If you could travel back a few centuries to look at the land we now know as Dane County, you’d see a landscape of waving grasses and wildflowers shaded by scattered trees and shrubs. Large herbivores graze lush foliage that has been managed by native peoples. The highly productive ecosystem is neither a forest nor a grassland, but a bit of both: a savanna. This type of ecosystem, which once covered much of the Midwest, including over five million acres of Wisconsin, was almost entirely converted to farmland after European settlement.
When Kevin Wolz imagines Wisconsin’s farms of the future, he imagines farms that look very much like the landscapes of centuries ago. As founder and co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, Kevin is working to establish widespread agroforestry in the Midwest. Agroforestry offers an opportunity to keep Midwestern farmland in agricultural production while also reaping the benefits of natural savanna ecosystems.
“Savannas protect the soil, regenerate nutrients, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity,” says Kevin. “By mimicking the patterns of natural savannas, agroforestry can do all these things while also producing food and providing farmers with a source of income.”
During his work as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Kevin saw a growing demand from farmers and landowners for information on agroforestry practices. In 2013, he founded the Savanna Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, with the goal of laying the groundwork for large-scale agroforestry in the Midwest. Now in its fifth year, the Savanna Institute conducts on-farm research with farmers and university researchers across the Midwest, leads field days and monthly webinars, and hosts the yearly Perennial Farm Gathering in Madison, which has grown rapidly from a handful of farmers meeting in a barn to a conference attracting over 100 Midwest agroforestry enthusiasts.
“We want to create a future with a stable climate, clean water, and thriving farm economies,” says Keefe Keeley, Savanna Institute’s co-executive director and a PhD student in the Nelson Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “It’s kind of a mix of cutting-edge science and old-fashioned people power, but we believe that agroforestry can do it all.”
The field of agroforestry consists of a growing body of research and practices that have been used around the world for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Agroforestry practices include growing trees for fruit and nut production, timber harvest, and wind and rainfall management. Trees can even be combined with crops, like small grains in a practice called alley cropping, or incorporated into livestock production through a practice called silvopasture. In fact, agroforestry can serve many of these functions at the same time, making trees a multifunctional crop that can reduce financial risk and remain resilient to market variability.
On a breezy day last May, landowners from around the Midwest gathered in a large shed near one of the Savanna Institute’s northern Illinois demonstration farms. These landowners were attending a Savanna Institute field day to learn more about options for implementing agroforestry leases and cost-share programs on their land.
“I think it’s really important what they’re doing here,” said one attendee who had recently inherited her parents’ farmland. “I’d like to be doing stuff like this on my farm, but I can’t really do it all myself. And whatever I do is going to have to be worth it economically.” Other attendees expressed similar sentiments—many were currently renting their land out for row cropping but sought more long-term, sustainable options.
In one field, Kevin was answering questions with Cathe Capel, owner of the demonstration farm. Kevin has established a 99-year lease with Cathe for 10 acres, which have been planted with a variety of tree crops. She grazes her sheep in the alleys between the tree rows.
“Landowners and renters can both benefit hugely from long-term agroforestry leases like this,” Cathe says. “But it’s important to be clear about your goals early on so that everyone knows what they’re getting into.” Many beginning agroforestry farmers lack the land or capital to start farms of their own. Kevin hopes the Savanna Institute can be a bridge between farmers and landowners interested in putting savannas back on the landscape.
At the far end of the field, Keefe was answering questions about tree crops. “I’ve put in some hazelnuts and chestnuts, and I’ve had currants for a long time,” said one attendee. “But it’s all in one corner of my farm. How can I scale up?” The attendee represented a growing group of enthusiasts who were already familiar with tree crops but looking for ways to raise them at a larger scale and greater profit. The Savanna Institute has been working to make this possible as well. The demonstration farm itself boasted over 400 varieties of edible crops, including hazelnuts, chestnuts, currants, plums, apples, raspberries, grapes, serviceberries, and elderberries. Partnerships with organizations, like the Northern Nut Growers Association, the North American Fruit Explorers, the Association for Temperate Agroforestry, and the University of Missouri’s Center for Agroforestry, help the Savanna Institute connect growers with the most up-to-date information.
Research collaborations are also a big part of the Savanna Institute’s work. These include research projects investigating carbon sequestration in agroforestry systems, tree protection and survival during silvopasture establishment, insect pest and pollinator surveys on agroforestry farms, and performance trials of various tree crop. In 2018, the Savanna Institute published a book, Planting Tree Crops , that provides detailed instructions for implementing common agroforestry practices in the Midwest. The book has already been downloaded over 1,500 times from the institute’s website.
At the end of the field day, Kevin and Keefe were exhausted but jubilant. “I got so many detailed questions,” Kevin says. “You can tell people are taking this seriously. Today was a big day, but this could get so much bigger!”
Jacob Grace is an outreach coordinator for the Savanna Institute and a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison agroecology program.