EDGERTON — Before former Edgerton teacher Irene Silverwood died in 2003, she donated her 300-acre farm in southeast Dane County to the county, requiring that the land remain in agricultural use, as well as provide recreation and educational opportunities for the community. Her husband, Russell, was a former member of the Dane County Board and was also a farmer; his father, George H. Silverwood Jr., was a farmer too, originally purchasing the farm in 1902.
Today, Friends of Silverwood Park, a nonprofit organization dedicated to development and maintenance of the park, works hard to make Silverwood’s requests reality, approving a master plan in 2016 that includes an educational center, horse and hiking trails, greenhouses and a visitor center created from the restored 19th century Silverwood house in the center of the farmstead. Area students and adults visit to learn and enjoy its beauty, with several farmers also using the more than 230 acres of tillable land available at the farm.
Recently, another educational piece was added to the park with the establishment of the Silverwood Demonstration Farm, the first public agroforestry demonstration project in Wisconsin. Members of the Friends group, the Savanna Institute and community volunteers celebrated its beginning on May 11 with a late Arbor Day celebration and the planting of about 40 edible fruit and nut trees and shrubs in the farm’s new Tasting Orchard.
“Agroforestry is the five-dollar word today,” said Keefe Keeley of the Savanna Institute, another nonprofit organization that has partnered with the Friends group to lay the groundwork for widespread agroforestry in the Midwest.
Agroforestry is the combining of trees and agriculture to enhance long-term production of food and other useful products while protecting soil and water, diversifying and expanding local economies, providing wildlife habitat and ensuring a more pleasing and healthy place to work and live.
“It’s agriculture plus forestry, integrating trees with crops and pastured livestock,” Keeley said. “It’s also a way conservation can be accomplished in productive agriculture systems.”
While not widely practiced in Wisconsin or the Midwest quite yet, agroforestry is used widely in other parts of the world. There is also quite a bit of research on forestry, which can help advance the practices of agroforestry.
“Forestry has been, in many ways, ahead of agriculture,” Keeley said. “And we’re looking to bring those lessons into agriculture.
“But we do have a little catching up to do.”
On the Silverwood Demonstration Farm, a specific type of agroforestry practice will be used called alley cropping, where agricultural crops are grown in the alleyways between widely spaced rows of woody plants. There are unlimited planting combinations for alley cropping, but common examples in the Midwest include wheat, corn, soybeans or hay planted between rows of black walnut or pecan trees. Non-commodity or value-added crops such as sunflowers or medicinal herbs can also be planted between rows of trees, adding to the unlimited planting possibilities.
At Silverwood, 15 to 18 acres at the front of the park have been dedicated to alley cropping, with the Savanna Institute assisting in the planting of three different tree combinations. The first combination features black walnut and a hybrid poplar, with the trees alternating every other in the line to encourage them to grow straight and tall, Keeley said.
The second tree combination planted features chestnut interplanted with elderberry shrubs, a selection that allows the harvest of berries after three years. Keeley hopes that in planting the chestnut trees, the organizations can demonstrate that it can be a viable crop in Wisconsin; he also has been working with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection on an elderberry project, looking into growing practices and developing markets for this crop.
A third combination at Silverwood Park includes shrub crops, primarily black currant, which can be managed and harvested mechanically.
“It’s a great start for the potential at Silverwood County Park,” Keeley said. “It’s fun to imagine where it’ll be 10, 15 or 30 years from now.”
A Tasting Orchard has also been planted near the park’s gravel parking lot, so it’s easily visible and accessible to visitors. The 40 species planted will serve as a living library of fruit and nut crops, providing an invaluable educational resource for production growers and home gardeners, and will eventually provide tasting opportunities for park visitors.
Still in the planning stage is the planting of a riparian buffer in a fairly wet field that slopes near Rice Lake on the farm’s property. Edible crops, such as trees and shrubs, will be planted there in 2020, according to the plan.
Mark Doudlah of Doudlah Farms Organics is the current lessee on the agroforestry demonstration site and will be planting crops in the 80 feet of space between the lines of trees. This was planned to ensure his harvesting equipment will be able to pass through without damaging the tree crop.
“It can be an added challenge but it can be tackled with planning,” Keeley said. “Intensive planning leads to the success of a project.”
It also helps to think long term and beyond lifetimes, even though it may be hard to think that far ahead.
“It’s really been beneficial for me to see people take a long-term view,” said Kyle Richmond, a member of the Friends of Silverwood Park and the Dane County Board. “I think Irene (Silverwood) would be surprised by some of this but would also be happy too as the land won’t be turned into condos or development.”
Silverwood County Park and Demonstration Farm is located at 771 Silver Lane, Edgerton. For more information on the park, visit silverwoodpark.org.