The Role of Trees and Pastures in Organic Agriculture

  •  Joseph Heckman    


Environmental concerns associated with annual row crop grain production – including soil erosion, soil carbon loss, intensive use of chemicals and petroleum, limited arable land, among others – could be addressed by converting conventional livestock production to an organic pasture based system. The inclusion of tree crops would further enhance the opportunity for feeding pasture- raised livestock by providing shelter and alternative feed sources. Biodiversity is an essential aspect of an organic farm plan. The idea of including tree crops and other perennials into the vision of an organic farm as a “living system” is very much compatible with the goals and philosophy of organic farming. Before modern no-till farming systems were developed, tree crops and pasture systems were found to provide similar benefits for controlling soil erosion and conserving soil carbon. For example, J. Russell Smith’s Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (Smith, 1950) and pioneered tree crop agriculture as the alternative to annual row crops for protecting soils from erosion while producing livestock feed such as acorns, nuts, and fodder. A survey of Mid-Atlantic USA soils under pasture found 60% higher soil organic matter content than cultivated fields. Because United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (USDA-NOP) standards require dairy cattle consume pasture forage and limited grain (7 C.F.R. pt. 206), organic milk contains higher concentrations of omega-3 and fewer omega-6 fatty acids than conventional milk. Organic standards also state “the producer must not use lumber treated with arsenate or other prohibited materials for new [fence posts] installations or replacement purposes in contact with soil or livestock.” Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a fast growing renewable alternative to treated lumber with many attributes compatible with organic farming. This versatile tree fixes nitrogen (N), provides flowers for honey bees and other pollinators, and produces a highly durable dense wood ideal for fence posts useable for up to 50 year.

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