Category Archives: Education

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

Urban bees: yards and gardens help

Research also identifies pollinators’ favourite flowers, including brambles, buttercups, dandelions, lavender and borage.

bees

Yards, weedy corners and fancy gardens are all urban havens for bees and other pollinators, a study has found.

The widespread decline of bees resulting from the loss of wild areas and pesticide use has caused great concern in recent years, but towns and cities have been suggested Continue reading Urban bees: yards and gardens help

Addressing Food Security and Getting Students Paid: UMass Farmer’s Market Grows

Addressing Food Security and Getting Students Paid: UMass Farmer’s Market Grows UMass Food for All network handed out free vegetables and educated people about food security at UMass while other students sold their original work at UMass’ second to...

UMass Food for All network handed out free vegetables and educated people about food security at UMass while other students sold their original work at UMass’ second to last “Food For All Farmers Market,” a market which has grown this season.

“By eating this, you are reducing food waste,” said Dan Bensonof as he served market-goers paper cups of sweet potato & peanut butter soup– the sweet potatoes in the soup were gleaned by his students at Czajkowski Farm in Hadley. Bensonof, who just started working for UMass this June, helps organize the Farmer’s Market, is teaching the practicum class, Permaculture Gardening, as well as coordinating the Permaculture Continue reading Addressing Food Security and Getting Students Paid: UMass Farmer’s Market Grows

UMass Stockbridge School Launches Student-Run Vineyard on Campus

Grapes
November 7, 2018
Contact: Elsa Petit 413/545-5217

AMHERST, Mass. – Fall may not seem like a good time for planting, but cool temperatures and ample soil moisture can help plants settle in, says viticulture expert Elsa Petit at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where students in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture have been busy this fall planting dozens of cold-tolerant grapes at the campus’s first student-run vineyard.

Continue reading UMass Stockbridge School Launches Student-Run Vineyard on Campus

UMass’s First Carbon Farming Initiative Demonstrates How to Sustainably Grow Food and Mitigate Climate Change

UMass’s First Carbon Farming Initiative Demonstrates How to Sustainably Grow Food and Mitigate Climate Change

By: Lisa DePiano and Nicole Burton

The UMass Carbon Farming Initiative is the first temperate climate research silvopasture plot at the University of Massachusetts. Carbon farming is the practice of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere into soil carbon stocks and above ground biomass. Silvopasture, a carbon farming practice is the intentional combination of trees and livestock for increased productivity and biosequestration.

The plot is a 1 acre silvopasture system at the Agriculture Learning Center (ALC) that integrates a diverse planting of complex hybrid chestnuts systematically arranged to ensure ease of management for rotational grazing sheep. Establishment of the initiative has been funded by the Sustainable Food and Farming Program (SFF) and a grant from the Sustainability Innovation and Engagement Fund (SEIF) and is managed by Stockbridge School of Agriculture Faculty Lisa DePiano and Nicole Burton and SFF students.

According to Project Drawdown, a broad coalition of scientists, policy makers, business leaders, and activists that have compiled a comprehensive plan for reversing climate change, silvopasture is the highest ranked agricultural solution to climate change. Silvopastoral systems contribute to climate change mitigation both through the direct drawdown of atmospheric carbon into soil and biomass and through the reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by industrial livestock systems. With the growing demand for meat and dairy products, and the limited amount of land available it is essential that we identify agricultural practices that are part of the solution rather than exacerbating the problem.

In order to get to down to 350 ppm of atmospheric CO2, the safe amount of concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, we need to have NET Zero carbon emissions and remove 300+ billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere.Research suggests that silvopasture systems are capable of storing as much as 100 tons of Carbon (367 tons of CO2) per acre while adding the yields of tree crops to the existing animal systems, and ecological benefits like reduced nutrient runoff, erosion, and animal stress from heat and wind. Traditional silvopasture systems, such as the dehesa in Spain and forest pastures in Scotland, have existed for centuries but more research and development is needed for cold climate sites in the United States.

Some goals and objectives for this project are:

  1. Establish a concrete example of carbon farming. This example will function as an outdoor classroom for SFF and related courses as well as a demonstration site for farmers and policy makers.
  2. Trial different varieties of complex hybrid chestnuts looking for traits like climate hardiness, nut size and yield, disease resistance, and precociousness
  3. Test market for products such as chestnuts, chestnut flour, nursery scion wood
  4. Track financial implications of these practices such as: cost of establishment, ongoing costs, revenue streams, and CO2 sequestration per acre
  5. Empower students as emerging leaders in the cutting edge fields of Permaculture, carbon farming and sustainable animal husbandry.
  6. Conduct research and development to support regional farmers in adopting carbon farming practices and strategies
  7. Catalog the carcass yields of the pastured livestock
  8. Monitor and test parasitic loads with livestock
  9.  Track rotations of sheep

For more information on the Initiative contact Lisa DePiano at ldepiano@umass.edu or Nicole Burton at ngburton@umass.edu

STOCKSCH 166 – Practical Beekeeping

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STOCKSCH 166 – Practical Beekeeping 

Instructor: Angela Roell, M.S.

NOTE: interested non-majors are welcome but will need permission to register.  Contact the instructor at Angela Roell <angela.roell@gmail.com>.

Class Meets Tuesdays and Thursdays 2:00- 3:30;  This course will be both in person and online via Moodle, digital content will be released weekly on Monday, weekly course content will be due by the following Monday by midnight.

Office Hours: Via phone or Skype, by appointment only

Contact Information: Angela Roell, angela.roell@gmail.com, 413.588.6977

Course Description

This course will focus on knowledge pertaining to honeybee hive anatomy & social structure, and the management strategies necessary to perform basic beekeeping. Continue reading STOCKSCH 166 – Practical Beekeeping

Congressman James McGovern Will Visit UMass Agricultural Learning Center

Will

As part of his eighth annual Farm Tour in western Massachusetts, Congressman James McGovern will make a stop at UMass Amherst’s Agricultural Learning Center (ALC), where approximately 30 of its 60 acres are in production this summer. The focus of this season’s tour is farms that produce and sell food and produce to schools and other institutions.

Center director Amanda Brown says 10 active faculty-sponsored projects employing 20 undergraduate student summer workers are currently underway at the ALC, including:

  • a silvo-pasture, combining a woodland nut crop and grazing sheep in a mutually beneficial way
  • a chicken-raising operation as a source of lean local protein
  • the “Food for All” garden, which provides fresh local produce to the Amherst Survival Center and the Amherst-based soup kitchen, Not Bread Alone
  • a native plant demonstration plot, pollinator garden and permaculture garden
  • honey bees
  • an off-grid greenhouse funded by a National Science Foundation grant, now up and running, will allow students to grow produce year-round without fossil fuels
  • an organic vineyard, now staked out, will be planted in the fall
  • an organic apple orchard
  • a demonstration plot of cover crops, grain and pasture management

Continue reading Congressman James McGovern Will Visit UMass Agricultural Learning Center

Women in Agriculture Series at UMass

Women make up nearly half of the global agricultural workforce but receive much less funding, land, input, and training than men.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has spotlighted the gender gap in agriculture as a key obstacle to sustainable development – here’s a great infographic with statistics around this issue.
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We want to take these stats and turn them on their head. We’ve rallied women entrepreneurs in agriculture locally and regionally who have the capacity to inspire others to create a better food system.
We’re inviting the campus community and the public to join us to learn about the successes and challenges of their journeys.
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There are three lectures in the series, with one taking place each month this fall (click the title for details):
The series has been organized and coordinated by Stockbridge instructor Angela Roell and lecturer Sarah Berquist and the flyer was designed by SFF student Annalisa Flynn.
Each lecture has its own Facebook event (links are included above). Those interested in attending are encouraged to RSVP to individual events on Facebook.
We’d appreciate if you could pass along this information to anyone else you think may be interested. Questions and feedback can be directed via email (abthorpe@umass.edu).
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Learn about the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture! 

or…

How to Prepare for WHATEVER Comes Next

NOTE:  Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology.  I rely on her work when I teach STOCKSCH 379 – Agricultural Systems Thinking.  I had her permission to modify one of her essays and share it under the title of The Shambhala Worker.   Stockbridge instructor, Catherine Sands, sent me this interview.  If you think life looks pretty bleak right now…. read this!
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Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say ‘It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.’”

Joanna Macy on How to Prepare Internally for WHATEVER Comes Next

This is an interview with Joanna Macy published in Ecobuddhism.
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Ecobuddhism: How do you feel about the Sixth Mass Extinction?

Joanna Macy: It’s happening. It’s combined with so much else that promises wholesale collapse. How do we begin to deal with the plastic in the ocean that covers areas the size of countries? What are cell phones and microwaves doing to our biological rhythms? What exactly is in our food? How do we address genetic modification of crops? We are so hooked on all of this, on every level. How do we begin to contain it?

The most immediate level of crisis concerns the Earth’s carrying capacity. Many civilizations prior to ours, starting with Mesopotamia, could no longer support themselves because they exhausted their natural resources. Carrying capacity is the level most people talk about. It’s a defining aspect of the climate crisis. How will we grow the food we need given huge variations and extremities of weather? How will we handle the natural disasters and famines that will result from a chaotic climate?