As nut orchards grow in popularity, farmers are looking for innovative ways to generate income and improve soil health as their trees mature. This has prompted many to diversify their plantings through alley cropping, an agroforestry practice where crops are grown in the alleyways between spaced rows of woody plants or trees.

Badger Johnson of The Southern Ohio Chestnut Company, employs alley cropping as an annual income source while young Chinese Chestnut trees develop. The 25 acre operation in New Marshfield, Ohio plans to have 2,000 trees in the ground by the end of 2022, but it will be 10 or more years before the nuts will be harvestable. By using available space between trees, the practice can supply annual returns, benefit soil and crop health, and provide a more diverse wildlife habitat on the farm.

In an interview with the USDA National Agroforestry Center, Johnson said that the technique, if properly implemented, can also contribute to long-term environmental benefits.

“Trees and the strip of sod in the row can absorb any fertilizer runoff from the alley crop,” said Badger. “This protects the watershed from pollution while supporting tree growth.”

Given the additional economic incentives of the technique, Johnson is hopeful that alley cropping will catch on amongst orchardists and sees the practice as “part of an intentional strategy towards sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty.”