Posted May 10, 2023 at 10:52am by Kelly Dolan

Valley Clayplain Forest Farm: Permaculture-inspired agroforestry


By Sydney Blume

Each month, Farm to Plate will be featuring stories of Vermont farmers using agroforestry related practices. These stories and related mapping project were created by recent UVM Food System's graduate Sydney Blume in collaboration with Farm to Plate's Agroforestry Priority Strategy Team. To see other featured stories, visit the Vermont Agroforestry Storytelling Map.

It was the first day of spring, and though a wintry wind whipped strongly, the snow-covered and sun-drenched valley still felt warm for the season. Accompanied by two energetic dogs close at heel, Mark Krawczyk passed through the high tunnel, settled a fresh log on a table, and began drilling holes. With a nifty handheld device, he filled each drilled hole with mushroom spawn and a small foam cap in one swift motion. Today, this action was just for demonstration, but plugging mushroom logs is one of Mark’s main winter activities at Valley Clayplain Forest Farm. Come spring, inoculated logs from the previous year will be soaked in water stimulating a flush of shiitake mushrooms in the next week or two. With more than 1200 logs, this enables Mark to harvest mushrooms throughout the growing season, a welcome complement to a growing black currant production and diversified food-producing shelterbelt. 

Earlier, Mark shared his agroforestry story from the sunny living room couch of his shockingly warm passive-solar heated home. Mark grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, without “any realland based experience.” It wasn’t until his first year of college at UVM in an Environmental Studies class that he became aware of environmental issues and was inspired to work to address them. He says, “that was this very activating experience for me, just because I was astonished at the reality of the state of affairs globally. And there were a bunch of self-sufficiency and reskilling kinds of programs that they had there. So I started going down that track.”

This path brought Mark to an exploration of alternative living. Mark traveled to Auroville in India, said to be the largest intentional community in the world and an “experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness.” Here, Mark first learned about permaculture design. Mark says, “permaculture really spoke to me, and I started pursuing that. But I had very little experience with growing food, or just any kind of land interaction, building, craft, and things. So when I finished school, I basically just did work trades and internships, and found people that were doing things I was interested in and tried to learn from them.” From this applied education, he was ready to put his learning into practice on his own homestead. 

Mark moved back to Vermont inspired by a homesteading vision. Eight years later (in 2012), he found the place he and his family now call home. Mark bought the land and met his future wife, Ammy, three months later. As he says, “we've been able to build this from the ground up together.” Valley Clayplain Forest Farm, named so because it describes the natural community once ubiquitious throughout the Champlain Valley, has been a practice in “building a long standing relationship with a piece of the earth, trying to be a producer, while supporting community needs.” 

From the start, though, Mark was committed to agroforestry. “We didn't come into this wanting to be farmers in the “farming” sense, but we wanted to try to both meet our needs as much as possible and also look for some enterprises so that we can be here and feed people. It had kind of become the life dream. Landing here, the vision was to create this three dimensional food foresty landscape.” For Mark, agroforestry “was the only way I was interested in doing it. . . if you're interested in growing perennials at all, it's like, unless you're completely ignoring the opportunities in between, it becomes agroforestry to a degree. So partly, it was just personal interest and a drive to do that. And then also, it's a bit of a byproduct of the specific crops.” Furthermore, adopting agroforestry was also about the multitude of benefits of having trees on the land. Valley Clayplain Forest Farm is “very exposed . . . so there's a lot of benefits to having trees just for wind protection, and also for screening from the road, and then there's firewood and craft materials and food. And there’s the accrual of biomass and diversifying the land.” 

Mark originally discovered agroforestry through permaculture design. Mark shared that “agroforestry always seemed to [him] to be just the farm scale expression of what a lot of people think of as permaculture.” Since permaculture is more of a holistic vision that leverages “design to create culture that can be sustained in perpetuity,” when it looks to agriculture, it emphasizes the use of perennial plants. Essentially, “permaculture’s vision of food production is agroforestry” because of its inclusion of perennials, trees, shrubs, and animals. 

However, the permaculture vision of agriculture and agroforestry do differ in some ways. One of Mark’s mentors, Colorado-based Jerome Osentowski, was an early promoter of forest gardening and food forests and drew heavily from experiences with agroforestry in Central America. “A lot of people think the permaculture vision of agroforestry is a working forest full of all kinds of useful plants that aren’t necessarily in rows, [but is] more of a discovery process in the garden. And to me, agroforestry is usually more linear. It's better suited to mechanization.” In addition to the five USDA-recognized agroforestry practices (silvopasture, alley cropping, wind breaks, riparian buffers, and forest farming), Mark considers a few other practices as agroforestry, too. Home gardens, for example, are “usually smaller scale, and much more complex, but because of that, they don’t lend themselves well to scale.”

Mark was always interested in adopting a permaculture-style agroforestry system, but though the “vision’s been consistent, it's also evolved.” True to his permaculture background, Mark has been engaged in observing the landscape and how different species have interacted and thrived (or not) to shape the practices. As he says, “it wasn't necessarily that we started here and decided that we're gonna grow mushrooms and black currants, it was more like, we're gonna plant a lot of things and see what happens. And maybe there'll be some enterprises that emerge from it. So it was kind of a more convoluted farming story.” 

This “convoluted farming story” started out with seeing problems as an opportunity, one key permaculture principle. Valley Clayplain Farm is located directly off of Route 7 – a bustling motorway that most people might not consider to be not a part of an idyllic rural landscape. But in Mark’s permaculture perspective “it makes an easy design solution, which is just putting a [bunch] of trees on the road.” The first planting year at the farm, Mark and Ammy planted a highly diverse 30-foot wide shelterbelt alongside the highway. Always thoughtful, Mark gave three reasons for this initial planting. For one, “it's always very safe to plant along edges since you're not boxing yourself in in open spaces.” Two, trees take time to grow, so getting Route 7 to disappear as quickly as possible was a good place to start. And three, a diverse shelterbelt gave Mark the opportunity to see what species grew well on the land. Since then, every successive planting has taken these successes and challenges into account.

The following season , Mark and Ammy planted a third of an acre of berries with the idea that “berries are a faster return on investment than fruit trees or nuts.” From this planting, Mark says, “that's where the black currants kind of found us as a crop.” This installation included white, red, black, and pink currants, gooseberries, honeyberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, all with “varying degrees of success.” The black currants “had no issues with wildlife” while rodent girdling and rabbit browse caused significant damage to many of the other young plants. Additionally, black currants, are a very nutrient-dense berry, and like other members of the Ribes genus (currants and gooseberries), are easily propagated.. 

Their focus on black currants, then, was a result of listening to the land and emphasizing what was already working well. In comparison, the “blueberries never looked as good as they did the day they arrived from the nursery.” They didn’t like the near-neutral pH soils and the rabbits broswsed them hard in the winter. Mark admits that he could have amended the soil or better protected them, but why put in so much effort when black currants would thrive with little intervention? As Mark puts it, “instead of trying to put all this energy into transforming where you are, it's probably a lot better to just find things that do well.” And once again, as an added bonus, Mark says, “they're very easy to propagate. So we never really bought any new plants except for a few new varieties.” 

Their emphasis on shiitake mushrooms also arose from a confluence of opportunity. Mark began to sustainably manage the farm’s woodlot, harvesting logs that are a perfect substrate for growing mushrooms. Also, he was excited to have something “to complement the fruit that was more protein-based.” And further, “seasonally, it often works out nicely because the wood harvest and inoculation work is in the off-season.” Mark and Ammy started producing mushroom logs around the same time as the berries and have been steadily expanding ever since. 

With such intentionally opportunistic approaches to black currants and shiitake production, new challenges arose in the harvesting and marketing of new products. Perennial plants specifically pose a unique marketing challenge. Unlike annual crops that produce a crop the very year you plant them, with berries, “you've got at least three or four years before they're at peak production, so it's hard to forecast what the yield is going to be.” At the first harvest, without knowing how much fruit will be produced, planning for wholesale sales can be challenging. But now, they have a much better handle on their seasonal production totals and can be more strategic about how much to wholesale and how much they keep for value-added products. 

A key product for Valley Clayplain Farm is a black currant oxymel made from raw apple cider vinegar, local honey, and fresh pressed black currant juice. Of course, production and marketing introduces its own set of challenges. For one, Mark says, “it's tough, because it's not really our vision to be juice makers.” Additionally, Mark says, “we've still got a lot of work to do to build a more reliable customer base.” So far, direct sales have been quite successful, like at the Burlington Farmers’ Market. Mark says the markets are helpful because it really helps when people are able to sample these types of unique new products. In addition to the market, they’ve built good relationships with several local restaurants and a few small wholesale accounts. And yet, Mark says they could produce more than they are currently selling.

Expanding to more markets adds unique challenges in the niche agroforestry product world. Mark says, “the other challenge with some of these things is [that since] we’re one of only a handful of folks in the area that are growing currants around here, we don't want to step on anyone's toes [by] tapping into their markets. But at the same time. . . there's 8 million mouths within a five hour drive, so there's no shortage of potential. Reaching people – that's the challenge.” Mark acknowledges that to expand and sell more of the black currant bounty, they need more marketing. For two people who grow food from their passion for permaculture and agroforestry, neither of them are inspired by that side of the operation. While at this point, they basically can sell all the shiitake they can grow, they intend to continue to improve their fresh and value-added retail and wholesale black currant sales with better marketing. “We've got a really nice foundation set for that. Hopefully, we can just keep that going.”

While marketing is the next frontier of experimentation and development, the earliest experiments are bearing fruit – in more ways than one. Already, Mark has seen the impacts of the shelterbelt that was planted back in 2013 . While they chose their land because of all the sun exposure, all that sun can get “pretty draining in the summer for people, animals and crops too.” With the shelterbelt now 10 years in, “there's pockets of respite that are starting to close in where you can go and get some protection [from the sun].” Though he’s yet to seek to quantify the benefits of trees integrated into their agricultural landscape, intuitively, they’ve helped to stabilize soils, support water infiltration, sequester carbon, provide habitat, and block sun, snow, and winds. 

Some of the most powerful impacts of this work, though, have been in Mark’s own experience of living and working on the land. In doing the work that has been Mark’s “personal vision” since he was 19 years old, he says it’s impactful “to get to see the fruits of your labor and learn and engage.” This personal experience on the land has been “the biggest yield” of the farm. 

Besides the black currant and shiitake production, they’ve also installed about two thirds of an acre of black locust that he intends to manage by coppicing – a practice of cutting down a tree to near-ground so that it will re-grow shoots from its strong, deep-rooted base. He’s recently published a book on the practice, Coppice Agroforestry, and also teaches workshops on the practice. He also teaches Permaculture Design courses, chair-making, and pizza-oven building. Clearly, Mark’s work in diversification extends beyond the landscape.

Mark’s passionate work in agroforestry education and his vision for transforming his own land is just one piece of a broader agricultural transformation. As Mark reminds us, too, this kind of transformation is a reclamation. “It hasn't been that long that trees have been removed from agricultural landscapes . . . [agroforestry] is the way that humans have grown food throughout time, up until perhaps 200 years ago. So it's not anything new – it's basically just a modern reinterpretation of the way that people have found of tending to a place and meeting their needs.” Planting trees into agricultural landscapes has some financial costs, but Mark says that if well designed, “the benefits far outweigh whatever complications there may be [because] there's tons of opportunities to generate additional value - both economic and ecological.” Mark’s path started in that environmental studies class years ago, learning about the world’s tragic environmental crises, and now, he’s working on being a part of that transformation. With an optimistic view, Mark says, “you know, that's kind of the benefit of being in a broken food system – there's a lot of low hanging fruit out there.”