:

“How We Built This: A Garden Internship Program Created Through Public Primary & Higher Education Collaboration”

“Campus Farms: Food for Thought”

“Permaculture on the Menu: UMass Dining Diet for a Cooler Planet Event”

“Designing Local Food Programs at Jails and Prisons”

These topics represent the rich areas of study AND practice available for students studying Sustainable Food & Farming in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass. It was clear in the programing FINE was emphasizing the inextricable role social equity plays in mobilizing and transforming the food system. Voices from UMass Dining and Dean’s office helped welcome featured speakers Jose Oliva, co-founder and director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance to tell his story and the issues confronting food chain workers throughout the food system and Karen Spiller of Food Solutions New England calling conference participants to action to participate in the currently ongoing 21-day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge The summit also included a career networking event in collaboration with the UMass School of Earth and Sustainability that provided students a chance to connect directly with food systems leaders and professionals across sectors.

UMass Sustainable Food & Farming Senior Jordan Lake reflects on her experience: “Being at the FINE Summit the past two days has been so fun and thought provoking. It was especially exciting to present and be given a voice among all of the great presentations. I am in continued awe as I learn more about how many avenues exist to become involved in work in the food system. I met a lot of great folks engaged in addressing topics such as racial equity, needs assessments in school food security, and supporting refugee farmers in Massachusetts. I am leaving with a greater picture of the work being done to create alternatives in the food system, and along with that I have ideas about where to plug in or where to address gaps in the future. 

While participants agreed there is a lot of work to do, there was a sense of community that felt like a gust of wind in our sails to remind us of how much more effectively we can Celebrate, Mobilize and Transform when we work together.

-Sarah Berquist, Program Coordinator of Sustainable Food & Farming, UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Leveling the playing field for America’s family farmers

By Elizabeth Warren – March 27, 2019 in Mediumo-FAMILY-FARMS-facebook

For generations, America’s family farmers have passed down a tradition of hard work and independence. Today’s family farmers share those same core values, but the economics are more and more tenuous. Last year, farmers got less than 15 cents of every dollar that Americans spent on food — the lowest amount since the Department of Agriculture began tracking that figure in 1993.

Today a farmer can work hard, do everything right — even get great weather — and still not make it. It’s not because farmers today are any less resilient, enterprising, or committed than their parents and grandparents were. It’s because bad decisions in Washington have consistently favored the interests of multinational corporations and big business lobbyists over the interests of family farmers. Continue reading Leveling the playing field for America’s family farmers

Women Who Dig…. How Cuba’s Women Farmers Kept Everyone Fed

Did you know that 60% of the students majoring in Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass are women?  Check it out here: https://sustfoodfarm.org/new_students/

Fernando Funes Monzote, 44, of Finca Marta, a 20-acre organic farm
In Cuba, women were an integral part of revolutionizing the way food was grown and distributed in the country.
Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Cuba’s former agricultural system—large-scale, mechanized, and “modern”—relied on a steady flow of resources from the Soviet Union. Before 1989, the Soviet Union sent vast amounts of agricultural supplies, including petroleum, pesticides, fertilizers, and livestock vaccinations, to fuel Cuban production of cash crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, and bananas. The Cuban government prioritized the export of cash crop products and imported 80 percent of what the country consumed: rice, beans, grains, and vegetables. To the north, the United States enforced el bloqueo, an economic blockade against Cuba first established in 1960, prohibiting the flow of goods, including food and medicine, to and from the socialist island. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, severing the supply of food and farming supplies, Cuba woke up to a major economic crisis. Without food imports to stock the grocery store shelves, how would Cuba feed 11 million people? How would Cubans till the soil without diesel to run the tractors? How could farmers stimulate yields without synthetic fertilizers? Agricultural production plummeted dramatically. State farms and factories shut down. Livestock perished. Precious cash crops rotted in the fields and, as a result, revenue from exports crashed.

Continue reading Women Who Dig…. How Cuba’s Women Farmers Kept Everyone Fed

Sarah Berquist receives major award

UMass Instructor and Program Coordinator of the Sustainable Food and Farming B.S. sarahbdegree program in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, Sarah Berquist, was chosen as the 2019 recipient of the Massachusetts Distinguished Service Award by Phi Kappa Phi, the nation’s oldest, largest, and most selective all-discipline honor society.  According to society President, Professor Theresa Y. Austin, the UMass Chapter recognized Ms. Berquist for her outstanding service to the University in ways that are consistent with the Society’s motto of Let the love of learning rule.” 

With a focus on farm-based education and social equity in the food system, Berquist connects her passion for teaching with community engagement through hands-on projects that are actively working toward a more just and sustainable food system.  In collaboration with the UMass Student Farm, she co-founded and manages the Food for All Program that donated 10,000 pounds of recovered “excess” and “seconds” produce in 2018 to the local relief organizations Not Bread Alone and Amherst Survival Center.  She also mentors students that design and execute garden-based lessons with K-6 grade students with the School Garden Program at Amherst Regional Public Schools.

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A Food for All project – Melissa Bonaccorso, Braeden Leinhart, Dan Bensonoff, Courtney Spera, and Michi with 500 lbs of gleaned sweet potatoes from Joe Czajkowski Farm.

On a national scale, Sarah serves as Chair of the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association and is currently working with other SAEA members to champion innovative educational approaches for sustainable agriculture through research and teaching practices that are rooted in social equity.

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Berquist is recognized as an outstanding teacher and adviser by the students in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  Majors in the program know that her courses help equip them with practical life skills such as the ability to grow their own food, gain confidence in leading others, and become skilled at community organizing and critical thinking.  Her love of learning is contagious as evidenced by this statement from one of the seniors in the program.

“I first met Sarah Berquist the Fall before enrolling at the University of Massachusetts. I was still applying to colleges at the time and had no more interest in Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass than any of the other agriculture programs I had researched. Upon my visit, I decided to opt out of the traditional college tour and instead I emailed Sarah to ask for a meeting. What was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting turned into a four-hour conversation.  That was the day I fell in love with the University of Massachusetts.”

As a former student in the program herself, Sarah Berquist is passionate about providing students with challenges and opportunities that build on the student’s own love of learning.  She draws on a diverse educational theories, pedagogies and frameworks for contemplation, integration and transformation, cultivating patience, presence, and compassion for both herself and others.

Berquist will be honored at the annual Initiation Ceremony for the Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Kappa Phi at the University of Massachusetts Campus Center on March 31, 2019.

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Food apartheid: the root of the problem with America’s groceries

Food justice activist Karen Washington wants us to move away from the term ‘food desert’, which doesn’t take into account the systemic racism permeating America’s food system

“When we say ‘food apartheid,’ the real conversation can begin.”
 ‘When we say ‘food apartheid,’ the real conversation can begin.’ Illustration: Daniel Chang Christensen

America’s sustainable food movement has been steadily growing, challenging consumers to truly consider where our food comes from, and inspiring people to farm, eat local, and rethink our approaches to food policy. But at the same time, the movement is predominantly white, and often neglects the needs and root problems of diverse communities.

Continue reading Food apartheid: the root of the problem with America’s groceries

Food Systems and Climate Change

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After a decade of work to connect food and climate, four experts say the link is being made, but much work remains to be done.

Over the past 10 years, we have seen a tidal shift in awareness about the dangers that climate change poses, and the fact that it’s only going to get much worse if we don’t quickly take dramatic action. In fact, data released just last week found that alarm over climate change in the U.S. has doubled in just the last five years.

Despite the growth in coverage, dialogue, and action to address climate change, food and agriculture remain far from the conversation. And yet we know that food and agriculture play a major role in the production of global greenhouse gas emissions—as much as 30 percent by some estimates. Take the recent interactive report from the New York Times highlighting the ways in which countries can dramatically reduce emissions; it gave less than one full sentence to food and agriculture.

Jon Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization focused on dramatic reductions of carbon in the atmosphere, has witnessed first-hand the Continue reading Food Systems and Climate Change

Food: Low Price but High Cost

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Left, Jose, 25, cuts and ties cilantro, and Beatriz (far right), 31, picks jalapeños in the Rio Grande Valley. They work not far from one of the border fences (center).
Dan Winters for Fortune Magazine

There’s a price war raging in the grocery aisle—but the people who actually grow and gather our food may be the battle’s true losers. Meet the produce pickers of Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, whose penny-per-bunch harvest helps stock your pantry for less.

January 14, 2019

Our food is cheap—by some measures, cheaper than it’s ever been. Americans now spend less than 10% of their disposable income on what they eat. When researchers first began tracking this figure some 90 years ago, it was closer to 25%.

But the inexpensive supermarket fare that consumers now expect doesn’t come without a hidden human cost. To see, firsthand, the true price of keeping those shelves stocked, Fortune traveled down to the Rio Grande Valley—among the best areas in the country for growing food crops, and one President Trump put in the spotlight last week when he visited the region to make his case for the border wall. Continue reading Food: Low Price but High Cost

Why We Can’t Separate Social Justice from Sustainability in the Food System

NOTE:  when we first started talking about “sustainability” it was rejected by those who held power and privilege in the food system including many academics.  When it became clear that sustainability wasn’t going away…. the next step was to co-opt the term and focus on environmental sustainability.  Many people, programs, universities and especially businesses would gladly leave the requirement that we focus on social justice out of the conversations and our work to create a more sustainable food system.

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IN: Union of Concerned Scientists by , SCIENTIST, FOOD AND ENVIRONMENT | JANUARY 31, 2019

Most of us wish we could eat with the confidence that everything on our plate has a story we can feel good about, a story about taking care of both people and the environment. In the food system (as elsewhere) these twin issues, justice and sustainability, have often been talked about as if they were unrelated, independent problems with separate solutions.

This disconnect has consequences. Our understanding of the connections between justice and sustainability shapes our work in the food system and determines our chances of making real progress toward our goals. We know that industrial agriculture–large-scale, highly mechanized monoculture farming systems making intensive use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers–does not meet these aspirations. We know that the food system with industrial agriculture as its foundation does not protect the environment, does not protect human health, and doesn’t produce enough nutritious food or distribute it equitably. Sustainability and justice are connected, in part, because injustice and environmental degradation are connected. And if we don’t see the connections between Continue reading Why We Can’t Separate Social Justice from Sustainability in the Food System

Unearthing soil’s role in climate protection

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Soil plays a critical role in global carbon cycling, in part because soil organic matter stores three times more carbon than the atmosphere.

Biogeochemist Dr. Marco Keiluweit, University of Massachusetts Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the UMass School of Earth & Sustainability, and colleagues, for the first time provide evidence that anaerobic microsites play a much larger role in stabilizing carbon in soils than previously thought.

Further, current models used to predict the release of climate-active CO2 from soils fail to account for these microscopic, oxygen-free zones present in many upland soils, they say…

“Without recognizing the importance of anaerobic microsites in stabilizing soil carbon in soils, models are likely to underestimate the vulnerability of the soil carbon reservoir to disturbance induced by climate or land use change,” write first author Keiluweit and colleagues at Stanford, Oregon State University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Institute of Soil Landscape Research, Germany.

Findings add another twist to the ongoing debate, they add, over “the mechanisms controlling long-term stabilization of carbon in soils.” Details appear in the current issue of Nature Communications.