When you think of Italian food, what pictures come to mind? Scrumptious spaghetti. Luscious lasagna. Perfect pizzas. What do they all have in common, other than the ability to send you into a carb-induced coma after a heavy lunch on a hot day? Tomatoes. They all use tomatoes.
When Julius Caesar wanted something to go with his salads, did he choose pizza? When Nero drizzled a sauce over his pasta at the palace buffet-line, did he choose the rich, red Bolognese? Of course not, because tomatoes didn’t arrive in Italy until the discovery of the Americas. Once they did arrive, tomatoes launched a culinary revolution in Italy. They gave top chefs and everyday cooks options and combinations and ingredients they never could have dreamed of. Their dishes become more creative, more flavorful, more festive. The tomato changed Italian food forever.
Silvopasture is at once older than farming itself, and yet a novel part of American agriculture. Since people started herding cattle, they have been managing the interactions between livestock and forages and trees. Those herders developed traditions that can still be found today.
Yet in the context of grass-fed livestock in the United States of 2020, adding trees to a pasture is pretty much unheard of. Folks like Greg Judy have for years been educating us on the benefit of selectively thinning existing woods to create silvopasture, but planting trees? It’s just not done.
Thankfully, this isn’t exactly rocket science, and we’re learning it’s not terribly complicated to get trees established in a working pasture. (Here’s how it’s done.)
This little act, planting a tree in a working pasture, is revolutionary. Just like when the first Italian cook dropped some tomatoes in a stew pot, we are at a place in time where new opportunities, new combinations and new mixtures are becoming possible. Now a thoughtful grazier has not only grasses and forbs and legumes to create a regenerative ecosystem, but also all manner of trees. Trees that fix nitrogen. Trees that drop rich fruit or high-energy pods for winter feed. Trees that slow howling winter winds to a crawl. Trees that provide just the right levels of dappled shade. Trees that grow fast to create quick shade, and trees that will be around for hundreds of years. Trees that can provide supplemental leaf fodder in the summer, and trees whose leaves contain otherwise scarce nutrients. Trees that yield rare fruits to draw in customers. Chestnut trees that bear the perennial answer to corn. Trees that yield long-lasting fenceposts in a decade, and trees that could produce high-quality veneer in a century.
There are at this point few recipes, few prescriptions for how to use trees in pastures. Outside of pine plantations in the southeast, there are few widespread methods of systematically combining livestock, forages and trees in North America. Each steward will do so with their own twist, selecting layouts and trees and combinations that fit their goals, their land, and their circumstances.
My wife, her mom, and her grandma all use slightly different recipes when cooking up a batch of spaghetti sauce. But each one is heavenly.
Here’s more on what pasture trees can do for you.