What’s a sugar maple tree have to do with raising animals on pasture? A lot, as it turns out.
Trees play a major role on our farm — they provide food, shade, beauty, and more — and we’re planting more all the time. In fact, we’re planting right now. This month, we want to pause and share what trees offer a diverse family farm.
Last weekend, we had a heavy frost — and yesterday (April 30), two days later, it was above 80 degrees. That’s quite an adjustment for our sheep. We raise Katahdins. They are “hair” sheep — a breed that sheds their wool naturally. The only problem is that they don’t shed all at once, and they still have some of their winter coats.
We move our sheep (and all of our animals) to new parts of the pasture every day or so. We’ve built a mobile shade shelter on wheels that two people can push to the next paddock for shade. They utilize the shade shelter, but they’re clearly happier when their paddock includes trees and real shade. We like working in the shady paddocks, too. We’re planting more trees in our current pasture and our new pasture to add more shade for the future!
Show me a Hoosier who doesn’t like persimmon pudding (or at least the whipping cream that goes with it), and I’ll be surprised. We’ve learned that our pigs also like persimmons (they are almost pure sugar, so we shouldn’t have been surprised). We’ve planted about 400 native persimmons into our current pasture for future pig food.
We’ve also planted elderberry (for tinctures during flu-season), and we tap our sugar maple trees (for maple syrup). These products aren’t something we’ll sell anytime soon: we just don’t have enough elderberry plants or sugar maple trees. But that’s okay. Growing things just for fun and for ourselves is a good reminder that a diverse family farm isn’t solely about generating income.
That said, we have to generate income of most of our crops, of course, and trees are a part of our long term plan for success.
Next year, we hope to plant about 100 “cultivars” (varieties that have been bred for commercial production) in our new pasture. We hope that, in about 10 years, we’ll have a marketable product that we can sell. Indiana is unique in that we’re the only state with an abundance of persimmon processors — that’s folks with the equipment to process whole persimmons into pulp in bulk. We’ve used hand mills to separate the seeds for years, but to sell 100 trees worth of persimmons requires equipment and demand. We’re excited that Indiana offers both.
We’re also starting to plant more elderberries. We hope to sell to winemakers or folks making health products. Elderberries grow quickly, so we can have our first crop after just a year or two.
We have a few other ideas up our sleeves, but we’ll get to that another day. The moral of the story is that the potential income from trees is another way that we can make wise use of our land, and it’s complimentary to our livestock business.
Last but certainly not least, our trees provide beauty. The changing colors, the birds singing from their branches — there’s an endless list of why we value having trees on our farm. They make this farm a refuge and a joy: a place where we raise food and make our living — but also a place where we make our life.