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A vibrant agroforestry industry in the Connecticut River, Housatonic River and Hudson River watersheds in Western MA and eastern NY

Quick-growing perennials have ignited the agroforestry industry in the Northeast resulting in local ciders and chestnut flour pizza parties.

Photo of Christian Shearer

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Regen Network Development, Inc. (Regen Network)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

TerraGenesis International (for-profit social enterprise, www.terra-genesis.com), Propagate Ventures (for-profit, www.propagateventures.com), BreadTree Farms (small farm, https://breadtreefarms.com)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.Regen.Network

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Great Barrington, Massachusetts, USA

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

A four county area, including portions of the Connecticut River, Housatonic River, and Hudson River watersheds in Massachusetts and New York

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Russell Wallack, owner of Breadtree Farms (https://breadtreefarms.com) and Co-Director of Terra Genesis International (www.terra-genesis.com), has lived in the Connecticut River Valley for most of his life. Now, as a chestnut farmer in Rensselaer County, NY, he works to bring commercial chestnut production back to the northeast. Russell is a co-author of BRASA, a preliminary agroforestry site suitability analysis in the Connecticut River Valley watershed. 


Jeremy Kaufman lives in Columbia County, NY and is the COO and Co-Founder of Propagate Ventures (www.propagateventures.com), an organization that is on a mission to scale agroforestry into a cornerstone of agriculture. Jeremy works with farmers to design and install tree-crop systems and bridge project level capital needs. 


Gregory Landau, Chief Regeneration Officer and Co-Founder of Regen Network (www.regen.network) and CEO and Co-Founder of Terra Genesis International, is currently raising his family in Great Barrington, MA. He is co-author of Regenerative Enterprise, the Levels of Regenerative Agriculture Whitepaper, the Regen Network Whitepaper, and co-creator of the 8-forms of capital framework. 


Sarah Baxendell, Director of Philanthropic Partnerships, Regen Network lived in the Connecticut River Valley for half of her life and considers the Pioneer Valley home. As an ecological designer she works to bring resources to ecological interventions. Her first job was at the Atkins Country Farm Market in south Amherst, Massachusetts, which informed her vision of local food systems. 


Christian Shearer is the CEO and Co-Founder of Regen Network and COO and Co-Founder of Terra Genesis International, both based in Great Barrington, MA. Christian has been working with agro-ecological systems around the world for the past 15 years.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Area: Four counties spanning 1.86 million acres (Franklin, Hampshire, and Berkshire, MA and Columbia County, NY) that include portions of the Connecticut River and Housatonic River Watersheds in Western Massachusetts and the Hudson River Watershed, east of the Hudson River. The area includes towns and urban centers like Amherst, Northampton, Greenfield, Great Barrington, MA and Hudson, NY. 


The Connecticut River winds southwards past productive agricultural lands, flanked by the rugged hardscape of the Worcester plateau to the east, and the Berkshire hills to the west. Frequent winter storms bring bitter cold and frozen precipitation. Summers are warm and humid. Nature, culture, education and agriculture come together in the region in a rich, productive tapestry. Travelers are drawn to the valley by its lively college towns, known for their liberal political values and their embrace of alternative cultures and lifestyles, where prominent colleges and universities cooperate with each other in the “Five College Consortium” of UMass Amherst, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke, Smith College, and Hampshire College. The glaciers that formed the Valley left behind some of the richest soil on earth which is now home to 2,000 farms that hold 169,000 acres of land in production and represents 25% of farms and 33% of farmland in the state. Farms range in size from ¼ acre to 345 acres, with an average farm size of 50 acres. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models were born in western Massachusetts. Local colleges serve over 9,900 meals per day and spend over $11 million annually on food. Local restaurants serve around 6,000 meals each day. Because of this, locally grown foods are plentiful and accessible. 


Columbia County, NY is located between the Hudson River and the MA border. It is linked to adjacent urban areas, reaching NYC in 2 hours and Boston in 3 hours. Newcomers to the area often invest in second-homes, relishing the rural character and the proximity to NYC. The region boasts Prime farmland soils (USDA) and is home to conventional grain, dairy and apple production and niche grain and dairy production, as well as the National Young Farmers Coalition, a hub of farm advocacy, Tierra Farms, the largest organic dried fruit and nut distributor in the US, and Hawthorne Valley, a biodynamic innovator. Maintaining the County’s agricultural landscape is of growing interest to residents. The soils are gravelly loamy, ideal for tree crops. Columbia County is the first county to pass a bill to create a carbon pilot project administered by local Soil and Water Conservation Districts. 


An estimated 4,000 indigenous people lived in the region for thousands of years. The Pocumtuc Confederacy was first encountered by European settlers in 1636. The region hosts a rapidly growing Hispanic population and is home to one of the highest per capita lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) populations in the US.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

7527

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

419453

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Uncertainty exists in future temperature and rainfall in the Northeast. The region has seen a greater increase in extreme precipitation (increase of 70% from 1958 to 2010) than any other US region. By 2050, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion and flooding may drive coastal populations inland. Erosion from heavy rains may affect coastal economies. Shifts in plant life cycles from water and temperature cycle changes may have negative effects on traditional food forest gathering by indigenous communities. Regional food production may face these threats: a) increased intensity and frequency of summer heats may increase pathogens and parasites and decrease dairy and poultry production, b) intense precipitation may cause wetter fields that delay planting or harvesting, c) field crops may experience heat stress, drought conditions, and invasive weed, pest, and pathogen outbreaks, d) warmer winters may impact existing apple crops due to earlier bloom and frost damage, and e) winter chilling may decrease, affecting existing berry varieties.


With a projected 2050 population of 17 million New England residents, the region will need to produce over 50% of its food. The rural economy must be expanded to devote three times as much land to intensive production. With a large population, abundant water, cold winters, and limited and under cultivated farmland, complete regional food self-reliance is not realistic. To feed this future population, the number of farms must expand from 24,000 to 50,000, farm operators from 11,000 to 80,000, and full time farm workers from 19,000 to 52,000. 


In 2020, local farms face barriers in distribution, processing, and storage, changes in the availability of regional produce throughout the seasons, building and maintaining relationships with consumers, and the perceived expenses of local food. Farmland in Massachusetts is expensive and more affordable in New York. A decade-long regional dairy industry slump has left landowners seeking more economically viable agricultural business models. High debt, low prices, and inflexible farm assets are currently leading multi-generation dairy farmers into bankruptcy or selling their herds. Corn, soy and hay production used to feed dairy livestock is the largest landblock ripe for transition. 


Agroforestry strategies allow landowners to leave 70% of the region’s forests intact while producing agricultural commodities and income to meet growing food production demands. Adding trees to cropland can sequester 1 - 4 tons of carbon per ha/year, whereas converting forests to cropland emits 62 to 120 tons of carbon per ha/year. Agroforestry systems retain up to 53% more Nitrogen and 17% more phosphorus than monocultures. Globally, conventional cropland erodes at a rate of 10 tons per ha/year, whereas erosion rates in forests range from .004 to .05 tons per ha/year. Conventional agriculture strategies result in trillions of dollars in lost yields and livelihoods.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Humans are converting terrestrial carbon into atmospheric carbon far quicker that we can return it to the soil; the carbon cycle is currently broken. However, a tree is the opposite of a smoke stack. It sequesters carbon and contributes to biodiversity, which keeps the ecological gears turning. Globally, forests cover nearly 1/3 of land area and contain over 80% of land-based biodiversity, but those numbers have dropped considerably from historical averages. 


Agroforestry systems increase farm resilience and play a role in expanding and linking habitats to support biodiversity adaptation. Agroforestry systems can protect New England farm communities by limiting the impact of extreme and shifting weather on agricultural production while actively reversing the effects of climate change. Agroforestry planting systems include a) riparian forest buffers, which protect waterways from agricultural impacts by filtering sediment and contaminants, providing shade for aquatic ecosystems, and stabilizing stream banks that minimize hydrologic changes of storms and floods, b) silvopasture, which combines trees, forage plants and livestock in an integrated intensively-managed system which creates shade to protect animals, c) orchard band windbreaks, which filter air pollutants and protect crops from wind and temperature extremes, and d) alley cropping, which diversifies farm income by coupling wide tree row plantings with a companion crop.


Agroforestry systems are intentional, intensive, interactive, and integrated. By planting perennial crops, such as (canopy layer) pecans, walnuts, chestnuts, (understory trees) apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, nectarine, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, persimmon, paw paw, (shrubs) blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, currants, elderberries, gooseberries, hardy kiwi, and (groundcover) strawberries, farmers accomplish multiple benefits and yields within a small area. 


Chestnuts, hazelnuts and fruit trees play a vital role in implementing agroforestry in MA and NY. Until the chestnut blight of the 1900s, chestnuts made up 1/4 of hardwoods in the Appalachian mountains and were a staple of indigenous diets. Chestnuts are nutritious, low in fat, high in carbohydrates, gluten-free and can easily be incorporated into baked goods. Chestnut trees’ deep roots stabilize and improve soils. Requiring 100 frost free days to flower, full sun, and acidic, well drained soils, chestnuts are a useful, drought adaptable crop for hillside agriculture. 


Today, 2,500 acres of chestnuts are grown in the US. To provide for 2050 food consumption, 10,000 acres of chestnut production are required. For New England to grow 50%+ of its food regionally (currently 12%), 20,000 acres must be planted with nut trees. The soils in western MA and Columbia County, NY are especially productive for apples. One million acres of fruit orchards are required to meet New England’s 2050 fruit consumption demand.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Western Massachusetts and Columbia County’s rural food economy is stabilized by agroforestry. Investments in perennials, training of farmers in best practices around establishment, care, and harvest, increased regional processing and distribution underpin a regional food system which relies on agroforestry for biodiversity outcomes, climate resilience, and diversified agriculture yields. 


Dairy farms earn high incomes with diversified businesses, phasing out dairy herds, feed crop fields, and shifting farm assets to new production. Fields formerly planted with corn, soy, and hay are filled with productive orchards, diversified livestock grazing, and annual crop production. Landowners diversify their income and minimize risk by adopting long-term farm leases with new farmers. Some multi-generational dairy farms are lost, but in their place diversified, risk-averse farm business models thrive. Heavier and more frequent rain events no longer plague annual crop production because alley cropping is universally adopted. Productive fruit and nut trees in farm fields absorb excess water, stabilize soils, and increase farm crop diversity. 


Social demand to protect biodiversity, reconnect habitat, reestablish forest edges and riparian buffers have led the community to plant over 100,000 new trees. Forests are currently 50% denser and more connected than in 2020.


Global demand is high for validated on-farm biodiversity and carbon outcomes. Farmers and land stewards across Columbia, Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin counties have enrolled over 200,000 farm acres and 700,000 forested acres on the Regen Network platform, capturing and storing 17 kilotons of atmospheric carbon annually. Due to increased corporate demand, global prices for carbon are high, at $150 per ton, earning the average 10 acre farmer $6,000/year in income representing the biodiversity outcomes of their property.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Characters:

  • Russell, Breadtree Farms, Chestnut farmer (Columbia County, NY)

  • Sarah, Chestnut flour grinding operation (Mill River Gristmill in Amherst, MA)

  • Matt, Atkins Farm, apple farmer and wild apple forager (south Amherst, MA)

  • Jonathan, Valley Cider, hard cider distiller (Hadley, MA)

  • Celeste, Chef at Northampton Brewery (Northampton, MA)

  • Maria, mother (Greenfield, MA)

  • Serena, Pocomtuc descendant (Great Barrington, MA)

  • Tiffany, Connecticut River fishing company (Leverett, NY)

  • Lisa, dairy farmer (Hudson, NY)


The 30th Annual Chestnut Brunch, Conway School of Design, Conway, MA


“Celeste, that pizza smells amazing,” Tiffany interjected as she shifted the hot coals around her corn sheath wrapped bass, freshly caught on the Connecticut River. “My daughter, Luna, is going to be so jealous. Did you know they teach your chestnut flour pizza crust recipe in home economics class at Amherst High School now?”


“I never thought I’d say this, but it’s because they planted too many chestnuts as windbreaks between the sports fields. Twenty years ago, when the chestnut rush first emerged, nobody knew what they were doing,” Russell, an old farmer who was one of the first to plant chestnuts on his Columbia County, NY property, chimed in. “It took us about a decade to get tree spacing right. Now, the school is selling chestnuts wholesale and investing back into the school farm.” 


“It’s come 360,” Jonathan chuckled, as he poured Celeste a glass of his latest batch of Valley-grown hard cider. “I never thought I’d be taking on UMass Food Science interns this year or transforming my grandpa’s old tobacco barn into our second cider distillery in Hadley.”


“I’m sure glad you did, Jonathan,” Sarah said. “This cider batch is delicious. So dry! If you hadn’t figured out the financing to rebuild that old shack I would never have been bold enough to rebuild the historical Mill River Grist Mill to produce chestnut flour.” 


“Do you remember how dirty the Mill River water used to be?” Celeste questioned. “I can’t believe we used to swim in that creek as kids! The park trees we planted have made a big difference.” She shook her head. “Sarah, how would I ever make these chestnut flour pizzas without you? My team at Northampton Brewery used to grind chestnuts by hand, right Russell?”


“It was a mess,” Russell grumbled. 


Celeste laughed. “It was. I know we’ve won ‘Valley’s Best’ for our chestnut crust pizzas three years running, but it’s not MY recipe. Serena taught it to me and gave me permission to share it. All those amazing pizza toppings are grown locally by many of our friends. We’re so lucky.”


Serena nodded. “It’s one of the last chestnut recipes I was taught by my Pocomtuc grandparents. It’s the perfect flour for baking.” 


“Your chestnut baking class last week was amazing, Serena.” Maria chimed in. “Chestnut flour has been transformative in our family. Did I tell you that my son Charlie’s doctors say he’s barely on the autism spectrum anymore? It took a decade of removing gluten from his diet. The guidance counselor at Greenfield High School thinks he may even be able to join his grade level next year!” 


“That’s wonderful, Maria,” said Matt, a young apple farmer who took over the orchards at Atkins Farm Market in South Amherst. “Have you tried my apple pie recipe with the hot weather apples that are finally maturing? It’s perfect for all that extra chestnut flour. We are so lucky we started to forage wild apples a decade ago and found this variety on the south side of Mt. Tom, left behind by homesteaders.”


“How’s the apple crop coming along?” Russell asked. “I wasn’t sure when you tore out all those heritage apple varieties. It makes an old timer like me cringe.”


“They just aren't growing well anymore. It’s too warm in the region for those varieties,” Matt responded as he shook his head. “We’ve kept a few of each just in case. You know how old man Atkins feels about those heritage apples he spent a lifetime cultivating.”


Russell nodded.


“We’ve partnered with Propagate Ventures, and their financing models have provided us the startup capital to invest in a new test row of cider apples each year on that north facing hill, where it’s cooler,” explained Matt. “This weather is pushing the limits of the orchards we established 15 years ago already, and we want to make sure we have supply for our new hard cider partnership with Carr’s Cider. We’re calling it ‘South Amherst’ cider.” 


“We’ve been planting peaches at our property as well with the help of Propagate Ventures,” Lisa chimed in. “It was so sad to let the cows go, but our dairy wasn’t competitive in the marketplace anymore. My family has managed this land for six generations already, and we had to figure out how to stay viable. We’ve got room for some apple trees on our north ridge if you are interested in partnering, Jonathan and Matt.” 


“Let’s figure out a time for me to come see the property next week,” Jonathan replied.


“Hey, Russell,” Jonathan interjected, “What’s the price you are getting for your carbon credits from Regen Network for all those chestnut trees? We’ve been getting over $100 a pound of carbon for the apple trees we’re stewarding for our ciders. My brother is thinking it’s time to plant another acre, and maybe Lisa’s property would be a good solution.”


“Finally getting real value for the ecosystem services of our agroforestry plantings is a blessing. It’s allowing us to plant about 50% more trees each season as we expand the windbreaks around our annual crops. The extra cash flow per acre has made all the difference in this region.” Russell responded. “If you haven’t signed your properties up on the platform, Jonathan and Lisa, it’s really time to take advantage of that opportunity. It may pay for your expansions even in the first year!”


“If we can just keep planting those chestnuts, Russell, we’ll be alright,” Tiffany, owner of a Connecticut River fishing company, said. “The fishing season on the Connecticut River has finally evened out, which is great for business.”


“It’s great for planning our menus at Northampton Brewery,” Celeste agreed.


“Russell, do you remember when we met?” Tiffany asked.


“It’s hard to forget. You smelled awful delivering those fish to Celeste,” Russell piped in with a smirk. “You realized we were using the BRASA (Bioregional Agroforest Suitability Analysis) agroforestry planting data to establish new riparian buffers along the river. With the water quality and temperature tests you had been taking daily, we could finally see the link between the water filtration and shade provided by the tall trees. You were able to find the cool spots near our plantings where the bass were hiding.” 


“It was a relief to figure that out,” Tiffany agreed. “After that I told everyone to plant trees to help our fishing company to stay in business. Pocumtuc means ‘clean river,’ after all, right Serena?”


Serena smiled. 


“It’s time to eat,” declared Jonathan. “It smells too good to wait!”


“Should we make a toast?” asked Serena.


“To chestnuts?” offered Matt.


“To apples?” Maria quibbed.


“To the community,” Russell agreed.


Russell, Sarah, Matt, Jonathan, Celeste, Maria, Serena, Tiffany, and Lisa clinked their glasses of Jonathan’s latest hard cider batch together. They dug their forks into the steaming hot bass Tiffany had caught on the Connecticut River. Their fingers became greasy from slices of chestnut flour pizza, smothered in fresh vegetables grown by friends, and baked with chestnuts that were harvested from Russell’s pastures. They eyed Matt’s dessert, apple pie made of the newly maturing climate-adaptive apples and a chestnut flour crust that was ground in Sarah’s local gristmill. The late summer moon rose, shining down on the river valley, and their community. 


An Implementation Framework that makes this Vision possible:


Breadtree Farms:

Incubating commercial chestnut production in the northeast US by planting chestnuts, partnering with regional growers, educating landowners about revenue-positive lease models, and developing chestnut-based products. Breadtree Farms is partnered with Otter Creek Farm, transforming 20 acres of former corn and soy fields into a chestnut orchard. 


TerraGenesis International (TGI):

TGI co-authored (with TK Design Lab) the Bioregional Agroforestry Suitability Analysis (BRASA), which assessed, inventoried, and mapped the Connecticut River Watershed’s suitability for riparian buffers and intercropping commercial hybrid chestnut trees on existing farms. However, local farmers lack the financing to adopt agroforestry.


Propagate Ventures:

Propagate Ventures, works with farmers and land managers to design and install tree-crop systems that work in tandem with existing farm operations. Its fruit, nut, and timber tree systems complement both row crop and grazing operations. Adding trees and shrubs generates economic returns, builds soil health and sequesters carbon. The company also works to provide financing mechanisms and the partnerships needed to meet the short and long-term goals of its partner farmers. Propagate currently works on 16 agroforestry projects that are planting about 100K of trees and shrubs over the next three years. Two of those projects are in Columbia County. 


Regen Network:

Regen Network, Platform for a Thriving Planet, issues scientifically-verifiable and auditable ecosystem credits so that farmers, ranchers and other land managers can be recognized and paid for their positive ecological practices. On the platform, land stewards enroll and voluntarily list the ecosystem services on their property. These activities are verified by remote sensing. Ecosystem services credits are issued, stored in the registry, and sold to buyers, providing land stewards a new source of income.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Website
  • Prize partners
  • LinkedIn
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Team (4)

Christian's profile
Sarah's profile
Sarah Baxendell

Role added on team:

"Sarah Baxendell, Regen Network's Director of Philanthropic Partnerships, works to coordinate partnerships, investments, grant applications and reporting, and financial projections. She grew up in Amherst, MA and has spent a decade working on urban ecological and food systems interventions, including as the Executive Director of Hilltop Urban Farm and as a Coordinator of the Occupy Wallstreet Sustainability Working Group. She is a former JPMorgan Private Bank assistant and permaculture designer."

Jeremy's profile
Jeremy Kaufman

Role added on team:

"Jeremy lives in Columbia County, NY and is the COO and Co-Founder of Propagate Ventures, an organization that is on a mission to scale agroforestry into a cornerstone of agriculture. Jeremy works with farmers to design and install tree-crop systems and bridge project level capital needs. Propagate Ventures currently manages 2 agroforestry projects in Columbia County, NY that are planting $50K of trees and shrubs over the next 3 years."

Russell's profile
Russell Wallack

Role added on team:

"Russell Wallack, owner of Breadtree Farms (https://breadtreefarms.com) and Co-Director of Terra Genesis International (www.terra-genesis.com), has lived in the Connecticut River Valley for most of his life. Now, as a chestnut farmer in Rensselaer County, NY, he works to bring commercial chestnut production back to the northeast. Russell is a co-author of BRASA, a preliminary agroforestry site suitability analysis in the Connecticut River Valley watershed."

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Attachments (2)

Regen - Pitch + Science.pdf

A summary of Regen Network, a platform for a thriving planet, and review of the organization's recent science case studies

08.03.2018_BRASA-Report.pdf

The Bioregional Agroforestry Suitability Analysis (BRASA) Co-authored by TK Design Lab and TerraGenesis International in 2018.

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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