By Virginia Baldwin Gilbert
Of The Post-Dispatch

May 29, 2000

The world needs more land planted in trees, and less in wheat or soybeans, say agroforesters such as H.E. "Gene" Garrett.

Garrett, 61, has spent the last 25 years directing the agroforestry program at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His program's aim is to support the small family farm and to advance techniques for combining farming and tree planting that make sense economically as well as environmentally.

When Garrett started, "Farmers would say, 'My father and grandfather spent their lives taking trees off the farm. I'm not going to put them back again.' "

But interest in sustainable agriculture and a breakthrough in methods for growing trees faster are changing those attitudes. That, and a surplus in the industrialized markets of most farm commodities.

One commodity in short supply, notes Hugh K. Steavenson of Forrest Keeling Nursery, is timber.

"There's a demand worldwide for timber products. At the same time, a lot of countries are taking away harvesting rights on government-controlled land," Steavenson said.

Meanwhile, land planted in row crops could be used for forestry.

"We've got the land. Now we have the technology that will allow land owners to see a return within their lifetime," Steavenson said.

Earlier this month, Garrett and Steavenson showed visitors test fields on a farm near Troy, Mo., where they are demonstrating various methods.

Under a hot May sun, the men looked at rows of eight-foot swamp oak saplings and brainstormed some ways to combine trees and farming.

For instance, trees can be planted in wildlife "alleyways" -- two to four trees across -- between soybean fields. As the trees grow and cast shade, the fields can be switched to such shade-loving plants as blueberries, Garrett said. The deep shade at the base of the trees might provide a good spot for gourmet mushrooms.

Or the fields between the trees can be planted in pasture, and the shady areas sown with other plants that cattle like, said Ken Dalrymple, wildlife management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

If farmers use techniques to support wildlife in forested areas of their land, they can make money off commercial hunting leases, Dalrymple suggested. Acorns commonly make up 60 percent of the diet of deer and wild turkeys, he said.

"If a landowner is up in years and wants to do something different in, say five years, we can set up the space between rows that would give him five more years of conventional farming and then switch to something else -- walnuts, chestnuts, pecans," Garrett said.

The point is to plan the transition, Garrett said. If a farmer wants to sell timber of veneer quality -- which brings a per-tree price several times that of ordinary lumber -- he or she must take care of the seedlings from the day they're put in the ground.

"The overall concept is that farmers can continue to grow 80 percent of their land area in a cash crop, so they have income while they're converting to forestry," Steavenson said.