Treading through ankle-deep snow on a January day to reach a row of saplings near the middle of Buck Holsinger’s pasture, it’s hard to imagine a 100-degree Shenandoah Valley summer day, let alone the need for shade.
But that’s what Holsinger had on his mind. “Come back here in the summer — in 10 years even — and there’ll be plenty of shade,” he said as snow fell and his cattle burrowed beneath it to graze nearby.
Almost a year after they were planted, most of the locust trees stretched just above their plastic sleeves. It will be at least a decade before the chestnuts and poplars provide the shade and windbreaks for which Holsinger planted them, though some fruit — from persimmon or black walnut trees, in particular — might come sooner.
Those blistering summers are just one of the reasons Holsinger, 38, planted the trees in a place that most ranchers would say they don’t belong: the middle of a pasture. His heritage breed Galloway cattle can get pretty hot under their nearly 2-inch- thick coats of shaggy, white hair. It causes them to drink more water and to cluster under the pop-up tents he’s raised for shade while he waits for his trees to grow.
“My NRCS friends call them 800-pound sheep,” Holsinger said, referring to officials from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
They helped him land the money to plant the trees that, it turns out, are good for a lot more than shade. Holsinger’s effort to manage trees alongside forage and livestock, a practice known as silvopasture, was the first of its kind in Virginia to receive NRCS cost-share dollars. Silvopasture is one of several agroforestry practices that entail managing crops or pasturelands as part of a broader landscape with trees, shrubs or forests.
Agroforestry, explained Katie Trozzo, a Ph.D. student researching the practices at Virginia Tech, is “bringing trees back into our agricultural fields and crop production into our forests.”
Trees are a workhorse for local water quality, catching and slowing rainfall with their leaves and filtering pollutants with their roots, not to mention sequestering carbon, reducing erosion and enhancing wildlife habitat.
But could they also be good for farms?
In 2009, Holsinger signed his first contract with the NRCS to set aside almost 8 acres of his family’s 72-acre farm in Broadway, VA, to grow trees. The riparian buffer he planted filters farm runoff before it reaches the unnamed stream running through the property to the Shenandoah River.
The NRCS funds also helped Holsinger implement a rotational grazing system that divides the pasture into five, 10-acre paddocks and provides watering troughs as the cattle move almost daily to new plots of grass.
After taking over the farm that has been in his family since the late 1700s (his four children are the 10th generation), Holsinger wanted to leave the land better than he inherited it.
“Ultimately, I believe that pasture-based animals are the only truly sustainable agriculture,” he said. “My hope is that we’re building the soils and feeding our family and friends healthy food.”
Holsinger also had to find a farming model that he could manage alongside his full-time job for IBM. He considers himself a “full-time rancher, three hours a day,” and on weekends. When he’s deployed or doing weekend drills as a pilot with the U.S. National Guard, his wife, Amanda, and her father fill in the gaps.
The rotational grazing system allows large swaths of the land to rest, absorb nutrients and maintain forage cover while the cattle graze on a narrow section. Holsinger moves them almost daily. Portable electric fences keep them sequestered. But when the plan was done, Holsinger realized the system left the animals without decent shade in several of the paddocks.
When his grandparents farmed the land, the cattle had access to all 72 acres at once and could shade themselves under tall rows of trees on the farm’s perimeter.
Holsinger erected portable tents, like the ones at a farmers market, and moved them along with the cattle. But, on a hot day, the growing herd would pack under the tent “like sardines,” a bad scenario for herd health.
He started reading about shade trees and came across J. Russell Smith’s book, “Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture.”
“He talks about two-story agriculture being sustainable agriculture,” Holsinger said of a type of farming that considers the fruit of the trees as well as their shade. “So I thought, ‘If I need the shade anyway, why not look at different types of trees?’”
J.B. Daniel, a forage and grassland agronomist with the Virginia NRCS, said the state had adopted the national standard to assist farmers with silvopasture practices a few years ago. When Holsinger reached out, they had just begun looking for farmers like him.
“He intensively manages the grazing of his cattle, often with daily moves, so he’s a natural fit for the level of management that’s required to do this practice successfully,” Daniel said.
Unlike when trees are planted along a stream, silvopasture is not a lease-it-and-leave-it proposition. In exchange for the trees that will provide shade, windbreak and other benefits in the middle of his fields, Holsinger has to protect the saplings from his munching cattle, deer and invasive plants for the first few years.
Temporary electric fences, like the ones Holsinger uses to keep his cattle on certain sections of the field, were added along each side of the rows of trees to protect them. While the cattle will be able to graze right up to the trees once they are established, Holsinger said he’s set aside about 15 percent of his pasture to protect them for the first three to five years.
“Before, I just took care of grass. Now, I’ve got to do the balancing act of growing and using the grass without hurting my other crop of trees,” he said.
In exchange for the land and effort he’s giving to the trees, Holsinger will be able to use them like almost any other crop on his farm once they come to fruition.
He’ll be able to feed black walnuts to his pigs or to customers as a high-value nut. He could sell the orange persimmons at local markets while the tree continues to provide shade in the field. American chestnuts, yellow poplars, honey locusts and black locusts will all be integrated into the broader mission of his farm, whether they’re used for windbreaks in the field or selectively harvested for new fence posts and firewood.
“For me, along with having the shade and windbreak, I’ve got an opportunity for other cash sources throughout the life of the trees,” Holsinger said. “If it works, it’s gonna be a slam dunk for me.”
For her doctoral degree, Trozzo is studying the social and economic dynamics that influence a farmer considering the implementation of agroforestry practices.
One study collected data in three of Virginia’s watersheds and determined that newer, often younger landowners who “have higher discretionary income and multiple objectives in mind” for their land are more likely to consider agroforestry. Trozzo is now reaching out to landowners who live in priority watersheds and might be early adapters of the practices.
In November, an informational meeting in Warrenton, VA, drew 55 landowners to hear from speakers like Holsinger about silvopasture and other agroforestry practices.
“I would say interest is building slowly but steadily,” said Daniel, whose NRCS office is working on a couple of silvopasture projects.
For conservation groups working to meet state water quality goals, every tree counts. Virginia’s goals for 2025, for example, include planting more than 100,000 acres of trees on agricultural lands. Fewer than 19,000 had been planted by 2009.
In a good year for commodity crops like corn, farmers are more likely to clear trees than to plant them, especially as their 10– and 15-year contracts with the Conservation Reserve Program begin to expire.
John Munsell, associate professor and forest management extension specialist at Virginia Tech, is conducting research to combat the economic factors against trees by creating a market for them on farms.
Speaking over the phone from Germany, where he’s on sabbatical for a year, Munsell noted that it’s been a struggle to get new farmers enrolled in the CRP and to renew contracts when crop prices are good —or state and federal funds are running low.
“The question is how to create a buffer system that puts the landowner in a position that [he or she] may consider retaining it as opposed to clearing it,” Munsell said.
He is working on another project funded by a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant that will look at whether the guidelines for CRP-funded buffer plantings could be expanded to allow landowners to selectively harvest or intensively manage the fruit, nuts and trees closest to the streams.
While part of the appeal of planting riparian buffers in the past has been the hands-off nature of the contract, some farmers are willing to consider how trees could — with a little work — benefit both their bottom line and local water quality.
“That’s part of the conversation, too,” said Trozzo, who is working with Munsell to research potential markets for fruits of native trees like paw paws and persimmons.
She said establishing markets for those products — known as “market-based conservation” — could further wean landowners from government funding, which is currently their strongest financial incentive to plant trees.
“You don’t want to be dependent on government money to set up systems that are pretty essential to our ecosystem’s health,” she said.
The potential of a new funding model for conservation has Munsell dreaming of a suite of tree-based products that could be sold to local markets. For the softly sweet fruit of native paw paw trees, which wouldn’t last long on a grocery store shelf, he envisions value-added products like paw paw pudding cups and ice cream.
Elderberries can be turned into a syrup that boosts the immune system and adds flavor to a stack of pancakes. And how about hickory nut milk? Munsell said Native Americans used it much like almond milk before there was milk from domesticated livestock.
“The way to get any type of larger landowner to adopt this system is to demonstrate success economically,” Munsell said. “If we’re building reliable markets, I think that’s when other people will be looking over and saying, ‘Hey, I will be able to do that, too.’”