When in Doubt, Plant a Nut Tree

By Emily Cataneo. Courtesy of The Guardian.

“If we were to think about how to radically change agriculture, one of the ways we would do that is to eliminate tillage agriculture by planting trees that do the same function,” said Eliza Greenman, a germplasm specialist at the Savanna Institute, a non-profit that promotes planting trees on farmland in the midwest.

In Wisconsin, hazelnuts are taking off thanks to the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, a non-profit that encourages growers to plant, harvest and sell hazelnuts. Further south, the University of Missouri Extension School is researching best practices for planting and selling black walnuts. And the Savanna Institute urges landowners to consider a variety of perennial nuts – especially the chestnut. The institute recently released a report saying that the “broad adoption of chestnuts could also help ‘flip the script’ on agriculture’s role in climate change”.

Michael Judd grew up in this western corner of Maryland, but he first became interested in reimagining food systems when he was working on landscape design in rural Nicaragua. There, people ate the food that grew near them. Once he returned to his home state, he started to think about how he and his neighbors would eat if the global supply chain was disrupted, since not many edible crops are grown there.

“If you’re a fear-based person, you might say, oil is maxed, prices are going up, the nutrient quality of food is going down, distribution lines are vulnerable. What can I grow to make sure I don’t go hungry?” said Judd, who is also the author of a book on integrating food into suburban landscaping. “When in doubt, plant a nut tree.”

Judd, who has 1.2 hectares (three acres) of food forest on his own property … wants local farmers to consider replanting their fields with nut trees, or integrating trees into agriculture, a practice called agroforestry, which he says sequesters carbon and provides a stable crop in the face of a changing climate.

One local farm that Judd helped transform is Fox Haven in Jefferson, Maryland, which grew organic hay until last year. Dick Bittner manages the 259 hectares (640 acres) of farmland, and several years ago, started doing research on sustainable agriculture and found that chestnut trees can be a financial boon. “We decided I’d try to convert this into something useful,” he said.

Bittner, 86, said he imagines that this landscape will be a lasting benefit for the community even after he’s gone. “For me, being as old as I am, this is something for the people that follow me,” he said. “I can imagine that one day all of these trees will be tall and producing.”

Judd emphasizes that his pitch is not sentimental, but practical. The chestnut has major economic potential: it’s a $5.4bn global industry projected to increase by 2.2% annually over the next five years, according to the Savanna Institute.

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