Silvopasture creates symbiosis between land and animals: Meadowfed Lamb at Preservation Orchard in North Hadley on the cutting edge of sustainable farming

By EVELINE MACDOUGALL

For the Recorder

Published: 07-31-2023 2:17 PM

Rachel Haas and Matt Kaminsky began dating in 2014 while studying fiber arts and apple cultivation, respectively, at Hampshire College. The couple knew early on – given Haas’s affinity for sheep – that their specialties could interconnect in a practice known as silvopasture.

A decade later, Haas and Kaminsky now live in Sunderland and participate in a thriving North Hadley farming collective. Their venture, Meadowfed Lamb, operates within Preservation Orchard, which is owned by Jonathan Carr and Nicole Blum, co-founders of Carr’s Ciderhouse. In collaborating with local agriculturalists, Haas and Kaminsky pursue symbiotic practices leading to wondrous, healthful outcomes.

The term silvopasture derives from ”silva,” the Latin word for forest. ”Silvopasture combines raising livestock with growing fruit or nut trees,” said Kaminsky. “In our case, sheep and chickens graze in the understory of apple trees.” Haas added that she and Kaminsky are “obsessed with silvopasture. It has a dynamic, centuries-old history all over the world, and makes profound sense for everyone involved – animals, trees and humans.”

Haas’s college studies revolved around studio art, including quilting and other fiber arts. “I always wanted to work with sheep,” she said. “I was a tactile, sensory based kid, and sheep made sense to me as an animal.” She grew up in a Boston suburb, gardening and loving animals, and after attending a farm camp, she knew she wanted to work with sheep. “But I didn’t have access to actual farming until I moved to western Mass.”

In their five years at Carr’s Ciderhouse and Preservation Orchard, Haas and Kaminsky have expanded beyond raising a breed called Finnsheep for wool and meat; they’ve added chickens – layers and meat birds – and cultivate blueberries, all of which are sold at the Carr’s farm shop at 295 River Drive on Hadley’s Route 47. The shop, which also features cider-related products, is managed by the owners’ daughter, Ava Blum-Carr, who grows produce to sell there, as well.

Ava’s younger brother, Harry Blum-Carr, has grown into a tall fellow since being depicted as a young boy in a video titled “First Press.” Viewable on the Carr’s Ciderhouse website, the two-minute, wordless film shows the whole family making small-batch, naturally-made hard cider. The video’s soundtrack features a simple tune played on a slightly out-of-tune piano, adding to the charm that interweaves with obvious hard work.

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Kaminsky began working at Carr’s as an apple guy. “Rachel and I started our current project out of an awesome opportunity that came our way. Jonathan and Nicole needed help managing the 38-acre orchard, yet none of us wanted a conventional employment structure. We devised an alternative model, more like a cooperatively run farm.” The Carr-Blums own the property, but others help keep it going. The project also includes beekeeping under the auspices of Pioneer Valley Apiaries.

“We bought the place in 2002 and started the orchard in 2006,” said Jonathan Carr, who always felt drawn to farming. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, but all of my grandparents were connected to the land. My father’s parents had a small farm in Ireland.” Carr is grateful to the APR program (Agricultural Preservation Restriction), which offers non-development alternatives to farmers. “We were able to get a reasonable price on this land.”

The Carr-Blums started selling to the public in 2012. “It was strictly hard cider at first,” said Carr, “but we branched out. I met Matt Kaminsky through the hard cider world, and discovered shared interests like grazing and silvopasture.” Carr and Blum had raised sheep, but gave it up due to too many other demands. “Now that Matt and Rachel are raising animals here, we don’t need to mow as much, soil fertility has increased, and animals eat the drops. The partnership is mutually beneficial.”

Carr hopes to diversify the orchard to include other fruits, nuts and berries. In the meantime, Kaminsky expounds the benefits of silvopasture. “Not only does it keep grass and vegetation down, it provides windbreak and shade for animals, reducing water consumption. As they graze, animals deposit manure and fertilize the soil.” Apple trees are famously prone to insect damage, and animals can act as “pest management services,” said Kaminsky, explaining that sheep eat dropped fruit – including larvae tucked inside – while chickens snack on insects.

Kaminsky acknowledges debates surrounding meat production. “I understand the emphasis on resource conservation,” he said. “Water is a waning resource. But with silvopasture, animals aren’t baking in the sun on a treeless expanse, so less water is required, which is why silvopasture is expanding as a method of livestock production.”

He credits Haas for scientifically studying the question. “Rachel applied for a grant through the American Farmland Trust to track soil carbon measurements,” said Kaminsky. “It’s still unfolding, but looks promising.” The couple took baseline assessments in 2022, and they send composite soil samples from orchards and pastures to labs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Cornell University. “Rachel wanted numbers,” Kaminsky added. “There’s so much emphasis on the regenerative movement, but it’s important to ask whether a practice is merely greenwashing, or is there a true scientific basis?”

Haas said that “it’s important to diversify and expand in ways that benefit the property, to maximize flow and space. Farming has become more intense due to climate change, but silvopasture helps us manage wild spaces using symbiosis with wildlife and the ecosystem.” For example, Haas is enthusiastic about adding honey locust trees to their operation.

“We have to strategize about feeding animals,” said Haas. “As the climate gets more dramatic, hay becomes more challenging to produce. We aim to plant honey locust trees in a ledgy section of the property, because those trees produce sweet, jelly-filled seed pods sheep love to eat. The trees can also provide shade, establish root systems, and help with water retention.” Haas and Kaminsky extensively research trees that provide nutrition sources for animals. “Willows, mulberries, and other trees can provide fodder when branches are taken down to provide winter feed.”

Kaminsky sees a lot of money and scientific study going toward locking carbon in the soil, yet grand-scale tillage continues to cause significant topsoil loss. “With silvopasture, however, trees and animals each store carbon in different ways: trees through biomass, wood and roots, and animals by sequestering CO2 as they consume grass, clover and tree leaves, and turn it into manure. As they gently work manure into the topsoil, the carbon doesn’t get released back into the environment. So we’re making a difference early in the game.”

Kaminsky acknowledges that “more research is needed, but many studies show silvopasture to be the best performer in terms of carbon sequestration.”

Yet Haas cautions against trying to repeat precisely the same silvopasture methods everywhere. “We have to understand unique environments,” she said. “It’s not plug and play.”

Haas says she feels “incredibly grateful for and proud of what we’re doing. Our work gives me hope.” She admitted that “things feel pretty scary. Every year we’ve farmed, there have been so many challenges. But it seems like people are starting to embrace the need for change, including people with power and money. I think that could make a difference.”

To learn more about Haas and Kaminsky’s agricultural practices and where to find their products, visit meadowfedlamb.com. For information about Carr’s Ciderhouse, Preservation Orchard, the farm shop, or the cider garden, visit carrsciderhouse.com.

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and a gardener, artist, musician, and mom. Her family farms in Quebéc, now in their tenth generation on the same piece of land. eveline@amandlachorus.org.

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