Category Archives: Farming

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.

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:

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


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

Industrial pig farms are not prepared for climate change

By Kendra Pierre-Louis     Sept. 19, 2018  – New York Times

A hog farm in eastern North Carolina on Monday. The pink area is a lagoon of pig excrement. Credit – Rodrigo Gutierrez/Reuters

EDITORS NOTE:  The real costs of industrial agriculture are not included in the price of food.  We all pay for “cheap food” in pollution, unjust labor practices, and poor public health.  To learn about alternatives, check out our online Pigs & Poultry class!

The record-breaking rains that started with Hurricane Florence are continuing to strain North Carolina’s hog lagoons.

Because of the storm, at least 110 lagoons in the state have either released pig waste into the environment or are at imminent risk of doing so, according to data issued Wednesday by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. That tally more than tripled the Monday total, when the department’s count was 34.

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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 or Nicole Burton at

Home is where the hemp is…

New York Times 

Russians sorting raw hemp fibers in the Kursk region in the 1960s. Hemp has been used as building material for millennia in Europe and elsewhere, but it’s only just starting to get wider recognition as a green construction option.

The Romans have been using it since the days of Julius Caesar, but not to get high. Both Washington and Jefferson grew it.

Now that several states have legalized the use of marijuana for some recreational and medical purposes, one of the biggest untapped markets for the cannabis plant itself — at least one variety — could be as a building tool.

The most sustainable building material isn’t concrete or steel — it’s fast-growing hemp. Hemp structures date to Roman times. A hemp mortar bridge was constructed back in the 6th century, when France was still Gaul.

Now a wave of builders and botanists are working to renew this market. Mixing hemp’s woody fibers with lime produces a natural, light concrete that retains thermal mass and is highly insulating. No pests, no mold, good acoustics, low humidity, no pesticide. It

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Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet

The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.

The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.

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On our way to a “nation of farmers” in Amherst, MA

Michelle Chandler and one of her backyard meat rabbits

Michelle Chandler made a decision shortly after September 11, 2001 – she was going to be less dependent on fossil fuels and begin to live a more sustainable lifestyle.  The result is 100 rabbits, dozens of laying hens and a couple of milk goats in her suburban yard in South Amherst, MA.  Chandler quotes John 21:17, when Peter was asked by Jesus, “Do you love me?” Upon answering, “Yes,” Peter is instructed to “feed my sheep.”

Chandler’s “sheep” are her four children, ages 8 to 13, as well as neighbors and friends who enjoy the results of her bounty produced at Blessed Acre Farm and Rabbitry, where she raises several rare and heritage rabbit breeds – Cinnamons, Thriantas, Californians, Cremes d’Argent, Palominos, and American Blues.

According to an article in her local newspaper, those interested in raising rabbits should start with three, which would cost about $60 to get started. “For someone who wants rabbit on the table once a week for a family of four, you could realistically get by with one buck and two does,” she said. Then there’s the cost of building or buying hutches, at around $50 to $75 apiece, and providing the feed. A 50-pound bag costs $14.

Although her own property was far enough from the center of town to be exempt, Chandler was instrumental in helping to pass a new bylaw that allows up to 12 chickens or rabbits by right anywhere in Amherst.

“I feel strongly that Amherst will be better served by being able to feed itself,” said Chandler. “People are always going to be hungry, and if people have another food source, that’s a good thing.”

 One of Michelle Chandler’s close friends, Sharon Astyk, has written a book called “A Nation of Farmers” in which she claims raising your own food in the backyard must become a more common feature of the American landscape if we are to adjust to Peak Oil.  Chandler’s backyard has become a living example of this trend.


Agriculture is a conversation with the divine

As I begin a year long sabbatical leave from my teaching job at UMass, I’ve been thinking once again about what agriculture means to me.  In preparation, I re-read an essay I wrote years ago called Agriculture is a business and a conversation with the divine.”

If you click on the title, you can find the essay…..

I think when I wrote this essay I was hesitant to use the word “divine”. Today, I find it easier talk about my relationship with the divine, whether that be God, the Buddha, the Tao, some “power greater than ourselves”, or whatever way we choose to think about the non-material.  Of course, agriculture has its very important “material” aspects, but it is the spiritual connection that I’m thinking about today.

In the essay I refer to Wendel Berry’s quote “eating is an agricultural act.” Berry presents a few ideas on how we may each connect with the universe or the divine through food and farming.


He suggests that we:

  • participate in growing food to the extent that we can,

  • prepare our own food,

  • learn the origins of the food we buy,

  • deal directly with a local farmer, and;

  • learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.

I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden “wastes”, as a necessary means of reconnecting with the non-human part of the universe.


I wonder if you agree?  Can you think of other ways in which we might renew and sustain our connection with “something bigger than ourselves” through food and farming?

If you are curious…. check it out here and offer our own comments.

According to SFF grad “farming is cool now”

Farming is growing in popularity among recent college graduates, fed by concerns over nutrition and a weak job market.

The 24-year-old new owner of Full Heart Farm in Ledyard is one of them.

Allyson Angelini, who graduated from the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming program, last week took over the 6.25-acre property at 193 Iron St. She plans to get married on the farm in about a year.

“It doesn’t take much to fall in love with farming,” said Angelini, who gave up a desire to be a magazine journalist and instead got an agricultural education degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009. “And farming is really cool now, and that feeling is growing.”

Erin Pirro, who supervises the Outstanding Young Farmer program in Connecticut, agreed.

“Farming is becoming sexy again,” she said. “Americans have become out of touch with their food supplies. There’s a lot of passion for locally grown food.”

Farming still has a predominately older demographic, according to the U.S. Agriculture Census. For every farmer under 35, there are six over 65, the latest census said.

Angelini’s age enabled her to be considered “disadvantaged” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, making her eligible for the agency’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers loan program.

Angelini has traveled in 5.5 years of researching farming, including working at a Stonington educational facility known as Terra Firma Farm and on a pork farm in Italy. She left her job at Jones Family Farms in Shelton in September to try to secure a farm in New London County.

Encouragement and assistance from elders is encouraging more 20-somethings to go into farming, Angelini said. Bob Burns, owner of Aiki Farms in Ledyard, was recently at Full Heart Farm, using his John Deere tractor to plow and harrow a portion of the land.

“(Angelini) is a delightful person, and Aiki Farms will support them as neighbors and fellow farmers,” said Burns, who is manager of the Ledyard Farmers Market, where Angelini plans to sell some her crops including beans, carrots, potatoes, squash and tomatoes.

Her parents, Greg and Sally Angelini, have been coming to Full Heart to help. Brother Ryan Angelini, who works at Electric Boat Corp., has also been assisting with repair projects. Keith Padin, Allyson Angelini’s fiancé, is a full partner in Full Heart, and his parents recently made their first visit to the farm.

“It’s hard to start a family farm without family around,” Allyson said.

Allyson and Keith are promoting that family feeling by giving names to each of their chickens and pigs.

Locally raised meat and produce strengthens family ties, Angelini said. And — on pure taste alone — local farming competes strongly, she said.

“Once you have farm-fresh eggs and homemade bacon, you never go back,” Angelini said.

Love of animals and land is not enough for a farmer these days, Angelini said.

“Young farmers need a wide skill set,” Angelini said. “There is so much diversity in the farm habitat.”

The demise of the family farm

NOTE:  This story isn’t over.  If you buy directly from local farms, you support a neighbor and a quality of life that many of us value.  In Western Massachusetts, the amount of food purchased directly from local farms is 10 times the national average.
If you buy from a big box store…… you are responsible for the following story.

Andersen family farm

The photo above is of the Andersen family farm in Chatfield, Minnesota. It’s a farm that only exists in the memories of my brother, sister, and my cousins, as it had ceased

Continue reading The demise of the family farm