We are very excited to announce that the Regenerative Design Group (RDG) has been awarded a $15,000 SARE Partnership Grant for a collaboration with Sawmill Herb Farm and Grow Food Northampton! With this grant, Sawmill Herb Farm will establish an orchard of 384 elderberry bushes in the 10-year floodplain of the Mill River in Florence, and RDG will take the lead in system design, monitoring, data collection and analysis, reporting, and dissemination. Grow Food Northampton is providing access to affordable land, water, a tractor, and other resources, as well as convening regular partnership meetings.
This project is part of a larger collaborative effort among the three partners to develop a robust and resilient model of Productive Conservation on our land that can be adapted by others in our region. If an affordable establishment method has proven success, and if the market for elder products proves attractive at scale (which Sawmill is well positioned to test due to their strong position in the market for fresh and value-added herbal products), the results of this research could benefit countless farms that own low-lying riverfront land and need to balance environmental stewardship with economic demands.
One goal of this project is to determine the most successful method of establishing an elderberry orchard in an existing crop field or pasture that minimizes labor and other costs and will not over-burden a farmer. In order to determine this method we will:
- Till a section of riverside field, allow weeds to germinate, and repeat several times in a process known as “stalebedding.” This will help deplete the weed seed bank, and give the elderberries a head start.
- Following a careful experimental design, establish 12 blocks within the one-acre field and apply one of four cover cropping treatments in the repetitions. The first will be a low-growing, perennial clover mix intended to smother weeds and fix nitrogen in the soil without competing against the elders. The second will be an “herbal groundcover” mix designed by Susan Pincus at Sawmill Herb Farm to smother weeds while also providing some economic yield for the farm. The third method will use a mix of perennial grasses to create a high-competition condition for the elderberries, while providing persistent soil coverage for erosion control. The final treatment will be a plant-based plastic mulch. Each treatment has pros and cons with regard to labor requirements, cost, environmental impact, and competition with the elderberry crop.
- Plant rooted elderberry cuttings in evenly spaced rows in a pattern that controls for variations of microclimate in the field. All other variables (irrigation, fertilization, location in field, solar exposure, etc) will also be controlled across the experiment.
Each of the cover crops will be rotated through four different maintenance regimes: hand cultivation, mowing, bio-plastic, or sheer neglect. The neglect approach will provide a realistic understanding of what will happen if a farmer is too busy and unable to manage competition from other weeds.
We are looking forward to seeing how the project plays out over multiple growing seasons. This project is an exciting step in finding new ways of building resiliency into our landscapes and agricultural economy. Stay tuned, as we will continue to update as this exciting new project progresses!