Regenerative Ag Alliance promotes stream health through agroforestry

The Alliance planted an initial 250 trees at New Bolton Center with assistance from volunteers and students from Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine and the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

A few dozen enthusiastic students arrived at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center campus in Kennett Square this fall, ready to transform a portion of the rural landscape. Their efforts set the stage for a more-sustainable farming model.

New trees planted in a field.
Image: Courtesy of the Environmental Innovations Initiative

The Penn Regenerative Ag Alliance, one of the Environmental Innovations Initiative’s research communities, is embarking on this journey as part of a larger project recently funded by the William Penn Foundation. Crossing disciplinary silos, Alliance leader Thomas Parsons, director of Penn Vet’s Center for Stewardship Agriculture and Food Security, and Ellen Neises, executive director of Penn Praxis at the Weitzman School of Design, joined forces with a team from the Stroud Water Research Center. They used principles of agroforestry to design a land-use plan that aims to both protect the local watershed and breathe new life into fallow land by combining the planting of trees and shrubs with grazing of marginal farm ground. A major goal was to help improve the water quality and health of the White Clay Creek, as its headwaters reside on the New Bolton Center campus, but also develop new “win-win” models of animal agriculture that provide both economic benefits and ecological services.

Over the summer, Elliot Bullen, project manager, and two Penn Praxis fellows began a spatial analysis to assess suitable species for the landscape design of a 20-acre rotational grazing system for ruminants. The initial plant list focused on native tree and shrub species that might provide benefits such as food or shelter for animals. Penn Vet experts helped narrow the choices by eliminating species that might pose a risk to animals living within this agroforestry system. For instance, a honey locust tree will provide cows dappled shade in the warmer months and in the fall as pasture grasses become dormant, and drop pods that provide a supplemental food source to the animals. However, the team needed to find honey locust varieties that are thornless, as the more common thorned varieties could pose a challenge for operating farm equipment and to the cows themselves.

This story is by Xime Trujillo. Read more at the Environmental Innovations Initiative.