Content shifting to www.wellspingforestfarm.com

The Agroforestry Solutions blog content will be discontinued as of October, 2013.

Instead, fresh blog content can be found on the following websites:

www.wellspingforestfarm.com (new Farm website with my fiance, Liz)

www.farmingthewoods.com (book I am co-authoring with Ken Mudge

This website still offers a variety of good archival posts about mushrooms and other agroforestry practices.



Local Mushroom Logs for sale

Agroforestry Solutions is offering for sale inoculated shiitake logs for 2013. Grow you own gourmet mushrooms at home! Logs come ready to go you just set them up in a cool, shady spot. Full instructions included.

Shiitake logs can be fruited on a reliable schedule with soaking 24 hours in cold water. Each flush produces 1/4 - 1/2 pound of mushrooms or more.Wondering how many to get? SEE THIS POST

All wood was harvested sustainably from forests, where cutting was done to improve forest health.

NOTE: Because of state firewood hauling restrictions logs cannot be sold beyond 50 miles of Mecklenburg, NY.


Shiitake (Logs are 4 - 8" in diameter, 36"long)
- 2012 (will fruit this year): $20 each, 5 for $80
- 2013 (will fruit next year: $15 each, 5 for $60

ORDER DEADLINE: April 15th, 2013

Logs will be available for pick up in late April & into May. $25 extra for delivery within 20 miles of Mecklenburg, NY.

www.agroforestrysolutions.com and click on "products". Dried shiitake also available for $10/oz.

Email steve@agroforestrysolutions.com or 607.342.2825


Pattern Languages bridge the gap between theory and practice

       Every time I come across the "pattern" topic in the permaculture curriculum I am both compelled and confused by it. Sure, the cool pictures and "everything is interconnected" message are appealing in their own right, but I've always thought that patterns were these mysterious keys that could help unlock the tools for developing good designs for various systems. Like the weathered but competent knowledge of an old timer farmer-type, who cannot exactly explain why he knows this or does that, but it's simply "how things are done.

The birth of a concept

Since the publishing of A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander in 1977, a handful of enthusiasts have taken an appreciation not only to the content of the book, but also the process by with Alexander and other Architects approached when thinking about how humans could design better cities.
 Alexander and his colleagues traveled the globe in search of patterns, specifically patterns of human settlement, that could be defined as successful by “making people happy” and improving their experience of a city. Patterns that repeated themselves became noted and if they appeared universal, that is, to exist despite cultural, religious, economic, and other differences, they were declared fit for the publication.
Thus, Alexander's definition of a pattern, one that is, "A pattern is a careful description of a perennial solution to a recurring problem within a building context, describing one of the configurations which brings life to a building". (Alexander et al, 1977) provided others with a compelling template for future design.

Most compelling about this proposal is the idea that the individual patterns Alexander and his team observed were like individual words – and like a language they were flexible in how hey were used. The idea of assembling the patterns and also noting the connection of one pattern to a next allows any designer to craft their own language of patterns. In Alexander’s words:

“…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.

Good languages are in harmony with geography, climate, and culture. “

Alexander’s work is a incredible testament to the potential to name and articulate these patterns. He and his team did a rather detailed analysis and assessment in their inquiry, with several notable features:

1) The scholars traveled the world and looked for patterns which repeated themselves "across context"
2) Patterns were rated based on how accurate the authors believed them to be
3) Patterns were arranged from larger scale to smaller scale. Thus a reader could think of patterns on a city-wide scale, down to the details of light or trim in the room of one building

Pattern Languages & Permaculture

The concept parallels Permaculture thinking, which seeks to observe ecosystem patterns and apply them in landscape and farm design. In Alexander’s case, he was focused on cities and people's relationships to the spaces in them. Through this lens he created a complex network of good ideas & templates for urban planners and architects.
Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren, notes a similar benefit to pattern thinking in his book "Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability"

“Whether we are designing a garden, a village, or an organization, we need a broad repertoire of patterns of relative scale, timing, and geometry that tend to recur in natural and sustainable human systems…

…Further, we need to relearn pattern recognition because cultural innovation, especially media technologies, have scrambled the pattern thinking that was common in pre-industrial societies. This loss of ability to see, hear, and otherwise recognize the patterns of nature may be our greatest impediment in our attempt to adapt to the realities of energy descent…"

We do indeed have a long way to go in improving our abilities to see and implement patterns, one of the challenges being the inherent variability in scale. The principle "Design from Patterns to Details" which Holmgren propose in the same book always makes me think of tooling around on Google Earth, where a user can zoom into a site or landscape feature and with equal ease zoom out to see the large hillside, watershed, or land base the site is a part of. As farmers and permaculture designers, we need to hone these skills to the point where we are making decisions about water systems for our livestock or mushroom log soak tanks while being able to consider the decision in the context of the landscape hydrology, and larger network of streams, rivers, and lakes we are a part of.

While individual farmers, permaculturists, and others may be a ways off from devoting life, as Alexander did, solely to the pursuit of naming patterns in natural and human-designed agricultural systems, we can begin at least by naming the common experiences and observations that support our success. Farmers who cross paths at the local bar or a conference do this all the time, comparing notes about how they did this or what they learned from that. We could consider pattern languages for a number of key systems, for example:

Poultry Forage Systems
Rotational Grazing of Ruminants
“Mycoscaping” or Managing Fungus in the Landcape
Catchment & Storage of Water

And so forth.

            The benefit of such an exercise is to help dispel a complex concept or body of knowledge into more sizable chunks. Or, as Dave Jacke writes in the introduction to his pattern language, “A Forest Garden Pattern Language,” (Edible Forest Gardens, Vol 2, Pg 63)

It crystallizes many issues and ideas….It serves as both a resource for deisgn ideas and inspiration, and a springboard into the following “how-to” chapters.”

Visual of Jacke's Pattern Language, by Ethan Roland (click to see larger)
            The idea that Pattern Languages offer a template for bridging the gap between theory and practice is compelling. Or, another way to think of it – how do we take what we learn from books, teachers, and classrooms and apply it to our daily grind as we labor on the landscape?

            The maps, sketches, and notations that are part of successful design of systems are also well supported by Pattern Languages, which offer a checklist against design work.

            More recently, a second pattern language emerged via Peter Bane, a Permaculture designer and teacher who wrote The Permaculture Handbook. Peter’s language is named “A Garden Farming Pattern Language” and offers “an aid to designing Permaculture systems on urban and suburban properties and for the creation of garden farms at whatever distance from city centers.”

            Both Jacke and Bane’s languages offer some templates for future language development: they both arrange the collection of patterns from large to small in terms of scale. Both also acknowledge the reality that design is not linear but a network of ideas and concepts. And both offer a provides some context, a problem statement, and a solution statement. Patterns exist independently, in connection to other patterns, and in connection to other pattern languages.

Pattern Languages moving forward

            I have some proposals for developing pattern languages. First off, the idea that many Permaculturists might simultaneously be developing pattern languages for subjects I am less familiar with to share with the network is exciting – but the challenge remains to offer these synthesis as a proposal – that is, something to be offered as a gift for feedback from the community.

            Alexander and his team traveled the globe to see if proposed patterns did indeed appear “across context.” This is a reasonable pursuit in studying cities and buildings as they have been developed in various forms for thousands of years. Permaculture and other integrated agricultural systems don’t necessarily have that benefit – at least in the modern context. We have examples from indigenous cultures to draw on but still lack an understanding of what really works in post-modern agricultural ecosystems.

In addition, we do not want pattern languages to be simply lists of good ideas. They should be grounded in research or at least positive affirmation from numerous sources. “Crowd-sourced” and “Participatory” are words that come to mind. As we author these languages we must proceed with a humble caution, and design methods for collecting feedback so that our pattern languages can evolve. This is true for much of Permaculture, where ideas come from advocates often without the ground-truthing to back it up.

A template to follow

            In Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke provides an excellent analysis of pattern and pattern languages in relationship to design and Permaculture. This section of text is a “must read” for anyone thinking of writing their own pattern language. It is important to build knowledge on the basis of other knowledge, and thus we need to look at preceding Pattern Languages and build upon their strengths and weaknesses.

For starters, we can use the following template when writing an individual pattern:

Name: of the proposed pattern
Context: describing the circumstances in which the problem is being solved
Problem Statement: describing the issue to be revolved
Solution: Offering single or multiple solutions and relevant commentary

As patterns are assembled, they can be linked together. Patterns as a language should be arrange in order from large to small in scale, and grouped as deemed necessary by the author into similar themes.

The specific context and limitations in developing the pattern language should be expressed clearly at the beginning. And finally, the methods for encouraging the language to exist as a participatory effort should be described.

Imagine a group of languages that help landowners, farmers, and gardeners more efficiently assemble elements and the connections between them. Imagine the potential to discuss and develop a language over time that gets stronger and more transparent in its message. Toward this end, I am offering to begin develop two pattern languages, which I will gladly share with anyone wanting to participate in their development.

Book website
The first will be part of an upcoming book I am co-authoring with Ken Mudge on Forest Farming. (www.farmingtheforest.com) The pattern language is in the beginning states and will offer patterns for the practice of Forest Farming in the Eastern Hardwood Forest type. We will be consulting with case study farms we visit as well as through an online directory of forest farmers we are creating to discuss and receive feedback so that the language may be further developed.

Second, as part of the culmination of a grant I received to study ducks through NE-SARE, I will begin to offer a pattern language for raising ducks. I have found that duck rearing is considerably different from chickens and other poultry and see a pattern language as a good method to distinguish those differences.

Pattern Language writing offers an exciting and creative way to describe our experiences and have meaningful discussions about our work in such a way that is documented so that we can grow as we learn. Like many things it is the process of crafting a language that is of most benefit; indeed the end product is merely a synthesis of that process.  I hope you will join me in writing a pattern language of your own someday.


Post from Ithaca's Food Web

Ithaca's Food Web is a great blog from Allison Fromme - thanks for the write up! 

"The ducks did eat the slugs, but the weather last summer was unusually dry, so the slugs were not as problematic as previous years. Steve says his biggest surprise was that one breed, the Muscovy, ate both slugs and the mushrooms -- not ideal if you aim to sell mushrooms. "The heritage breeds (Cayuga and Swedish blue) were notable foragers, often exploring the forest floor before heading to the food trough," he says. "



2012 Results of Duck Research Part 1

Rouen Ducks in the Woods
As mentioned in previous posts, in early 2012 I received funding from NE-SARE, to study the integration of ducks into my mushroom laying yard as possible slug control. I also sought to compare different breeds for this task and to see how marketable duck products were to the local region. This past season I was fortunate to work with farmers, chefs, researchers, and extension folks as I raised 45 ducks of four breed types in my roughly 1000 log shiitake mushroom operation.

One of the signs you are onto some good stuff is when, after an experience you are left with more questions than answers. I feel like the first year of this two year study was in part an effort to see if the questions I was asked were appropriate, or even useful.

My specific interest in the project was to explore the relationship between three separate systems (woodlot, shiitake laying yard, and duck rearing) and seeing if they are compatible when combined into a single system. The original impetus was to use biological control (ducks) to deal with slug problems inevitable with mushroom production. The three main questions I am asking are:

I. Are ducks effective and reliable slug control in log-grown mushroom cultivation?
II. Is the forest affected in any negative way from the presence of ducks?
III. Are ducks economically viable as an additional income stream?

Summary of Activities

As a way to summarize the season, here is what I did, month-by-month:

In the beginning months of 2012 I spent time talking to duck growers, researching materials and supplies, and placing orders for materials and ducklings for a May delivery. Through conversations I decided that I should open the study to include more breeds & heritage breed ducks and that the season would conclude with a tasting event to see if consumers had a preference amongst breeds.
The ducklings arrived and were raised in metal stock tanks for 2 weeks, then given grass forage during the day for 2 more weeks. Ducklings were given free choice of grain during this time and there were two groups, which would remain throughout the season:

Group #1: 10 Rouen, 15 Muscovy, 1 Chinese Goose (protection)
Ducks + Mushrooms + Forest
Group#2: 10 Cayuga, 10 Swedish Blue, 1 African Goose (protection)


We only lost the Chinese Goose (strangled, sadly in the net fence) and one Rouen who also became entangled in some baling twine and had to be killed early.

In early June three yards were set up with logs: one for each group and one as a control. Each section had roughly 120 logs. The duck house was also completed and put into place. The ducks moved into the site on June 10th, when we began taking data on mushroom yields, slug damage, duck weights, feed measurements, and any observations made by myself or my help, Joshua.

During these months work was limited mainly to feeding (.2 lbs per duck, 2x each day), watering, mushroom harvesting, and observations. Three randomly selected ducks from each breed were captured once per week and weighed. We learned many things about duck behavior and the differences in breeds.

The ducks were taken to a local slaughterhouse on October 16. We stretched the kill date this long to see if there was any benefit to weight gain – or if weights would level off. Ducks were all sold to a local restaurant who also hosting the tasting event.

Cooking up for the tasting
The tasting event occurred November 6th. We had 16 participants including chefs, farmers, extension associates, and consumers. Each breed was minimally prepared and served in a blind test in two rounds; round one was breastmeat, round two was leg. Participants tasted the varieties and made notes on a worksheet. Everyone agreed that the most surprising element was that there was such a difference in taste between breeds. The Pekin (donated from a local farm) was the consistent favorite, while the Muscoy received poor marks and the three heritage breeds (Rouen, Blue, Cayuga) had positive marks with many participants noting more interesting flavors, in comparison to the Pekin which was deemed a “safe eat” for general consumers.

Expert Duck Farmer Mike from Kingbird


I will frame the results thus far in reference to the main questions this project seeks to answer:

I. Are ducks effective and reliable slug control in log-grown mushroom cultivation?

The answer to this is inconclusive, with the largest reason being the drought we had this growing season – the mushroom yard simply had less slugs present than normal. We did begin to see some slugs toward the end of the summer – and there is some anecdotal evidence that ducks can be effective at slug control IF mushroom logs are located near to their food, water, and housing.

We had almost 0% damage at the site where Muscovy/Rouens lived – once the mushrooms were fenced off as the Muscovy would actually try and eat them! But, foot traffic and foraging by ducks around the log fruiting area did seem to have a positive effect on reducing slug pressure.

The fruiting area in the Cayuga/Blue pen was located away from food/water/shelter of the ducks and slug damage was comparable to the control. It seemed the ducks just didn’t spend that much time down by the logs and thus didn’t clean up the slug population.


Muscovy - not our favorite.
II. Is the forest affected in any negative way from the presence of ducks?

Despite the fact that our farm by nature rotates animals and believes that continuous grazing or foraging of one area leads to negative effects, for the research I decided that in 2012 we would let the ducks forage in one area continuously to observe effects. As a result, there was noticeable impact to forest litter from the movement of the various duck flocks – though it was substantially more in the Muscovy/Rouen pen then the other duck pen. From this perspective ducks had a negative effect on forest health. As a result, ducks will be rotated in 2013 between different plots.

The ducks would also forage understory vegetation at will – which was both a pro and con as there was a large population of sugar maple seedlings (didn’t want to thin) but also of buckthorn (which is good to eradicate). As a result, in 2013 I will identify and cage vegetation that we want to ensure doesn’t get damaged by the ducks. They can feel free to pursue the unwanted vegetation.

Another impact that is likely positive was the large amount of manure left in the forest. I realized in hindsight that it would have been great to sample the soil and the beginning and end of the season to get a comparison. We will begin this practice in 2013 to help better understand the possible impact.

III. Are ducks economically viable as an additional income stream?

This question needs to be answered from multiple angles. For starters, the basic numbers are:

218 lbs, 8 oz of ducks @ $5.50/lb = $1,201.75

Feed: 20.5 weeks with 126 lbs feed/week @ .30/lb = $774.90
Slaughter = $130
TOTAL = $904.90

DIFFERENCE = $296.85

This simple calculation does not include infrastructure, labor, or other expenses involved in set up. (any initial investment) As for the labor, we consistently spend 30 minutes a day on chores (about 71 hours total) and another 30 hours on building, repairs, etcs. If we account for labor alone, then my hourly wage is less than $3/hr.

Ducks on the feed with our guard goose, Gary.
This is unfortunately the reality with much of farming. I was aware of this challenge and it remains one of the reasons to “stack” the duck chores with mushroom cultivation – where I get two yields for my time. For instance, while waiting for water to fill I was often harvesting mushrooms. So, there is potential.

Further, we can look for ways to reduce costs. Since my market was a restaurant, I need to take birds to the facility. I could market direct and do my slaughter on-farm but I think this would result in even less profit. I can certainly reduce feed costs – I fed the highest rate consistently for research purposes, and Muscovy were the only ones that consistently ate it all. Through rotation and breed selection I bet feed costs can be reduced by 10% - 20% or more. I can also get my feed custom mixed locally if I buy in quantity – I have yet to assess if this is cheaper but it likely is. I could also raise more birds, in effect more meat for the time invested. But 50 birds feels like a pretty large amount to manage, so I am hesitant about getting too many more.

The question of economic viability also contains more questions. For one, are the services (pest control and manure) of value to the farm? Of course, but at what price? And does it justify 50 ducks? I think that 6 – 12 ducks could easily fulfill the slug protection I am seeking. The key is to find that balance point between time, stocking rate, and costs.

Some notes on specific breeds. Muscovy tended to head directly to the food, eat as much as you gave, then forage. The Cayuga and Blues both foraged first and often left a considerable amount of food. The Rouens seems to want to follow this pattern also, but were in competition for food with Muscovy so often tried to eat first (“flock mentality”) Overall, the Rouens didn’t get a fair shot and ended up MUCH smaller then they should have been by several pounds – probably a result of stress living with the overbearing Muscovy.

From the restaurant perspective, our chefs were happy with the birds and sold out of them all almost instantly. There is clearly a demand there – especially in higher range restaurants. They (and others) mentioned wanting duck and having a hard time finding it. They actually felt the Muscovy were a big too big and would have a liked a 4 – 5 lb bird – they liked the taste of the heritage birds but said they were a little on the small side – so if I could offer a slightly larger Rouen/Cayuga/Blue or offer the same size at a lower price per pound, they’d be happy.

Outlook for 2013

All the data collected has been entered into a database and while we have some clear patterns there is still some work to be done to process and further analyze some specifics. During the Winter months research and system design will occur to decide what two breeds will be raised in 2013 and how management will differ. While in 2012 the goal was to sample breeds and make some general observations, 2013 is about system optimization. The birds will be rotated from forest to field and feed will be more limited to improve profitability. The data and observations from both years will be used in the final report, as well as booklet on duck management I tend to produce.

I’ve learned a lot this season and have many items I will change in 2013 to improve results and further my understanding of this potential system:

1)    Pen size will be smaller and restricted to areas right around mushroom fruiting zones
2)    Ducks will be rotated from forest to field to diversify their diet as well are reduce the impacts from continuous grazing the woods.
3)    One two breeds will be raised separately; 25 ducks each of (likely) Rouen and Cayuga. They will also be mixed male and female, with observation of traits for breeding
4)    Grain inputs will be limited and offered at a lower rate while trying to maintain weight gain
5)    Muscovy will NOT be raised (because they are high impact, they EAT the mushrooms, and they were not a favorite of the tasters)
6)    Desired vegetation will be fenced before ducks forage an area.
7)    Soil tests will be conducted at the beginning and end of 2013 season.
8)    Hopefully rainfall will be more normal and we’ll see more slug activity!

We continue to increase mushroom production and will have about 1000 logs in production next year. In addition to the meat birds we are looking to raise Khaki Campbell ducks for eggs. We are in the planning stages of our farm but will mix duck flocks, grazing sheep on rotation, and trees crops as our main system. Rather than offer the ducks water in tubs, we are looking to design more “natural” duck habitats as part of the rotation – small in ground ponds and wetlands, planting forage, etc.

Our focus is shifting from annual to perennial and tree crop production and believe that duck qualities make them the perfect animal in this system. One of our primary goals in our farm is to continuously try to reduce outside inputs, especially grain feed as it is energy intensive and also rising each year in cost. We are already convinced ducks can thrive on less feed than chickens but recognize that it is likely impossible to raise poultry from 100% onsite forages. We aim to continue to drop feed costs and would like to see at least a 40 – 50% reduction in outside feed. We also question if raising poultry for meat markets is inherently unsustainable, especially when compared to ruminants, who can largely be fed from maintained pasture and on-farm feed (hay). Perhaps ducks are better in the long term for egg production, or as a small flock for their ecosystem services. Still, with just starting out as a farm and the demand for duck meat very high, we feel compelled to try and work some meat production into our farm for several more seasons, and feel like heritage breeds, that are smaller and better foragers, better align with our goals.

Extension Meat Man Matt Leroux

Thanks and Praises

I'd like to thank the following folks for their support this season:

Roger Ort of Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County has been instrumental in consulting on duck questions and sourcing materials, feeds, etc. His experience is very valuable as a new farmer.

Hazelnut Kitchen, a wonderful Trumansburg restaurant, was willing to purchase all my ducks and communicate on their experience with them from a restaurant perspective. They also hosted the tasting and have been great partners in this learning.

Matt Leroux of Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County offered support organizing the tasting and some of the thinking behind a successful tasting.

Joshua Pezet was the hired help for this season and with his research experience was really great in helping analyze and re-design the research as we went. He was also a great and trustworthy companion in this experiment.

Professor Ken Mudge at Cornell University has been helpful in mushroom information, and feedback on our research integrity.

And, much thanks to all the participants in the duck tasting event. More on that in a subsequent post.