Alley cropping with nut trees can add more economic value to a farm while establishing more roots for soil health. This system can add medium-term value with nut harvests while timber can add additional long-term value. In Iowa, Tom Wall of Red Fern Farm farms about 87 acres with just 10 of those acres dedicated to mature chestnut trees. With the emergency of “pick-your-own” farms, Tom states he can make about $10,000 per acre with minimal added work because, as Tom shares in an interview with University of Missouri’s Center for Agroforestry, “the customers do just about all the work and the only thing I have to do is mow the grass under the chestnuts before the nuts start dropping and then collect money,” (University of Missouri, 2019).
However, according to Dr. Michael Gold, Associate Director of the Center for Agroforestry, it is important to design plantings in a way that encourages synergy below-ground as opposed to competition. During a presentation at the Agroforestry Academy held at the University of Missouri, Dr. Gold states this can be accomplished by selecting species that compliment each other either in time or in space. For example, winter wheat is an ideal companion for alley cropping with chestnut trees. This is because chestnuts are typically harvested in early October and winter wheat is sown in the fall. By selecting two varieties that are synergist in time, this system can operate in harmony. Synergy can also occur through spacing. Dr. Gold recollects a field where observed “the corn [was] protecting the walnut when the walnuts [were] just seedlings so it [was] actually like a reverse windbreak situation for the first couple years,” (University of Missouri, 2019).
Not only does this careful planning prevent competition, it also helps to manage pests as a result of increased biodiversity. and fosters a relatively closed-loop system by allowing nutrients to be recycled. It is in these ways that alley cropping can help farmers promote soil health while accessing new revenue streams.
Resource cited: University of Missouri. (June 21, 2019). Tree-based Polycultures. The Agroforestry Podcast. Podcast retrieved from http://www.centerforagroforestry.org/pubs/podcast.php