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When people think about alternatives to the intensive industrial agriculture that dominates the Midwest, they generally think first about things like organic fertilizers and integrated pest management, a return to practices that have worked in the past.
Others are envisioning—and implementing—alternative forms of agriculture based on completely different principles, among them two energetic young people who are currently U of I graduate students.
Their names are Kevin Wolz and Ron Revord, and they are trying out this new form of agriculture on a five-acre plot at the U of I South Farms called the Woody Perennial Polyculture site.
The Woody Perennial Polyculture site employs principles of what is known more generally as permaculture, which favors systems to serve human needs that are based on natural systems rather than constant technological intervention. In agriculture, this means replacing the annual crops that now account for nearly all of what we eat in one way or another—corn, soybeans, wheat and rice—with perennial ones, and replacing the practice of growing only one crop on a site with cultivating a diverse, complementary suite of crops, a suite dominated by shrubs and trees.
The WPP was established in spring of 2012 and features four half-acre blocks of polyculture alternating with four blocks of the same size devoted to corn and soybeans, which are cultivated just as they would be on a typical Champaign County farm.
Within each polyculture block are six rows of two types. One type features apple trees spaced 24 feet apart as the tallest component. Between the apple trees grow two shorter layers, a hybrid variety of hazelnut that’s maintained as a multi-stemmed shrub and raspberries.
The other type of polyculture row features an overstory tree, a hybrid chestnut that will reach a height of 30 feet when mature. The chestnut trees will not produce a crop for some years, but growing between them are red and black currants. These will tolerate the shade of the chestnuts as they grow and they already produce a substantial crop.
A perennial pasture mix of grasses and clover, which is cut for hay, separates the various blocks. The preference would be to keep animals on the farm to graze between rows, but rules prohibit the integration of livestock and crops on campus property.
Wolz emphasizes that the aims of restoration agriculture—which is the phrase he prefers to describe what’s happening at the site—go beyond money. “Our goal is a system that simultaneously produces food for people and restores ecological integrity to the land.”
In order to compare the ecological functioning of the polyculture blocks with the conventional fields, researchers are studying a large set of interrelated topics. Among them are carbon sequestration, nitrogen leakage, water use efficiency and support for biodiversity.
When I visited the site, the polyculture blocks were alive with bees and other pollinators, as well as nesting grassland birds. In contrast, the corn plots seemed devoid of any life other than corn plants.
Revord noted that such a lack of diversity is widely recognized as a potential weakness in other aspects of our culture. He pointed out, “We learn early on not to put all our eggs in one basket, and yet that’s exactly what most modern farming does. What we’re working to develop is an alternative that’s more resilient.”