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By Shirley Murtha
The Wilhelm Farm on Rte. 189 in North Granby has been awarded a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of the United States Department of Agriculture for the period March 1, 2017 through September 30, 2019. The official title of the project is Wilhelm Farm: Demonstrations of Silvopasture and Other Agroforestry Systems. The NRCS demonstrations will include web pages, videos, fact sheets and onsite activities. They will be used by agency professionals, outreach specialists and practicing landowners.
The Wilhelm Farm covers 45.6 acres, 35 of which are woodland. Fred Wilhelm’s father Oscar bought the homestead in 1936 and proceeded to plant trees to replace the worn out upland pastures that had been clear-cut in the late 1700s, as was the common practice at the time. Some pine trees remained, however, and can be seen today towering over the others. Called “grandmother trees,” these old seed trees are between 150 and 200 years old.
The concept of silvopasture was introduced in last month’s Drummer article on Sven Pihl’s leasing of some of the Wilhelm farmland to re-open the vegetable stand. This concept revolves around the integration of pasture land with trees. This will be the focus of the demonstration being developed by Ann Wilhelm and Bill Bentley, son-in-law of Fred Wilhelm and known to many as “Ann’s husband,” he jokingly remarks. Ann is the daughter of Fred and Edith Wilhelm.
Having observed agroforestry systems during trips to India, Ann and Bill attended a four-day workshop in central New York state last summer. Presented under the auspices of Cornell University, the workshop reinforced how the concept of silvopasture could be applied to their property in Connecticut. Ann’s subsequent advertising for someone interested in this type of work was instrumental in obtaining the services of Pihl, who, in addition to his vegetable farming, will assist Ann and Bill in carrying out the demonstration project.
The Wilhelm silvopasture hopefully will begin with the arrival of goats this summer. Katahdin sheep may be added at a later date. (Katahdins are so-called hairless sheep, as they shed their winter coats, making the time-consuming and labor intensive process of summer shearing unnecessary. The animals are also resistant to parasites, thus “easy keepers” in farm parlance.) The goats will forage on the herbacious plants at the margin of the forest, particularly the multiflora rose and other invasive brush species. Pigs may also be added at a later time. They root out stumps and brush, helping to convert the brush to open pasture under the partial shade of the trees overhead.
In addition to silvopasture, there are four other agroforestry systems, three of which will be demonstrated by the Wilhelm project. The most obvious aspect is that of the forest margin surrounding the pasture acting as a windbreaker, making the pasture more habitable for the animals and protecting the farm crops. Specific crops are also raised in an agroforest, i.e. forest farming. Those especially suited are mushrooms, ramps (wild onions) and fiddleheads. Another important component to agroforestry is riparian management, the effort to stop erosion of stream banks — the riparian area being the interface between the land and a river or stream. This is definitely important at the Wilhelm Farm as Mountain Brook runs through the forest.
The fifth component of agroforestry is alley cropping, the planting of rows of trees with alleys of pasture or crops between them. Originating in South Asia, this design is being used in the midwest to separate walnut trees to prevent over-crowding and allow better utilization of space and nutrients. It is just beginning to be used here in the northeast. Bentley noted that this component probably will not be demonstrated on the Wilhelm Farm until a later time, given the two-year period to complete the project.
Bill and Ann have a great deal of love and respect for their land. Their concern lies not just in meeting the demands of the grant, but in utilizing the property in the best possible way for all the species, plant and animal, that inhabit it. For example, Bentley has had coverts training with the Connecticut Cooperative Extension to learn how to manage the environment for bird habitats. (Coverts are thickets that provide shelter and food for wildlife.) Bill and Ann are collaborating with Connecticut Audubon to learn how to improve their property for young birds. For example, old snags (dead trees) should be left on site as a source of adult and larval insects for the birds.
Bill notes that the Wilhelm property is especially interesting to foresters because it has three different types of soil. The granitic Berkshire shield at the back of the property is particularly good for red oak, sugar maple and other hardwoods. The second type of soil evolved from glacial till — sediments deposited by the moving ice of a glacier. This produces sandy soil that is good for white pine. Finally, the alluvial base of the stream is the deepest soil and is very rich in potash, phosphorous, lime and carbon compounds. This geology has produced a variety of soil pH and composition, which in turn, allows a variety of vegetation.
The Wilhelm Farm CIG project will demonstrate the economic and non-economic benefits of family farm and forest ownership. The web pages and videos will be viewed by people throughout the northeast and beyond, helping them to better achieve their goals through agroforestry.