Earlier this summer, I went out with Rob Kanter (writer of Environmental Almanac, instructor in by the School of Earth, Society, and Environment, and also my dad) to the Woody Perennial Polyculture site. The trees were just beginning to bud, and the bushes stretching out green growth.
It’s quite a place: The Woody Perennial Polyculture site stands south of the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Windsor Road in Urbana, right next to the Sustainable Student farms and University Fruit Research farm. Its two founders, Kevin Wolz and Ron Revord, greeted us out by the fields.
This year is their third planting season, and the first year that they are expecting yield from nearly all of their crops – hazelnuts, currants, grapes, raspberries, and chestnuts, with only the apple trees not yet producing. Most tree crop sites can expect full financial returns on initial investments by the fourth or fifth season of planting, leading to a recent market interest in woody perennials. These crops make a checkerboard with the controls – “conventional” half-acres of corn.
The project began during their undergraduate years as a brainchild of conversations during running club practices. Both are now working on their master’s degrees, Revord with his work on filbert (hazelnut) trees, and Wolz with currant bushes (you can imagine the confusion when I said I wanted to talk about “current” research). Currants, not well-known by most Americans due to the fact that they were banned to combat a blight in the 1930s, can be used in baking, cooking, and wine (more on that later).
Though they used herbicides for the first two growing seasons, all the crops grown this year and all the years to come will be grown organically, without the use of pesticides. Revord explains that this is just to make sure that the weeds don’t spatially or nutritionally “crowd out,” the fledgling trees and shrubs.
Between the rows of tree crops, grass and clover is grown, to be mowed up and sold to campus animal research facilities. While they admit that it might be easier to just allow the cattle and sheep to graze the area, this option is out due to the fact that Crop Sciences and Animal Sciences are separate at the U of I.
Several partnerships have helped to boost the financial base for the site. Among other things, an NSF grant for faculty member Evan Delutia, a collaboration with a local winery to see if East Central Illinois could have a market for currant wine, and work with local farmers, who are implementing their practices on a larger scale. They consider this to be a win-win, as they can then use this to collect more data from different areas, and the farmers get a more profitable, long-term plan for their fields.
My personal impression was quite positive. This is not a fix-all solution, but rather part of a larger set of reforms desperately needed in Illinois agriculture. As proof, I offer this anecdote: In the field of trees, birds could be heard singing (one pair had built a nest in a larger tree) and dragonflies buzzed around our heads. By the corn (we could not walk in, as it had been recently sprayed with pesticides), only the occasional bird would land on a stalk, and no live insects were visible. I shall let those two images speak for themselves.