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K I L L   M O R E   T R E E S - As Fast as Possible
by Philip A. Rutter


Imagine the fields of the Cornbelt in July -- one organism basically
-- corn, plus a few bacteria and a nematode or two. A few others use
the fields for food -- crows, deer, coon -- but nothing lives there.
It is an unquestioned and unexamined absolute of policymakers: the
best lands are reserved for agriculture. Period. We certainly aren't
going to change that policy; one cannot suggest that "crop lands" be
diverted for any uses or needs other than food production.

What we need is a way to make food production "planet-friendly." Woody
agriculture may be a start.

The ultimate limit to any agricultural system is how much sun can be
captured. Woody plants capture more sun, and are more efficient, than
annual crops in temperate climates. Woody crops' actual measured
efficiency is over three times more carbon fixed per field per year
than that of a single crop of corn.

Current agricultural practices have been inherited almost intact from
our ancestors, whose mobility led them to favor grasses (rye, oats,
wheat, corn) that could be carried and replanted wherever a tribe
found itself in the springtime. With this reliable source of staple
crops assured, horticultural research has concentrated on developing
trees as sources of perishable fruits.

We at Badgersett Farm feel that a basic change in philosophy is
necessary, moving away from the searching of natural forests for
interesting trees, and turning to intensive breeding with the specific
intent of altering wild trees, which basically have no reason to
produce large, regular crops for human use, into genuinely
domesticated plants.

We want to develop woody perennial plants for tree crops with
commercial potential, initially as luxury crops and eventually as
staples. We also intend to have demonstration plantings of working
commercial cropping procedures at Badgersett. We have begun to make
real the potential of such spe-cies to become producers of staples,
and we are ready to go head-to-head against corn and soybeans as
commercial field crops in the market.

Our intention is to conduct "real-world" research, which means that in
all respects, the crop systems must have an honest chance of being
useful on a large scale, without requiring the world to change its
religion, politics, socioeconomic structure, or eating habits. Feed
them first (or save their soil first), then maybe they can listen and
see. I have no desire to be categorized as a missionary of anything,
except maybe logic. If one of the crop systems we are proposing makes
economic sense, then farmers should try it. Not otherwise.

The primary reason for seeking such production of staples is our
desire to provide viable alternatives to the current agricultural
practices, which require extensive tilling of the soil. Tilling soil
kills not only macroorganisms, but hugely simplifies the soil
microbiota. Imagine the fields of the Cornbelt in July; now imagine
the same fields a vast, permanent thicket, habitat (as our hazel
bushes are now) for myriad organisms: salamanders, tree frogs,
warblers, bluebirds, weasels, jumping mice, shrews, mushrooms,
wildflowers, spiders, beetles, snakes, millipedes -- absolutely
everything.

We need to emphasize that the more advanced possibilities are not
present realities; although we have demonstrated the potential, the
large-scale commercial infrastructure is not yet worked out. If you
want to plant 200 acres of machine-harvestable hazelnuts, you can't do
it yet, although we hope you'll be able to in five or six years. If
you want to plant one to ten acres of pick-your-own bush hazels or
chestnuts, that you can do right now.

The real hope for improving the environment rests with the ability to
make these crops available to the large-scale machine-oriented growers
(in the First World countries); they are the ones using the large
tracts of farmland that stay bare through the winters.

Badgersett Research Farm

Badgersett is a 160-acre Minnesota family farm with ninety acres of
conventional corn and alfalfa contour strips, five acres of Christmas
trees, and ten acres of experimental nut plantings.

Badgersett is my wife Mary's and my farm. We have lived on and managed
it for seventeen years. Row crops are handled by a renter; all tree
crops have been planted and developed by us. The nuts are hybrid
hazels and hybrid chestnuts, first planted in 1980 at extremely high
density. Extensive data collection began in 1985. The farm is intended
to function as a private, independent, horticultural research station,
with several specific goals in mind, both long-range and immediate.
While we expect that the hazels may become economically productive
more quickly than the chestnuts, the chestnuts have a greater
long-range potential because of their basic biology; they seem to have
a unique physiology, and their unusual characteristics seem to lend
themselves to the possibility of domestication.

Many farmers are eager to find alternatives to corn and soybeans, and
would prefer crops that are not so hard on the soil, but economically
realistic options are currently rather limited. It is our hope to
gradually introduce people to the more unusual crops and ideas here
through the sale of the standard crops of Christmas trees and cider.
We have an orchard coming on, which consists solely of cider apples,
and we eventually will have hazels and chestnuts for sale as
byproducts of the initial start-up plantings. Our scenario has folks
coming to get their tree and cider; we will then hand out samples of
roasted chestnuts (there is little tradition for them here), and
perhaps cookies made with hazelnuts. With luck, folks will find the
food attractive, and buy some to take home. If we can show our farmer
customers that we are making money at this, they will quickly begin to
consider planting chestnuts or hazels themselves. The international
market is well established for both.

We recognize that this is a very ambi-tious goal. In such a situation,
it is best to find out what others have accomplished and to build on
past labors.

Where we live in Minnesota, hazels were in fact one of the dominant
plants before the arrival of agriculture; they are a natural choice to
investigate for crop potential. Carl Weschcke, who had a planting of
many kinds of trees at River Falls, Wisconsin, left behind him not
only the trees (now neglected) but also a book outlining his
experiences and opinions. His conclusion was that hybrid hazels and
chestnuts might be the most promising trees for this region, and we
started with those trees. We still agree, after having delved into the
possibilities further.

The science of genetics, and the understanding of how best to select
and breed for complex traits and combinations of traits, have
progressed mightily in the past few decades. One thing is quite clear:
"intuitive" ideas about how to breed are very often proven incorrect.
If we are to hope for real progress in our goal of domestication, we
have to use the best tools available. Serious science outside the
university is what we are trying to do; we are convinced it is
possible. The operation at Badgersett is really only made possible by
the advent of the small computer. With a much smaller amount of help
than used to be necessary, we can keep track of many more things than
ever before imaginable. Because we are growing many trees, it is
relatively easy for us to do everything with "controls" -- i.e.,
according to scientific method. Not knowing is the most expensive
course of action. Whenever we can, even if it means more work, we try
to make and care for the plantings in more than one way, and always
with the essential controls.

We keep track of as much information about each tree as we can, to
enable us to make culling decisions on a sound basis. This is a chore
the computer makes possible; it gives us the ability to compare many
trees by many characteristics, and to make judgments about which trees
are superior. In the case of the chestnuts, we keep track of about
fifteen different traits each year: specific aspects of vegetative
health or bearing characteristics, for each tree over three years old.
The result is a detailed portrait of each tree, year by year. When a
row is getting crowded, we can make a decision about how much to thin
it and, using the computer, identify (say) the worst 40 percent. Those
trees are then culled, the better trees continue to grow, until the
next time the row is too crowded, when the computer will be used to
look at several more years' performance of each tree, making thousands
of comparisons, and again identify the poorer trees for culling.

No farmer should make extensive plantings of tree crops without such
demonstrations. As soon as possible, we want to have small-scale
working commercial plantings. Our goal remains primarily research, but
the research will be pointless unless put to use.

If we simply grow everything that is interesting, we will probably not
be able to make much real progress on anything. Although we are
concentrating on the hazels and chestnuts, we have succumbed to the
temptation of other species, and have a few pecans and some hickories.
The priorities remain, however: the hazels and chestnuts get cared for
first, and other plantings may have to fend for themselves.

We attempt to search for desirable trees and traits by screening as
many  seedlings as possible. Our breeding strategy here is called
"mass selection." Mass selection can be a useful technique for working
with genetically complex traits, but to be effec-tive it requires
large numbers of seedlings. "Hundreds" may be too few, and "thousands"
barely adequate. This means we must plant as many seedlings as we can
care for, grow them just long enough to begin to tell the good ones
from the bad ones, and then get rid of the bad ones. Our official
motto is: Kill more trees; as fast as possible.

This is an absolutely necessary doctrine for the improvement of tree
crops. If a grower should plant ten trees, watch them grow, and pick
the best one to develop, that one tree is nowhere near as valuable as
it could have been if he had planted a thousand seedlings in the same
space, and killed all but the ten best of them in the first five
years, and then watched the remaining ten trees.

It is clear that we must identify the poorer trees as rapidly as
possible, and remove them, and use their space and the time their
further care and observation would have required to plant more trees.
We don't want to be blind enthusiasts, and don't want to encourage
that in others; history is full of pigheaded, destructive enthusiasts.
We want everybody to look at the possibilities with both eyes open.

In general, test plantings are made with machine-planted, bare root
stock, to allow us to handle more trees. They are planted at very
close spacings, usually in double rows that make it easy to compare
many young trees rapidly; any trees with extraordinary characteristics
stand out all the better for this close juxtaposition. The close
spacing also means the trees become badly crowded rather quickly. This
is intentional, and is designed to counterbalance the very human
desire to see each little tree thrive.

There is a very strong emotional tendency to maintain mediocre trees
for years, in the hope that they will suddenly begin to show highly
desirable traits. We know it is a long shot, but when one has found or
made the seed, weeded the seedling in a seedbed, protected it from
rodents, transplanted it, watered, watched, re-weeded, and fertilized
it for several years, one naturally becomes attached to it. In the
crowded planting, it becomes easier to cull a mediocre or borderline
tree. When we see an unquestionably superior tree struggling for space
with several undistinguished neighbors, the desire to help the better
tree out makes it much easier to get out the saw.

This kind of culling scheme will result in initial selection for
vegetative health and vigor, and/or precocious bearing, as culling
must begin before all the seedlings start to bear. We think that
healthy trees will be more likely to have good nut and bearing
characteristics than weak trees.

Speeding The Process

Precocious plants bear flowers and fruit at an unusually young age. We
have been working to elucidate the genetics of precocity, and to
create such individuals intentionally rather than by chance.

The one precocious chestnut seedling we have observed from our own
controlled pollinations was the result of crossing two moderately
precocious trees (both bore flowers in their third growing season).
The one resulting nut was planted in a pot, and outplanted to a
permanent location when it was three months old, whereupon it bore
several male flowers, at the ripe old age of four months. In its next
growing season, it bore both male and female flowers.

So far these extremely precocious trees are not well adapted to the
burden of flowering at an early age. They grow very slowly in their
first years, and their inflorescences are often deformed or atypical.
They have no reserves to be used for nut production, and the presence
of flowers (an adult phenomenon) could be expected to cause some
hormonal imbalances in a plant that needs to put its energy into root
and top growth, not flowering. With the creation of a population of
such trees, however, some individuals may be expected to appear that
will retain the precocity, but will also be more vegetatively
vigorous. We hope in time to achieve a strain that both grows strongly
and flowers immediately on germination of the seed.

We do not foresee such plants as being useful in orchards, but they
would be very useful as breeding tools. One of the greatest barriers
to tree improvement is generation time. We can start with a precocious
tree that is known to throw productive offspring (having grandchildren
is one definition of genetic fitness). Crossing should result in
progeny with the extreme precocity trait fully expressed; they should
all flower immediately after germination. If pollen from such
seedlings were used to fertilize flowers on an older tree capable of
producing nuts, the generation time for crosses could be reduced to
one year. While it would often not be possible to screen such
seedlings for the presence of desired traits, the use of parents with
known genetics would make it possible to make crosses "blind," knowing
that the characteristics sought are present, even if unseen. This
could create the very real possibility of being able to breed chestnut
trees on the same basis as annual crops, and would bring within reach
much more complicated breeding projects requiring many generations,
possibilities never even considered today.

Besides the work on extreme precocity, we have a number of experiments
in progress in our chestnut plantings. In addition to fertilizer
experiments, we are measuring the later performance of plants that
were large, medium, or small after two years in the seedbed, watching
the effect of early pruning on age of bearing, and evaluating the
effect of coppicing on the growth form of trees intended for orchard
use. For several years we ran controlled experiments on various deer
repellents. We also keep track of a number of smaller observations on
orchard establishment, care, and maintenance.

Some Remaining Obstacles

Propagation:  If you are going to plant zillions of acres, you need
hundreds of zillions of plants. Nuts have one big problem as seeds:
they are a great big tasty chunk of food, worth serious effort on the
part of birds and mammals to search out and dig up. And they do. We
also need to have good production of uniform clones for the machinable
systems; machines have to have uniform conditions in order to work.
Tissue culture offers its immense promise of all the plants we can
use, cheap, but the start-up costs are high. There are answers for all
this, but they take time to implement.

Weeds:  Both chestnuts and hazels will shade out most of the usual
weeds, once they are established, but a new kind of weed, not a
problem in cornfields or orchards, develops: the woody weed. Birds use
the bushes and trees of woody agriculture plantings extensively, and
drop all kinds of weed seeds. At Badgersett, the list so far includes
grape, wild cherry, box elder, elder, prickly ash, and raspberry.
These are not a problem in cultivated fields, because they are plowed
up; not a problem in orchards, because the land between trees is open,
and mowed or cultivated. In woody ag plantings, though, the
bushes/trees can be so tightly packed that woody weeds can get well
established in between them before you know it. Then getting rid of
them can be a chore. Multiply twenty years of bird droppings times 200
acres. That's a lot of cherry and raspberry and grape seed. It may be
that hand labor will be needed to periodically clean them out; that's
what we're doing now.

Pollination: Turns out to be a factor that needs forethought. Both
chestnuts and hazels require a genetically different tree nearby for
pollination, and both have special needs. Chestnuts are rather weak
pollinators (don't produce much, and it doesn't travel far from the
tree); in order to get a good crop, you need a big pollen-producing
tree nearby, which means if you plant acres of uniform, young trees,
there is likely to be a period when the trees could be producing more,
but aren't, because of inadequate pollen. Hazels are strong
pollinators (lots of pollen, travels well), but they are likely to
have incompatibility problems (they're fussier about sexual partners
than chestnuts), which will require paying knowledgable attention to
the mix of cultivars in your planting. And we've found that deer will
eat the male catkins voraciously just before they shed pollen. For
several years, we have seen tons of males on the hazel bushes, up
until they start to expand in the spring. Then, in a few days, all the
catkins below four feet, all the way into the middle of the bushes,
disappear. If you have lots of deer and a planting of only a few
acres, this may mean that although your bushes are old enough to be
producing a crop, and have lots of female flowers, they may not get
pollinated until the bushes are well over four feet tall. This
shouldn't be a problem in really big plantings; the deer couldn't eat
all the catkins on twenty acres, for example (I think).

Pests: Another unknown is the possible buildup of diseases or insects
over the long run, when the ground is not tilled. It may be that since
the system is less perturbed, natural antagonists of the pests may
build up stable populations, and better control the unwanted critters;
then again, it may not. We haven't been doing this long enough to
really know -- only twelve years. (I can tell you, though, that the
hazels are full of spiders, ladybugs, lacewings, and assassin bugs,
all highly desirable insect predators.) Also, it looks like when we
cut the hazel bushes to the ground for renewal, they lose a lot of
chronic disease in the old wood; the new shoots are tremendously
vigorous, dark green and healthy looking, and they stay that way for
several years. (We still have lots to learn here. I can guarantee the
readers that Murphy and his laws will show up sooner or later. Still,
there is no reason problems here should be greater than in other
crops.)

Vertebrates: In tilled fields, there is no stable habitat for birds or
mammals. They may use the fields a little, but cannot live there; so
the larger the field, the fewer vertebrate crop thieves.  In woody
agriculture fields, however, all kinds of vertebrates can make
themselves at home, permanently. This will sound great to critter
sympathizers, myself among them, but it could spell trouble for the
crop. Mice eat a lot of hazelnuts before they are ripe, and so do
bluejays, crows, etc. Most of the theft is not outright eating, but
the storing of food for later. The effect on regional vertebrate
populations of square miles of woody agriculture plantings remains to
be seen, but it might wind up that we would be growing a lot of food
for the animals, and not harvesting much of it ourselves. My guess is
that this will not happen; animal predators and space requirements
should serve to keep nut-thief populations in check, most of the time.
Anyway, it would be a better problem to have than limiting herbicide
runoff, losing soil, depleting aquifers, and loss of biological
diversity from critters having no place to live.