New Underutilized Crops

 "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its [agri]culture."

- Thomas Jefferson
(see Jefferson Inst. for more on this)

Increasing our prospects for survival and thrival depends upon expanding our sustenance possibilities - the options that each food-fuel species, variety and production system represents.  Every food and fuel plant, animal, and fungus species (and variety) represent options for enhancing the fitness between humans and their environment. 

Rice Paddies in Vermont at Whole Systems Design Mad River Valley

The development of this cornucopia allows us to expand the length of our growing season, the range and density of our nutrition and the variety of our fuel sources.  Taken as a whole this expanding diversity allows us to increase the resilience of the human ecosystem (permaculture) and its ability to cope with change.  The work of plant and animal breeders throughout time has dwindled in the face of industrial, simplifying agriculture.  For instance, we now have less than 1% of the wheat varieties that past cultures in North America once cultivated and used.  There have been over 7,000 named varieties of apple; today we typically choose from less than 10. 

Wine cap stropharia mushrooms growing on wood chips in our fruit tree groves:

 Shiitake mushrooms At the Whole Systems Research Farm, Vermont

Our land development work involves the planting of crops typically cultivated in neighboring climate zones (such as sweet cherries grown in MA and planted in VT) as well as high diversity plantings to allow for hybridization and the emergence of new varieties that are more fit to the environment of the site they are growing in.  Both of these strategies are designing for climate change as well as for the fragility and changing nature of existing economic, social and ecological systems.

We are actively involved in testing of more than 30 underutilized cold hardy crops that could represent new options for inhabiting zone 3-6 climates.  Thus far the results have been positive and we are beginning to eat fruits such as seaberry and mushrooms such as stropharia in abundance.  These are not the kinds of foods the grocery store or even niche-market retail outlets will be selling anytime soon, but they are two examples of innumerable possibilities.  Let us remember that the foods we eat today are an inheritance passed down to us by the ecosystem directors and plant/animal breeders of the past.  The people who developed the culinary cornucopia of the past were for the most part curious and ingenious non-professional horticulturists and home-scale gardeners and farmers not corporate botanists and chemists. We can carry on this work of increasing the options for and fitness between our species and the larger life community.

Our approach involves, in part, woody agriculture as articulated here by the great group of eco-agricultural pioneers at Badgersett Research Farm in Minnesota.  For more go to: 

What is Woody Agriculture?
by Badgersett Research Farm

Woody Agriculture refers to the intensive production of agricultural staple commodities from highly domesticated woody perennial plants. It differs from agroforestry in that no annual crops are grown, and thus little or no tillage is performed. Permanent stands of the woody crop are established and seeds are harvested annually. Once every 5-10 years the wood is harvested for biomass by coppicing, whereupon the plants regenerate from the roots and resume production of the food crop one year later.
Advantages of a woody agricultural system

The concept has been developed at Badgersett Research Farm during the past 20 years. Data on yields of specific crops indicate commercialization is now possible. No commercial scale Woody Agriculture planting yet exists. This is the next step necessary to make the tremendous environmental advantages of this cropping system available to farmers.

Advantages include:

Decreased Erosion
No tillage following establishment, hence vastly decreased erosion and energy requirements.

Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency
Woody plants are intrinsically more effective at capturing light than annual plants, and can capture 3 times more solar energy per year, which can be used by the plant to make seed or wood. This photosynthetic efficiency means agricultural woody plants, if used on a very large scale, could reverse present global increases in CO2, and possibly global warming.

Diversification of Agriculture
The more species that are involved in food production, the more easily the food system can withstand momentary failures of any particular crop due to disease, drought, flood, or natural disasters.

Drought Resistance & Flood Tolerance
The deep permanent root systems of the crop plants are very insensitive to mild droughts or short term flooding, both of which can cause drastic or total crop losses in annual species.

Reduced Chemical Runoff
The deep root system will also much more effectively capture any necessary fertilizers, resulting both in reduced cost to the farmer and greatly reduced (or no) fertilizer runoff.
Greatly increased biodiversity of fields through the provision of habitat for a variety of animals and other plants.

Accessibility to Mainstream Agriculture
From the outset, plants chosen for development have been designed to produce crops for existing markets, using technology that can and will be adopted by mainstream agriculture; this will make the benefits of the system available to the largest number of farmers, greatly increasing potential beneficial impact.