Mushrooms + Ducks = Healthy Woods?

As with many good discoveries, the addition of ducks to the mushroom yard was made rather haphazardly as my partner Liz and I decided that we'd try raising them this past summer as an alternative to chickens. I'd heard ducks liked to eat slugs, and wouldn't it be great, I thought, if I didn't have to spend time plucking slugs off my mushrooms each morning?

The results indicated some remarkable success of this integration. I had almost no slug damage this past season, and the ducks proved to be remarkable foragers, eating significantly less grain than other poultry I've raised before.

I became intrigued also with the fact that a three way relationship was forming - a polyculture of a producer (sugar maple trees), consumer (ducks), and decomposer (mushrooms). An agricultural ecosystem was emerging!

I've started to explore the potential of these relationships in more detail, as illustrated below:

click to see larger...

While much simpler than a natural ecosystem, it benefits from some of the benefits resulting from inter-connectivity that are often major challenges in agriculture, including:

- economic incentive to manage forests for longer term yields (in this case, managing overstory trees for maple sugaring down the road while harvesting mushrooms/duck in the shorter term)
- balancing of pest populations (slugs)
- maintenance of intact fertility cycles (forest litter & organisms enhanced by foraging and fertilizing by ranging ducks)
- reduction of feed costs for poultry for meat production (ducks are more cold hardy, disease resistant and more efficient at utilizing feed vs. other poultry)
- buffering from extremes (forest ecosystems maintain more stable temperature, humidity, wind patterns, and are more drought tolerant)


Northeast Silvopasture Conference 11/7 & 11/8

I spent the early part of last week at the first Northeast Silvopasture conference, hosted by Schuyler County CCE in Watkins Glen, NY. Over 100 folks attended, a nice mixture of grazers, foresters, and outreach professionals from agencies such as NRCS, USDA, and area Cooperative Extensions.

The goal of the conference as I understood it was to expose participants to the system of silvopasture (mixing livestock grazing with tree crops) and begin the conversation of how this could improve farming practices and land utilization in the region. I think everyone has more questions than answers, but I took away a few key points I'd like to share.

Silvopasture with Black Locust

1. Silvopasture is NOT just throwing animals in the woods

There is both a science and an art to silvopasture. There is a three-way management requirement in working with the trees, the grasses, and the animals. Each has to be observed constantly, and fine-tuning is a constant input for the system. This is not a practice where you can throw a fence around animals and walk away without inflicting serious damage to the landscape. (Although in truth, the same is true when we look at these systems independently as well)

2. Silvopasture can come from either end; bring grass into the woods or bringing trees into the pasture.

Each of these applications has some different challenges, and requires a decent amount of upfront expense, whether it is thinning an existing stand of trees to let in more light for grasses, or the planting and maintaining of young trees for the initial 3 to 5 years of establishment in a field, when mortality is highest.

3. There are good economic indicators that silvopasture saves money and makes money for farmers

There were some impressive figures and case studies from the folks down in Missouri at the Center for Agroforestry. These smart folks isolated one variable that would interest any livestock farmer: shade. It is well known that in the hottest summer months animals tend to loose weight as a lot of energy goes to keeping cool. For ruminants (cows, goats, chickens) the heat also slows down the digestion process, meaning it is harder to put on pounds. Bringing shade into the pasture has shown to not only prevent the loss of weight in these animals, but also in many cases helps them GAIN weight. Calf loss in pregnancy also decreases when animals get good shade. Just this one point is enough to consider the practice for many livestock producers.

4. Silvopasture adoption means adopting CROP TREE MANAGEMENT and ROTATIONAL GRAZING practices.

Rotational Grazing = healthy grass ecosystems
There is also good evidence for each of these practices acting as a net benefit to the landscape. In forestry, Crop Tree management is more and more discussed as a method to "leave the best" and focus thinning on poor quality, diseased, and damaged trees. We need to leave the best trees on the stump so they can seed the next forest of quality trees.

In Rotational Grazing, the benefits are numerous. The livestock, the grasses, the soil biology, and the profit margins are all improved. Grazing animals evolved to heavily impact an area and then move on (think Bison in the Great Plains), giving the pasture time to rest and recover. These rest periods are critical to maintaining a healthy forage base. While in nature predators acted as motivation for grazing animals to move on, we can mimic the same pattern with the electric fence, carefully watching our grass and rotating the animals at just the right time.  

5. There are some specific guidelines for management

For example, it is pretty well documented that you need about 50% shade in a Silvopasture to support good growth in cool season grasses. Warm season grasses need about 70% light penetration. Most grasses should be grazed to 50% of their above ground biomass and then allowed to rest. Rest periods of 20 - 45 days provides good regeneration of grasses. (That range is dependent on local conditions) Usually the goal for days on the pasture is 3 - 5 for good forage utilization. A water source should be no more than 600 to 800 feet from the grazing area. These are good guidelines that can help us get started.

6. We need more research and case studies for Silvopasture systems in the Northeast

Most established silvopasutre in the US is in the Southeastern part of the country, and most often with grazing animals mixed in pine plantations. Its likely that not all of our hardwoods will respond favorably to this mix, and folks should be advised that this practice is in the beginning stages of development. I would recommend integrating this into the best forest stands out there, but rather in the use of marginal forest and shrublands that could use some attention anyway. I also think there is good potential to be planting more trees in pasture, though specifics on good species (whether for animal fodder, timber, or nut production) are not well researched.

7. The shift to this paradigm requires experimentation, observation, patience, and interaction.

Farmers and foresters who are looking for systems where they can put animals out to pasture or plant crops with little interaction until harvesting will not be good silvopasture candidates. Those that enjoy watching their animals, observing their plantings, taking good notes, and making small adjustments all season long will reap the benefits of increased economic and ecological health.

We also cannot wait for research to provide all the answers, though coordination between sites would lead to good research. We need to develop concepts of specific species combined with particular management strategies and try them out on a multitude of landscapes, sharing our findings as an agricultural community.

National Agroforestry Center
Cornell Forest Connect
Missouri Center for Agroforestry: Silvopasture
Publication Silvopasturing in the Northeast (FREE PDF)


Occupy Substrates

There isn't much in the natural world that hasn't blown me away at one point or another; its the experiences watching brown pelicans hunting in formation in the everglades, hearing an all-night chorus of barred owls in the forests of the Adirondacks, and tasting my first wild mushroom (chicken of the woods) that keep me coming back for more.

Sulfur Shelf/Chicken of the Woods
Modern consumer culture encourages us to be routine, predictable. Nature breaks that pattern and helps remind us that each day, each season, each instance is unique.

When I start talking about mushrooms I'm often confused about whether I found them or they found me. Or at least now that we've found each other, why mycelium won't seem to stop following me around, always begging for my attention.

One of my favorite things about mushrooms is the surprises they give you - the flushes of fresh shiitake I find on logs after a rain, or the discovery of a wild mushroom that reveals itself suddenly from the base of a tree. I was recently surprised by the quiet ferociousness of some King Stropharia (Stropharia rugosa-annulata) spawn that I recently inoculated in trays of soil and woodchips during a class with the Rochester Permaculture Institute.

Stropharia occupying woodchips.
In just over a week, the mycelium has managed to colonize almost all of the substrate in this tray and on one tray in particular it has emerged from the surface, hungry for more. I was expecting to see some success, but not this rapidly. I'm observing, and thinking about what do do next. Clearly they are going to need more food soon, in the form of dead organic matter. (yum)

It's not just that mushrooms look cool and taste great. Its not only that they are some of the most nutritious foods we can eat. It's not the fact that they are pretty easy to cultivate. Its not even the potential to use mushrooms to help clean up toxins in the environment. It's the combination of an organism that thrives on eating dead organic matter, on breaking down carbon and building up soil, all while giving us dinner that gets me.

Cultivating shiitake logs has been the first time in my life where all the pieces have come together (at least in my pursuit of ecosystem design). Here I take oak, maple, and beech logs that are the surplus of managing a healthy forest. I inoculate them and stick them in a shady corner, waiting for the mycelium to colonize the wood. Over the next 4 years the mushroom breaks down the log and produces pounds of food. After the log is spent it returns to the forest to feed millions of organisms as they reclaim the log back into the soil.

My reward for stewarding this cycle is food, enjoyment, and part of my living. I've been working on this relationship for 5 years, and I feel like we are finally getting to understand each other.

The entire tray almost colonized after one week!
Stropharia is asking for more attention from me. I don't quite understand it yet. The lesson of this mushroom is that is is happy to coexist, it isn't picky about substrates, and it wants to eat as much as I'll give. But it doesn't fruit consistently, at least not for me. It doesn't yet tie directly into my forestry work. But it seems to want to get my attention. I'm listening.


New Pattern: Stewards and Propagators

I was pleased to recently see some New York Times press devoted to forestry issues and while like many articles it is thin on solutions, I appreciate the effort of bringing the complicated mix of challenges (and opportunities) out into the public eye.

In the end I don't know how much a good article (including my blog!) changes ACTIONS taken on the ground, and that is the real issue. We have a long mountain to climb in the areas of forest literacy, of moving beyond appreciation and a general "forests are good" attitude into the type of deeper understanding and intervention I believe is required to support the healthiest forests possible in the face of so many uncertainties.

The full New York Times article, published here, is well worth the read. I am going to grab a few interesting excerpts and comment on them. 

First off, we know that trees and forest are important in terms of carbon storage; they lock up carbon in their wood and soil, sometimes for hundreds of years or more. In fact, as the article notes,

"Scientists have figured out — with the precise numbers deduced only recently — that forests have been absorbing more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide that people are putting into the air by burning fossil fuels and other activities. It is an amount so large that trees are effectively absorbing the emissions from all the world’s cars and trucks." 
A devastated forest I visited a few years back; much of the carbon storage built up was quickly releasing again.

This comes as good news, but the challenges trail right behind as we look at trends where increased deforestation and mass disturbance from climate change and other sources. Forests that burn or are removed by humans, pests, and disease can rapidly release these carbon storages, adding to the overall total. Even if allowed, it will be some time before these forest can regrow and put that carbon back in the bank, so to speak:

“Forests take a century to grow to maturity,” said Werner A. Kurz, a Canadian scientist who is a leading expert on forest carbon. “It takes only a single extreme climate event, a single attack by insects, to interrupt that hundred-year uptake of carbon.”

Another interesting point the article makes is about the potential for forests to put carbon into long term storage, which could potentially be amplified by two factors; the idea that increased C02 is causing plants to grow faster, coupled with the warming temperatures which means and longer growing season:

"Today, the re-growing forests of the Eastern United States are among the most important carbon sponges in the world. In the Harvard Forest, the rate of carbon storage accelerated about a decade ago. As in much of the world, the temperature is warming there — by an average of 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 40 years — and that has led to longer growing seasons, benefiting this particular forest more than hurting it, at least so far. “We’re actually seeing that the leaves are falling off the trees later in the fall,” Mr. Werden said.

Scientists say that something similar may be happening in other forests, particularly in cold northern regions that are warming rapidly. In some places, the higher temperatures could aid tree growth or cause forests to expand into zones previously occupied by grasslands or tundra, storing more carbon."

"One major reason is that forests, like other types of plants, appear to be responding to the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by growing more vigorously. The gas is, after all, the main food supply for plants. Scientists have been surprised in recent years to learn that this factor is causing a growth spurt even in mature forests, a finding that overturned decades of ecological dogma."
 At first this reads as good news to those of us aware of the challenges of a short growing season in the Northeast. I laugh sometimes when I hear stories of forests in the tropics that grow so fast you can almost see the trees growing. Our game here, whether it is forestry or farming, is a patient one. On some tree species a few inches of growth each season is good.

So we know that forests are good carbon sinks, so long at they are healthy, standing, and resilient to changes and disturbances. And while climate change has brought and will continue to bring more dramatic weather events, more droughts, and more floods, in the longer term picture the forests in the east MAY reap some benefit from warming temperatures (longer growing season) and more rapid growth from all the available CO2.

Maybe....let's not forget the added complications. I ran the second quote above by my friend Danica, who is doing a program in the Cornell Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. She has been conducting some experiments to look at the effects of ozone on plant growth and health. Here is what she said:

There have been a lot of experiments looking at the effects of increased carbon dioxide on plants.  These experiments artificially elevate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surrounding the plants and then look at how the plants respond in terms of growth, photosynthesis, respiration, and many other variables.  
Most of these find that plants can increase their growth and photosynthesis (i.e. carbon capture) rates up to a point, but plants do acclimate at these higher carbon dioxide concentrations over time so the rate of increase is fleeting.  
Often, this acclimation has to do with the plant balancing the tradeoff between capturing more carbon while limiting water loss.  
If plants do not have enough water, they will close their stomatal cells to minimize water loss, but this closure also means that they cannot absorb carbon dioxide.

The brown splotches are from mass die-off from pink bark beetle in the Black Hills of SD (this picture was taken there) and across the Rocky Mountains.
One of the issues that Danica's response gets at is the challenge if isolated experiments in labs where the only variable is CO2 concentration versus the "real world" scenario in the forest, where other gases, precipitation, latitude, species composition, soil, land use, etc all play a role in the unique story, and thus outcome of a forest. 

The good news, in my mind, is that the actions we need to take are largely the same: promote healthy, resilient individual trees, stands of trees, and whole forests. Also, while in the past forestry might focus on concentrating on a particular species and encouraging that species to dominate, we might look for adding species diversity more into the mix. 

This conversation gets at the first part of the title of this entry; it speaks to our practice as stewards of the forested landscape. I'll drop one more quote which hints at the next role I believe we need to play as propagators of better species, of more species, of species we may not yet find growing in our region:

"Forests are re-growing on abandoned agricultural land across vast reaches of Europe and Russia. China, trying to slow the advance of a desert, has planted nearly 100 million acres of trees, and those forests, too, are absorbing carbon. 

But, as a strategy for managing carbon emissions, these recovering forests have one big limitation: the planet simply does not have room for many more of them. To expand them significantly would require taking more farmland out of production, an unlikely prospect in a world where food demand and prices are rising."

As a permaculture designer, my logical and first response to this quote was, "why can't we have agriculture and forests, too?" This topic, and the literature I've been obsessing over lately, will be the topic of next week's entry. Thanks for reading!


There's just no substitute for sitting in the woods...

This week I thought I would digress a bit from the discussions of patterns in forestry and return to a fundamental practice that I've, well, recently returned to.

An important part of my education was spending time at a local environmental education program called EarthArts in Ithaca. From my first visit with a friend in high school I knew there was something special going on at this place. Founder Dale Bryner created what she called and "invisible school," which has no walls, but is everywhere outside as students explore nature and their own self in a number of ways. In this school everything - people, plants, rocks, the landscape - is a teacher.

One of the key tools employed at EarthArts and in many nature awareness programs is called Sit Spot. The goal of this practice is to spend time alone, outside, for 20 or more minutes, focused on taking in your surroundings with the only tools we carry with us at all times; our senses.

The reason we spend at least 20 minutes sitting is because we humans tend to create a chaos of disturbance when we enter the woods. If you've ever watched a cat stalk prey or a blue heron flying across a wetland you gain a new respect for the ability to move with grace and quiet. We have lost that ability, partly because we don't spend time outside, and partly because we just don't have to. If you were constantly worried about a predator around the bend you'd walk softer and slower on the land.

While a mere experience sitting in the woods may not seem to be a profound practice, it truly is. Imagine visiting the same spot, day after day, season after season, to sit and open your eyes, ears, and nose to the events going on around you. This creates a relationship to place, and you can begin to see the subtle changes that nature takes.

While I am so thankful for all the reading and classed I've taken over the years, I feel I have learned more in sit spot, in practicing observation, than I ever could have from people or books.

An important distinction I've made here is the relationship between primary learning and secondary learning. In primary observation WE are directly receiving information and learn from interacting with the elements we are trying to learn about. An example would be learning tree identification by collecting leaf and seed samples, feeling the bark, and observing the landscape habitat where the species persist.

Another example of primary learning; walking blindfolded through the landscape. 
In secondary or mediated learning, we get this information from a book, or from a person. In the tree identification, we'd be working with a diagnostic keys, or someone would be leading us around and telling us about the trees we are seeing. Or perhaps, the best example of secondary learning would be to not be in the woods at all, but to be inside, looking at slides or listening to a lecture about trees.

It's an obvious statement to say that most of our learning these days is secondary, or mediated by something - whether it is a person, book, or the internet. I run into this in all my educational ventures, whether short classes or longer programs. The interesting paradox I've experienced is that most students want "hands-on" or primary learning experience, but very few have any actual skills or experience learning in this way.

A good example of this would be interactions I've had with summer apprentices over the last  few summers. We run a 6 week program through the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and host 8 to 10 young and eager apprentices each season. They are often fresh out of college or still attending, and VERY hungry to get their hands dirty, to learn by doing.

One activity we always undertake is planting an annual vegetable garden, in no till beds that are sheet mulched in true permaculture fashion. Each year I get the same questions; "how far apart should we plant the tomatoes?" which I could easily answer. My strategy has been to ask, "Have you seen a mature tomato plant before?" or "What if you planted
them at different spacings and observed over the summer to determine the correct spacing?"

This sort of approach - giving a question to a question, rather than just the answer, is the single most challenging thing for students to grasp. We are all so used to asking a question and getting the answer, but the problem is that is shuts off our brain, and removes the opportunity to form a relationship to the things we are learning about.

The same happens with tree ID, where many students just want to know the name, and once they do, are satisfied they've "learned" the tree.

Instead of telling them the tree name, I ask, "What does the form look like? What shape are the leaves? How does the bark look and feel? What does the tree look like in different stages of life?"

One apprentice in particular was really frustrated with my tomato answer, but now when I see her she always reminds me what a powerful learning that was for her. My questions, or rather my LACK of answer, forced her to look at the plant in her hand, assess her surroundings, and take charge of the situation. It didn't matter if she was right or wrong, but that she was willing to try something, and learning by observing the results of her actions. This is primary learning.

All this touting of primary learning is not to discount or blow off the value of secondary materials - I absolutely love learning from people, and books, and movies. Instead, I want to encourage thinking around the need to tip the balance - to create a world where we each take responsibility for our learning by diving in, and not sitting back waiting for someone to tell us the facts. This is the main way conventional education has failed us.

Back to Sit Spot; I've recently begun sitting in the woods again, practicing exercises to open my senses and take in my environment. I couple this with asking myself questions about the forest as I look around, such as:

"How long has this tree been lying across the creek?"
"What evidence do I see of past humans here?"
"Why is the moss growing on that log and not the other?"  (I learned why from a book, but only after I had asked myself the question!)

I strongly encourage those who are interested in being better land stewards, farmers, foresters, and gardeners to find a quiet spot in a place you can visit daily, or several times a week. Sit there for 20 minutes or more. Make observations. Ask good questions. And don't doubt the benefits of this exercise. Imagine doing this through sunny days, rain storms, and in the snow. Imagine seeing your sit spot waking up from winter, being there when the first green shoots emerge from the ground. Who needs television?

More about sit spot from Wilderness Awareness School


Disturbance can be good (PART 2)

A shorter entry this week as I’m catching up from a vacation I took last week to Washington State, which included hikes in Olympic National Park, kayaking around the San Juan Islands, and an amazing site visit to the Bullock Brothers Homestead, one of the oldest permaculture sites in the USA.
To pick up where the last post left off – disturbance – I mentioned wanting to expand more on the idea that we humans can design and induce disturbance in ecological design to propel a system to new levels of biodiversity, interconnection, etc.
A key element to this notion is that human created disturbance is NOT being proposed on the same scale or intensity we see in natural events. In fact since we are looking at disturbances in the context of systems we are managing for yields, we wouldn’t want to see change happen so drastically. The hundreds and thousands of downed trees up in the Adirondacks from the aftermath of hurricane Irene are going to be felt in the system for a long time to come. I’m not talking about this with our own interventions. 
So what do human-scale disturbances look like? A simple one is the creation of gaps or clearings in small forest stands, which stimulates understory growth, allows for the regeneration of sun loving species, and supports habit for a wide range of birds you won’t find in more mature stands.
A meaningful gap needs to be large enough to get sunlight to the floor – often a few trees won’t be worth the effort. I’ve read and seen the most effective gaps to be two to four times the height of the forest canopy. In other words, if you have an overstory that is 80 feet tall, a good gap would be somewhere between 160 and 320 feet wide.
Gaps could be circular, with a radius of the above figures, but it could also be a linear gap as well. I visited a forest in Delaware County, NY that demonstrated some interesting potential for small strip gaps in forests. The forest had been thinned in 1996 and all along the old logging roads now serving as trails were an amazing abundance of species that were shade tolerant but liked some light, including elderberries, currants, and many ribes species. I noted that the best growth was on the gaps that extended from East to West, giving the longest solar exposure during the warm summer months.
Nature plays out natural selection....slowly.
The size, shape, and location of a cleared gap depends on a lot of factors, including the size of the stand, the slope, soils, etc. One wouldn’t want to clear large areas around streams and in riparian corridors. Clearing nearby to genetically superior species that one wants to see seed regeneration from would increase the likelihood of success.
 Many folks might assume much of holistic forestry would be planting trees. While in some cases this may be the case, but a more effective (and realistic) approach is to create the conditions for regeneration, letting the forest determine the appropriate species composition based on good old natural selection. When I find a White Oak or a Tulip Popular around these parts I often see if a gap is feasible on the South side of the seed tree, to enhance to possibility for regeneration.
It IS appropriate to plant trees in cases where viable healthy specimens are scarce – such as large tracts of old farmland that don’t have excellent seed sources nearby. In this case we can employ another example of disturbance that mimics what nature does – overseeding.
Often when I come across tree planting guides, they emphasize that tress should be spaced to allow for maximum canopy development. So for example, Black Walnuts or Oaks should be give 50 to 60 feet of spacing, which they will eventually fill in.
The problem with this strategy is two fold. First is that likely a decent percentage will die off before maturity; especially when stock is grown from seed and the resulting genetics rather random in their growth characteristics. The other major problem is that a tree in an open field grows OUT as much as UP. I’ve seen several planted fields that, at a certain spacing, produce trees that are attractive but have little timber or wood value. Trees don’t grow without competition in the forest, and that struggle for sunlight is what makes the healthiest, strongest trees.
An important task we need to undertake as stewards of forests is collecting seed from local trees and growing it out, selecting out the inferior trees along the way. We could then re-grow a forest much like it would occur naturally – with thousands of trees per acre winnowing down over time to hundreds of mature specimens. Unless you are paying top dollar for high quality stock that someone else took the time to select out, the only way to do this is to get planting, observe, and make choices.
Close spacing makes these trees nice and straight.
During my trip to St Lawrence nursery Bill McKently showed me a Black Walnut plot he has started from seed he’d collected from some of the best trees he’d found on his property. Because of genetic diversity, he had not idea which of the seed trees would express the superior qualities of the parent and so planted them very close, at a ONE FOOT spacing. The stand was probably 20 years old when I saw it and the trees had gotten to be around 6 feet apart. This method not only allowed Bill to plant a lot of seed in a small space and do good genetic selection over decades, but the remaining trees were absolutely straight and gorgeous.
The only guaranteed way to get 100% superior trees growing is to graft species known to perform well onto rootstock. This method is one used by orchardists who want fruits that are true to the parent. While this method may work for those who have a direct commercial interest in a species, it becomes less practical on a large scale when our main goal is reforestation. In this case we might look for ways to set the system in motion, let nature play it out, and intervene as an agent of disturbance over a longer time scale.
So far we’ve discussed overall thinning, the creation of gaps, and overseeding as methods of human-induced disturbance.What are some examples you can think of?


Pattern #1 - Disturbance can be good

WEDNESDAY - I've been watching the rains fall hard all day outside the library window as I work, round two of flooding in the region as we receive the effects of Hurricanes moving up the east coast. This is the second series of heavy rains, flood warnings, and fears of considerable damages to infrastructure amongst a time when towns, cities, and states are struggling to pay the most basic of bills.

This past weekend I was in the Adirondacks hiking with my girlfriend Liz and our two dogs and she made a keen observation as we climbed over and circumvented around hundreds (yes, hundreds) of downed trees that were victims to the recent high winds and heavy rains from Hurricane Irene. She noted that from her understanding, the relatively infrequent nature of these disturbances seemed to be a good thing for the forest while proving to be devastating to anything human-engineered; roads, farms, bridges, etc.

This gap is the landing area for a logging operation, and while it may seem destructive is the source of many healthy young trees that are the next generation in the woods.

Indeed when we look at events that change ecosystems dramatically - often referred to as disturbances in ecology - we see that while the impacts may seem detrimental at first, they tend to have a beneficial impact in the long term. Take the blow downs we witnessed in the Adirondacks - should we see them as a devastating loss for the forest, or is it nature's way of thinning out inferior trees, opening up light gaps in the canopy, and feeding the forest floor with an abundance of biomass?

While it may be clear that I am biased toward the latter opinion in this case, by and large the jury is still out. What we do know is that disturbances (fires, floods, ice storms, etc) definitely happen, that certain species and ecosystems are adapted to disturbance and need it to thrive; and that some disturbance appears to be beneficial in increasing biodiversity, while too much of it does not allow for ecosystems to recover and sustain themselves in the long term.

So...all this toward my first attempt at adding a pattern to the language. For more background on the pattern language I am working on you can see last week's post.

Here is my summary of the pattern, named Design for Disturbance (for now...):

PROBLEM: The phenomena of disturbance is often interpreted as having a negative impact on ecosystems, and human-designed ecosystems are mostly devastated by large disturbances. This is due to our short sighted thinking and lack of design which accepts and anticipates disturbance.


1. Disturbances should be accepted as an inevitable part of succession and designed for through building ecosystem resilience. 

2.Disturbances on multiple scales can be human-driven in some cases to benefit the ecosystem in the longer term.

I'll touch on a quick example of #1. While this example touches on #2 we will get into it in more depth next week.

The recent storms in those Adirondack woods were, in effect, a large thinning of inferior species by mother nature, who removed forcibly a number of trees that would likely not live in the long term.

An intervention by thinning out these inferior trees BEFORE the storm hits would have likely increased the number of residual healthy trees. For example, if you had 300 trees on an acre those trees feel an increased amount of stress and competition for light, water, and nutrients as they grow up. Thinning to 100 trees/acre means less overall trees, but that the remaining are able to grow deeper root systems and access all they need to grow. 
Too dense? Just right?

The challenge in thinning is finding that balance between too much and too little. If you overthin a stand, the residual trees may have too much space and the effects of a heavy wind blow could end up devastating the stand. The optimal density depends on many factors, from soil to tree species to the aspect of the site.

A forest with a lot of the same species can also cause challenges. A monoculture stand of plantation pine planted all at the same time is much more susceptible to many disturbances (disease, wind, invasive species) versus the benefits in structure, texture, and resistance to disease with a more mixed species, and mixed aged stand of trees.

Ok, that's all for now. If you come across any readings or research to help develop these thoughts, please pass them my way. 'Til next week...


A Pattern Language for Forestry

This week I'm digging a bit into the archives, to share some writing and an audio recording I did in 2009 as part of my semester work for Empire State College - this was my final project for a class called "Forest Ecology" which was mentored by an amazing local forester, Mike DeMunn.

I remember the first forest walk I did with Mike in the Cayuga Nature Center woods where I was working. He led our permaculture students through the woods, pointing out stumps and trees and telling us stories of history, ecology, and good management. I knew from one hour in the woods with him that my perspective and understanding was being called to change.

I approached Mike (at left) for this class with the goal of learning more by spending time shadowing his work in the woods. I'll excerpt a bit from my final paper to tell the story:

As we parked on the edge of his property on a cool September afternoon I hardly paid attention to the acres of goldenrod surrounding us. Rather I fixed my gaze to the hardwoods towering above the golden field. This was my first mistake. As we walked through the fields, Mike told me he was working just as hard in this part of his land to encourage regeneration of the next forest.

Mike had planted maybe fifty trees himself, and simply cleared patches in the thick grasses and goldenrod to allow for to establishment of new species. What I found interested was his approach; make a decisive and particular disturbance and let nature fill in the void. It was the squirrels and birds that did most of the work. In a few years the diversity on Mike’s land had jumped from several dozen to hundreds or possibly thousands of species.

As we headed into the woods, I felt the strong presence of a mature and diverse forest. The air was cool and moist, the calls of birds frequent, the vegetation in abundance and dark green in color. “We logged it several years ago, and you can’t even tell,” Mike commented. “That’s the way it should be.”

Mike showed me around and we talked about making impact- that every action carries consequences and that the long term health of the woods was more important than anything else. Mike’s main strategy was to minimize insect and disease problems and thin out trees with poor form. Those byproducts could go to market and turn a profit, but this objective was secondary to improving the health of his woods. I wondered if such priorities could exist in this modern world, but here was a living and breathing example of someone making a livelihood without compromising his values.

The importance of animals was highlighted again as we made our way through stands of oak, maple, and beech. “There’s no point in leaving the oak if you don’t leave a home for the people who plant the oak,” Mike noted. He of course meant the squirrels, and by home he meant the often dead and decaying trees that provided safety and shelter for a creature many consider a pest. Most foresters would consider those trees useless and thin them out, but not Mike. Standing deadwood (also known as “snags”) and these den trees are some of the most important factors to the biological productivity of a forest ecosystem.

This is but one snippet of the vast amount of knowledge I gained working with Mike over the semester. I realized after spending several sessions with him that he spoke a language - a dying language - that was the language of healthy forests and the balance between this and harvesting goals. 

Reflecting on this further, I quickly drew a connection to an amazing piece of work that catalogs a timeless collection of patterns of cities and architecture, written by Christopher Alexander in 1977. My favorite definition of pattern is "a solution to a problem across contexts," who I have heard was attributed to Alexander, though i could find no reference to this in my research.

Here is some thinking behind the book from www.patternlanguage.com:

...Now, a pattern is an old idea. The new idea in the book was to organize implicit knowledge about how people solve recurring problems when they go about building things.

...a pattern language is about patterns being like words. They stay the same but can be combined in different ways like words in a sentence. They can be used as in a network where one will call upon another (like a neuron network). When you build something you can put patterns together to form a language. So a language for your house might have patterns about transitions, light, ceiling height, connecting the second floor to the ground. A community might put together a language including patterns about public and private spaces, cars, pedestrians and parking. Using languages helps you to visualize and think about what will really make you comfortable, really comfortable. 

So, in this vein, I've been thinking for a long time about other systems in my permaculture work that could benefit from such development. Indeed, when Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier wrote Edible Forest Gardens, then included a Pattern Language for Forest Gardening in Volume 2, which my colleague Ethan Roland fleshes out in his own blog post.

An individual pattern is made up of a name for the pattern, a problem statement, and a solution statement. An example from the Forest Garden Pattern Language:

5. Site Repair
PROBLEM: People often build or garden in the most beautiful spot on the land, leaving the rest of the site to its own devices.
SOLUTION: Therefore, leave the most beautiful healthy, precious, and comfortable places on your site alone. Build a garden in those places that need the most repair and attention.

What has struck me is not that any one pattern is particularly amazing or profound; indeed many of them are mostly common sense. But I think there is a usefulness in articulating the pattern and also more importantly in looking for the language that develops as you combine all the patterns together. Ethan and another friend Connor Stedman did some nice work summarizing all the Forest Garden Patterns in this document, although I still recommend checking out the details and drawings in Volume 2 of Edible Forest Gardens to get the whole story.

I'm willing to take the next step and begin offering A Pattern Language for Northeast Forestry as a template for common patterns I have observed and heard observed from others who routinely work the woods. I think a language can help us better understand the important elements of good management and also educate those less aware of forestry in the particulars. Stay tuned for the launch of this project...

I'll leave you with a 30 minute recording I did as my final project, which includes segments from my time in the woods with Mike, as well as some cuts from presentations I attended by Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens, and Peter Smallage, who is a NYS extension forester based out of Cornell's Arnot Forest. Listen for the mention of several patterns I heard while documenting these experiences...



Why Mushrooms?

I've been reflecting a bit lately on my reasons for becoming interested in mushrooms as they relate to small woodlot management and I've realized that I can't recall if the forest brought me to mushrooms or if the mushrooms have brought me to the forest.

I'm sitting in a motel near Potsdam, New York on a cool August morning. Today I will complete my visit to the Cooperative Extension office in St Lawrence county and then have some time to visit the local St Lawrence nursery and then trek through the Northern part of the Adirondack park en route to my next destination. Being up here brings backs a flooding of memories because it was this time of year that my father and I would pack up our crude department store camping gear and head into the mountains for a weekend of father/son fun. It was during these years that my senses, my very self, witnessed the calm and beauty of a forested landscape. I was hooked.

I've since continued the tradition of visiting the Adirondacks annually as much as I can, but also taking the time to walk and learn the woods of the Finger Lakes. There is something that shifts for me each time I enter a forest, no matter where I am. It doesn't seem to matter what my reason for being in the woods; whether I am carrying a backpack or a chainsaw; the feeling still resonates.

On to the mushrooms...these organisms have entered my life only relatively recently, first as a curiosity when looking for permaculture programming; we had Steve Sierigk, of Acorn Designs, come to our site and demonstrate his technique of inoculating oak and maple logs with shiitake mushrooms. I managed the remnant logs from the class and loved working in the woods, soaking, and harvesting fresh mushrooms. Something about it felt so basic, simple, normal - and yet the implications of this practice are quite profound.

Last year I decided to being building a small mushroom production enterprise; after five years of working with the logs on a hobby basis, it seemed like a good next step. An exciting discovery has been how well incentives for mushroom production can support good forest management.

When I started I was mainly looking for the "perfect" trees to fell for logs; those that were free of disease, straight, and giving the most 4" - 8" diameter logs per tree (depending on the tree you can get anywhere from 4 to 16 logs per tree). I quickly realized that these specs were also characteristic of good genetic specimens, and that while the literature recommended pristine specimens in the end I could make do with twisted logs, I could cut out portions that were diseased; essentially I could remove problem species from the woods and get production materials; a win-win situation.

When i began to crunch the numbers things really started to look enticing. Let's assume I select a 25 year old sugar maple for mushroom logs and it gives me 10 mushroom logs. Each log can be inoculated for $1 to $2 worth of materials and another $2 - $3 worth of labor (assuming $10/hr) over its lifetime. Assuming then the cost per log is $5 to establish, I can reasonably count on 8 flushes of mushrooms over the life of the log, which ranges from 3 to 5 years. Each flush generates 1/4 to 1/2 pounds of mushrooms; therefore 4 to 8 lbs/log, which equates to $48 to $96 per log - which means a single tree could produce several hundred dollars in revenue.

Confused? Let me break it down again....using the low numbers on the range.

10 logs x 2 lb mushrooms per log = 20 lbs (over several years) = $240 per tree of gross income
minus expenses ($5 per log X 10 logs = $50)
= $180 in net profits

$180 per tree is pretty significant, especially when we consider a young (20 - 25 y.o) tree that is also removed from the forest to improve health. Let's compare this to current logging practices.

A local forester I know recently pointed out to me a 100 year old White Pine, a beautiful tree that would be best left on the stump, spreading seed to support future generations. This log would typically be cut and sent to the mill, providing maybe 500 board feet at best, translating to maybe $250 at the mill, if the log has NO imperfections. While this sounds like some decent income by the time expenses are taken out for the forester, landowner, logger, equipment, hauling, milling, etc the profit at best might be $50 to $75.

This is a low profit margin for a high value tree - remember that the mushroom wood is only 25 years old vs. 100 for the timber tree, and that the removal of the mushroom log can greatly improve forest health while the removal of a maturing White Pine greatly diminishes the forest health into the future. Removal of these high value "seed trees" is a huge factor in why our forests are of low quality these days.

Ok, enough math. The point for me is that while for much of my life I can track a relationship to the forest, it remained mostly recreational and appreciative. While that is all well and good, it means two things for me; that first I cannot spend as much time in the forest as I'd like, since I need to work a wage job to meet my needs to then afford time off to enjoy the forest; and second, that forest health does not improve if all I do is walk through a random patch now and again; if I want to have healthy forests to enjoy down the line, I need to be actively participating in good forestry.

And, as much as I want to participate in good forestry, if I cannot do so on a significant scale if doing so cannot contribute to my need for stable income.

Mushroom cultivation is really just the beginning, and its a really good start on rebuilding a working relationship to the forest. Even if folks don't want to manage mushroom logs (which does, by the way, require a lot of lifting and moving of logs), they can harvest and sell "bolts", or logs for mushroom cultivation, at about $1 to $2 per log. While the profit margin per tree is much less than growing mushrooms, when you look at the per unit value of wood it is still a competitive price compared to what you would get for firewood or timber.

The catch? We need more folks growing mushrooms. And not just Shiitake. I am experimenting also with Oyster, Lions Mane, and others. The network is growing. I've been working with folks at Cornell and the University of Vermont on a grant received through Northeast SARE to promote the cultivation of mushrooms around the northeastern US. We are currently engaged with 20 farms around the region who have inoculated 100 logs and are trying out the management requirements, to see if they want to scale up and take on cultivation as an agricultural practice.

I'd love to hear from any folks on this topic; farmers, foresters, etc to discuss some of the particulars of this system, and how it might support our collective ecological and economic goals into the future.


Small Woodlot Management for Multiple Yields (Even Income)

I’ve been trying all summer to get a blog rolling – really something that is part sharing ideas with a wider community, part documentation of my work in permaculture, and part to just get myself writing again. I often forget these days that at one time I had aspired to be a writer – and I wrote. Sometimes for three hours a day.

To kick off this blog I thought I would post the audio of my presentation at the recent NOFA Summer Conference. NOFA = Northeastern Organic Farming Association. I have been to several conferences put on by the New York chapter but this was my first regional conference. I was pleased at the strong presence, and interest, in permaculture topics this year.

My workshop was entitled “Small Woodlot Management for Multiple Yields (even income).” I’ll let the audio speak for itself. This was my first stab at presenting this material, which I’ve been working on for many years, and I rather enjoyed myself:

Part One: Intro (15:52)

Part Two: Big Picture Management (24:32)

Part Three: More Principles (14:17)

Part Four: Income from Woodlot Management? (24:13)

I was hoping to have my slide presentation synced with my audio but unfortunately due to technical challenges it will not come to pass at this time. You can however view the slides in the following movie. I supposed if you were committed enough you could look at the slides while listening to the audio! Rather then press play, use the scroll bar to navigate through the images...

Maybe eventually I'll try again to put the two together...ahh technology.

Whether you listened to the above or not, I’d like the highlight what I’ve come to recognize as the core question I am interested in answering. It goes something like:

At a time when our forests are fragile and approaching increasing challenges of disease and climate change, what incentives can be designed to encourage active management where we can steward ecosystem health while obtaining productive yields?

When I say “incentives” what I really mean I supposed comes down to economics, and also relates to a larger challenge. No matter how much we care about building soil, increasing biodiversity, or growing healthy forests, we can’t really spend all that much time doing it unless we can make a part of our livelihood from it. More on that later.

While there were many exciting moments to the conference, I was most blown away when I attended a concurrent event called Northeast Animal-Power Field Days, which describes itself as “a unique educational event focused on the use of draft animal power in farming and logging.”

MORE: http://www.draftanimalpowernetwork.org/

While I’d hoped that this trip would give me the chance to sleep in a few mornings, I was too overcome by curiosity to sleep in Saturday, getting to the UMass demonstration farm just after 8:00am to participate in the logging with animal power sessions. Again, I’d like to let the visual speak for itself:

There is something quite remarkable about the handful of folks who have maintained this deep and traditional relationship to animals and their work. After spending many times in the woods with loud machines and diesel fumes, I loved spending a quiet summer morning with the horses and their teamsters, talking about the challenges of making a living spending time in the woods, doing good management.

This blog is dedicated to my work as a designer, teacher, and forest farmer. I plan to promote and discuss the necessity of good small woodlot management and other forms of perennial agriculture. I am currently involved with several educational events through the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and as an extension associate in the Horticulture Department at Cornell University. My time outside of institutions is largely devoted to starting a small mushroom business and offering small woodlot management services to the local community.

Please feel free to email me at steve@workwithnaturedesign.com, or leave a comment below! I will be posting weekly on a different topic, and you can sign up on the right toolbar with your email to get posts sent right to your inbox. Thanks for visiting.


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