Woody Agriculture: Breeding & Implementing Hazelnut & Chestnut as Staple Crops by Badgersett Research
Woody Agriculture converts annual cropland to staple-food-producing woody plants, capturing 3 times the carbon. It's time to scale it up.
Woody Agriculture is the intensive production of staple agricultural commodities using highly domesticated woody perennial plants; such as nut producing trees and bushes. This practice can sequester substantial CO2. Present estimates of the annual increase in atmospheric carbon are around 10 gigatons; if woody plants could be substituted for the traditional annual crops now being grown on 1/2 of world crop lands, they could fix at least 10 gigatons of carbon more per year than those annual crops, with no decrease in food production.
Woody crops do not require plowing, planting, or cultivating after initial establishment, translating to a significant further reduction in carbon emissions.
We have developed poly-hybrid swarms of Hazelnut, Corylus x., and Chestnut, Castanea x, and Hickory-Pecan, Carya x. The Woody Agriculture paradigm can also be extended to other trees and bushes in other parts of the world.
Experimentally derived potential yields of food from woody plants already equal, and may surpass, yields from soybeans. Edible oil and biodiesel feedstock production using hazels has the potential to produce at 2-3 times as much oil per acre as soy.
In addition, hazelnuts and chestnuts are highly healthful and marketable. Fuel biomass, industrial feedstocks and construction materials can also be harvested from the same plantings, alleviating pressure on remaining forests.
Since 1978, Badgersett has carried out the basic feasibility research for Woody Ag, and developed the necessary breeding systems, genetics, and cropping methods to implement it. Our hybrid hazels are ready for large-scale production development in N. America. Our hybrid chestnuts are ready for medium-scale tests and the next cycle of breeding. Continued breeding would allow development and establishment of local hazel lines for Europe and Asia, and local chestnuts for all continents.
This proposal focuses on the next phase of field development and breeding in N. America, particularly for hazels.
What actions do you propose?
The two primary courses of action for this phase of the project revolve around field production trials and breeding as follows:
- Establish our first test and breeding farm in Canada.
- Collect and analyze additional data at our production test farm in Illinois, and manage the planting to bring it up to full stocking, meanwhile testing locally improved genetics.
This phase fits into a long term strategy to develop a new branch of agriculture and industry based on the cultivation of woody crops as staple foods for humans, forage for animals, and as industrial materials.
It should be pointed out that "Woody Agriculture" differs significantly from both agroforestry and standard orchard production of most tree-produced crops. Woody agriculture is, "The intensive production of staple agricultural commodities using highly domesticated woody perennial plants."
The primary novel developments here are:
- Staple food production with woody perennial plants, where "Staple" means "critical to the caloric nutrition of a population of humans".
- Highly domesticated woody perennial plants. Most fruit and nut trees are very similar to their wild progenitors; we are working towards extensive domestication comparable to that of maize (corn). To that end, we have developed Accelerated Guided Evolution, which uses natural breeding techniques to generate species-hybrid swarms, unlocking vast genetic resources in a way that often results in new species in the wild. This technique then applies cycle-based limited trait selection in order to harness this immense genetic variability within a sensible amount of time and space.
- Intensive production. We advocate the conversion of prime agricultural land and resources to the Woody Ag system.
- Ecological pest management. Breeding for domestication is done in the presence of a managed ecology, with the crop plants retaining a substantial portion of the responsibility for fighting pests. So far we have been able to maintain a pesticide-free production system, and we expect that to continue indefinitely with proper management.
Primary actions within the long-term strategy include:
- Continue Badgersett's cycle-based hybrid swarm breeding for domestication of hazels, chestnuts, and hickory-pecans.
- Maintain and establish test plantings, both Badgersett-managed and farmer-operated.
- Assist farmers in establishment of production-scale plantings.
- Establish and manage large-scale contracted plantings for utilities (i.e. food-producing greenbelts under power transmission lines) and communities (i.e. local, sustainable food & energy production for towns and colleges)
- Continue seedling production and field establishment process development.
- Establish progeny and clonal performance tests.
- Continue development of harvest and post-harvest processing equipment, particularly for hybrid hazels.
- Increase growers' sales in known markets, and foster development of derivative products and co-product markets.
A slightly more detailed timeline of the overall project follows, including actions already underway:
- Start date: 1981. Initial demonstration of feasibility of system and breeding techniques completed around 1990. Intensive breeding for domestication and gathering of further genetic material continues throughout project.
- 1990: Scale-up of plantings allows initial development of plant production and establishment systems. Refinement and development of improved establishment practices continues throughout project
- 2005-2015/2025: Scale-up of production from plantings allows initial development of harvest and post-harvest processing equipment, and initial low-volume markets.
- 2012-2032+: Scale-up of production and harvest allows broader testing of promising seed lines and individual clones. First partially-clonal production fields are put in.
- Starting about 2015: Scaled-up and improved production allows sufficient feedstock for initial development of secondary products/ co-products.
- Starting 2023-2053: Sufficient planted and producing land allows for finer advanced experimentation on co-cropping, co-production of livestock, refinement of cultural practices for maximum reliable crop production, and locally adapted genetics and practices.
- Starting 2043-2083: R&D continues for hazels, and possibly chestnuts, as an established agricultural crop. The speed of Woody Ag's impact on global carbon balance depends primarily on the speed of expansion of plantings.
Who will take these actions?
Badgersett Research Corp. will work with new and existing growers, and a growing network of academic and permaculture-oriented collaborators. We have collaborating farmers in Canada ready for installing large scale test plantings for breeding and production. We have an established production test farm in Illinois, in addition to the lone-established research plantings at our farm in Minnesota.
Over 100,000 of our unique neohybrid hazels have been planted as trials and small production plots at farms throughout North America, particularly in the Midwest. About 1,000 growers in our database of over 4,500 interested people have planted hazels. These numbers are not yet world-changing, but they are a good start.
If Woody agriculture is to reach its massive potential as a climate change mitigation strategy, we need to scale up the process to enable large scale production and be fully accessible to our current farming and food distribution infrastructure.
The next phase of development requires ramping up production, establishing new local test and breeding sites, supporting current growers, recruiting new growers, and outreach to existing farmers and industry stakeholders.
Where will these actions be taken?
Near-Term: Minnesota, Illinois, Ontario, and other farms in the US and Canada.
With more time and/or money: there are multiple farmers who have already expressed interest in Europe, India, and other counries and regions. With sufficient resources we could begin the process of shipping internationally without transmitting disease, and provide international support for test plantings. All temparate regions with about 30 inches or more of rain a year are potential places for plantings of Badgersett hybrid hazel and chestnut.
Eventually: hundreds of thousands of acres of chestnut and hazel staple crops cover large portions of the landscape, producing abundant protein, carbohydrates, fats, oils, and biomass, while sequestering petatons of carbon.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
Woody plants can fix over three times as much carbon as annuals per area per year. For each hectare (2.47 acres) of land converted from annual crops to Woody Ag, this should increase carbon fixation by at least 10 Mg/yr, and possibly more than 15 Mg/ha/yr. This can be equivalent to a reduction of up to 15 Mg/ha/yr or more of carbon emissions, depending on usage of the crop output.
At least some of this fixed carbon will be sequestered in soil organic matter, and more is possible using biochar. Field research into the amount of long-term in-soil carbon sequestration actually ocurring is currently underway at our Minnesota site.
Additionally, woody plant systems take fewer equipment passes over the field per year for plowing and cultivation. This should reduce fuel needs in mechanized agricultural areas by about 60-70 litres/ha/yr; possibly more with careful management.
See: Carbon sequestration: An underexploited environmental beneï¬t of agroforestry systems. F. Montagnini and P. K. R. Nair
What are other key benefits?
Our Minnesota farm is home to dozens of species of birds and mammals, including a true web of life in food-producing fields. "Win-Win Ecology" describes what this could mean for worldwide species preservation.
Soil and Water Preservation
Annual tillage causes the loss of tons/acre of our most fertile topsoil every year. This is increasing as climate change intensifies storms and drought. Since Woody Agriculture requires no tillage post establishment, it vastly decreases and can reverse erosion.
Increased photosynthesis / higher production / less pesticides
Woody plants are better at capturing light than annuals: 3 times more solar energy per year, which can be used by the plant to make seed or wood, or to fight pests with highly evolved immune defenses.
The more species involved in food production, the more easily the food system can withstand momentary failures of any particular crop due to disease, drought, flood, or natural disasters.
What are the proposal’s costs?
To implement the next phase of test farm scaling, breeding, and production:
Canada test farm establishment: total $23,000
- Travel: 6 trips for $3k
- Plants: 500 year 1 plants for $2k
- Planting & monitoring equipment: $2k
- Plants: 2k year 2 plants for $8k
- Overhead for 4 months of BRC staff labor: $8k
- Establishment of plant shipping base in Canada: -$2k/yr or greater, following year 2.
IL test farm research, development & demontration: total $21-37k
- Travel: 20 trips for $4k
- Data gathering and analysis: 3 weeks for $2k
- Cull and coppice costs: $2k
- Relocation costs: $4k
- Replanting costs, clonal: $4-10k
- Replanting costs, seedling: $5-15k
To rapidly scale Badgersett's support of farmers establishing Woody Ag fields, about $500k would be necessary for expanding our stretched-too-thin infrastructure. Large plantings will still be possible without this, but failure rates would be substantially higher at this point in the development of these crops.
The larger-scale goals of woody ag will succeed most quickly at this point with investments of around $1 million in the first rapidly-scaling year, with the infrastructure and newly-trained human resources that provides allowing the rapid expansion of efforts (and their benefits, monetary returns, and costs) in the years following.
Next Phase farms:
- Year 1: initial shakedown planting & establishment, equipment procurement, mapping.
- Year 2: establishment (weeding, water) on year 1 planting
- Analysis of year 1 initial successes/ failures
- Selecton, production, planting & establishment of year 2 planting
- (after initial farm establishment, costs not included above):
- Years 3-6: establishment, additional planting
- Years 6-12: initial performance evaluation of this genetic material in this location
- Years 12-20: coppice, cull, & replant per continuing performance evaluation and breeding advances.
- Iterate and refine.
2. Illinois test farm intensified research and management
- Year 1- data collection, and analysis of already-gathered data. Partial field coppice if possible. Some work on cloning and moving already-noticed outstanding plants.
- Year 2- more data. Substantial increase in collection of material for clonal propagation. Coppice/cull/relocate/replant to get more fields to fully-stocked plant densities.
- Year 3+ Continued data gathering, replanting, and establishment of larger-scale tests of outstanding cultivars.
Complete project: 50-100 years depending on resources available. Completed: 30 years. Remaining: 20-70 years
For an outline of the complete project timeline, see the "What actions do you propose" section. Woody Agriculture is a long-term project, and the whole timeline doesn't fit in this section.
Here are the classes of related proposals:
Projects involving biomass-derived fuels and carbon sequestration.
Projects involving biofuels/biodiesel production
Projects involving food security, and resilience of agricultural crops to growing, changing climactic stressors.
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