-Badgersett Research Farm- Plantings, Projects, and Goals In: NNGA Annual Report, 1988 PHILIP A. RUTTER Badgersett Research Farm Canton, MN 55922
This paper has several purposes. We wish to explain more clearly and for the public record what Badgersett Research Farm is and is not; we also wish to expose the ideas and the projects we are undertaking on the Farm to the public eye, and seek the comments and advice of the members of the Northern Nut Growers Association. There is a vast wealth of expertise and experience represented in this organization that we would like to tap. We hope to hear your thoughts about the various projects and methods outlined here.
Badgersett Research Farm, firstly, is simply my wife Mary's and my farm: it is not a part of any other institution, and is not related to the University of Minnesota in any way, as several people have very flatteringly assumed, nor is it a part of The American Chestnut Foundation. My roles with the Foundation and the Farm are separate from one another. We do pursue serious research here, however, and while we are independent of any academic institutions, we have recently had one of our student research interns receive official college credit for work done on our projects.
The Farm is intended to function as a private, independent, horticultural research station, with several specific goals in mind, both long range and immediate.
The major long range goal is to pursue the domestication and development of woody perennial plants for agricultural purposes. It is not our intention to be satisfied just with finding new cultivars better than those currently available, for purposes of commercial production of luxury crops such as pecans and walnuts. We wish to begin to realize the potential of such species to become producers of staples. In order for that to happen, however, we feel that a basic change in philosophy is necessary, moving away from the searching of natural forests for interesting trees, and turning to intensive breeding with the specific intent of altering wild trees, which basically have no reason to produce large, regular crops for human use, into genuinely domesticated plants.
The primary reason for seeking such production of staples is our desire to provide viable alternatives to the current agricultural practices which require extensive tilling of the soil. Statistics on soil loss, water table damage, and environmental degradation are widely available, and will not be repeated here to an audience I am sure is quite familiar with them. Many of us feel that the health and stability of the Earth is intimately bound up with world agriculture, and that the current outlook is poor. J. Russell Smith, of course, pointed all this out years ago in his book Tree Crops , but progress towards use of woody plants for staples production has been almost nil. It is our opinion that "woodies" offer at least as good a chance of providing such production as the herbaceous perennials being pursued by Wes Jackson and the Land Institute, and we feel that with the application of current understandings of genetics we may be able to make enough progress in a relatively short time to generate more interest in serious development of the woody plants.
Having decided to run your own experiment station is not quite the same thing as being able to do it. An obvious question is how in the world can we afford such a project without a university to back us up? A great part of the labor and money we invest in our trees does not go into trees destined for production, but into trees grown only for evaluation purposes, that generate no cash. Our answer is that while such a goal is difficult, it is not impossible if one is willing to do without a few things. We tend to live rather low on the yuppie scale, and put our money into the work in the hope that someday we may be able to accomplish something worthwhile, and our efforts may make some return. Support for our "research habit" comes from several sources: the sale of Christmas trees, on a cut-your-own basis; part-time outside jobs; and rent of tillable acres not yet planted to trees. We also have an apple orchard coming on, which consists solely of cider apples, and we eventually will have hazels and chestnuts for sale as byproducts of the initial start-up plantings. Of course, when we get to the commercial demonstration projects, we intend that they will help support the research. We would gratefully like to acknowledge the fact that gifts from both sets of parents have certainly eased our way, although we would, and could, have persevered in any case.
So far, we haven't starved to death, possibly because of our large vegetable garden. Lately we have had to slow down some of our projects, because work for The American Chestnut Foundation, with which I am deeply concerned, has been taking up a great deal of my time, so some Badgersett projects have been laid aside for a while in order to get that going.
The soil that we have in our area of Minnesota is very rich, some of the best land in the world: but it is also very fragile. It came there as wind deposits during the glacial periods, and as the wind brought it there, the wind can also take it away, anytime it is exposed. Till it, and you are going to lose it, in the long run.
As an immediate goal, we want to develop trees that will grow where we are in southern Minnesota; crops with commercial potential, initially as luxury crops and eventually as staples. Beyond the development of such plants we also intend to have at Badgersett demonstration plantings of working commercial cropping procedures.
Badgersett Farm is a good site for such a development program: the soils are excellent, there is a good growing season, better than most people would expect it to have, but at the same time, by the standards of most of the country the climate tends to be extreme: it gets very cold in the winter and it also gets very hot in the summer. In between those two extremes, we have plenty of fine growing weather, adequate for good crops, as is demonstrated by the fact that Minnesota's agricultural yields always rank among the best in the country.
We recognize that this is a very ambitious goal. In such a situation, it is best to find out what others have accomplished, and to build on past labors. One of the first names we encountered in our own area was that of Carl Weschcke, who had a planting of many kinds of trees at River Falls, Wisconsin; he was the President of the Northern Nut Growers for more years than anyone else, and left behind him not only the trees, now neglected, but also a book outlining his experiences and opinions. His basic conclusion was that hybrid hazels and chestnuts might be the most promising trees for this region, and so we started investigating those trees on his recommendation. We still agree with it, after having delved into the possibilities further. Where we live in Minnesota, hazels were in fact one of the dominant plants, before the arrival of agriculture; and it strikes us that a plant which has so demonstrated its adaptedness ought to be a natural choice to investigate for crop potential.
While we expect that the hazels may become economically productive more quickly than the chestnuts, our feelings are that the chestnuts have a greater long range potential because of their basic biology; they seem to have a unique physiology, and all of their unusual characteristics seem to lend themselves to the possibility of domestication.
The operation at Badgersett is not heavily financed, (the word shoestring comes to mind) and is really only made possible by the advent of the small computer. With a much smaller amount of help than used to be necessary, we can keep track of many more things than was ever before imaginable. Serious science outside the university is what we are trying to do: we are convinced it is possible.
We have several rules we try to adhere to, which we have formulated in the hope that they will help us accomplish our goals.
First; we work on a very few species. There is a limited amount of time available to us in our lives, and we feel that if we simply grow everything that is interesting, we will probably not be able to make much real progress on anything. We are concentrating just on the hazels and chestnuts, although inevitably we have succumbed to the temptation of other species a little bit, and do have a few pecans, and some hickories. The priorities remain, however, and if there is care to be given, and not enough time for everything, the hazels and chestnuts get cared for first, and other plantings may have to fend for themselves.
Second; we attempt to search for desirable trees and traits by screening large numbers of seedlings, as many as possible. We have not included any of the available grafted clones in our parent stocks, primarily because there is almost no chance that anything now available will grow reliably here, but also because of a conviction that the state of chestnut clone selection is so rudimentary that we can probably come up with seedlings of our own that are equal to the best clones fairly quickly. Our basic choice of breeding strategy here is what is sometimes called "mass selection". Mass selection can be a useful technique for working with genetically complex traits, but to be effective it requires large numbers of seedlings. Exactly what "large" means is always a good question, but the probability is that "hundreds" may be too small, and "thousands" barely adequate. What this means is that we must plant as many seedlings as we can care for, grow them just long enough to begin to tell the good ones from the bad ones, and then get rid of the bad ones. Our official motto is:
KILL MORE TREES; AS FAST AS POSSIBLE.
While this may sound horrible to ears tuned to poems in praise of trees, in fact it is a sound and absolutely necessary doctrine for the improvement of tree crops. A researcher at the University of Minnesota tells me that in recent years there, in order to identify one new apple tree worth releasing to the public, they screen on the order of 22,000 seedlings (Dr. Leon Snyder, personal communication). And those are not just random seedlings, either, but seedlings from crosses which they expect to have some chance of producing worth-while new trees. If a grower should plant 10 trees in his back yard, watch them grow, and pick the best one to develop, that one tree is just not anywhere near as valuable as it could have been if he had planted 1,000 seedlings in the same space, and killed all but the 10 best of them in the first five years, and then watched those remaining 10 trees.
The value of any cultivar is directly proportional to how many trees were examined to find it. The stage of the development of the domestication of hazels and chestnuts, and all the other nut trees as well, is quite primitive when compared to the domestic grains, and to identify the really superior cultivars, we have to do a lot more looking. In order to search through many seedlings, it is clear that we must identify the poorer trees as rapidly as possible, and then we have to remove them, and use their space and the time their care and observation required to plant more trees.
Third; as part of this "Kill More Trees" policy, another of our rules is to keep track of as much information about each tree as we can, to enable us to make the culling decisions on a sound basis. This is a chore the computer makes possible, and it gives us the ability to compare many trees, on many different characters, and make judgements about which trees are superior. In the case of the chestnuts, for example, we keep track of about 15 different traits each year; specific aspects of vegetative health or bearing characteristics, for each tree over 3 years old. This requires long hours of taking data in the field, and long hours of entering it into the computer, but the result is a detailed portrait of each tree, year by year. When a row is getting crowded, we can make a decision about how much to thin it, and using the computer, have it identify, say, the worst 40%. Those trees are then culled, the better trees continue to grow, until the next time the row is too crowded, when the computer will be able to look at several more years performance of each tree, and again identify the poorer trees for culling. This allows far more detail than anyone could possibly keep in their memory, and the computer is also not subject to the distorted memories most of us humans develop when an event is several years in the past. It is also far superior to any method of record keeping on paper, because the computer can be asked to make thousands of comparisons, and will do so without errors, in almost no time at all.
Fourth; we attempt to keep up-to-date with the science of genetics, and the understandings of how best to select and breed for complex traits and combinations of traits. Genetics has progressed mightily in the past few decades, and keeping up with it can be a full time job; ask any geneticist. However, the rewards justify the effort required to learn and understand the new information. One thing is quite clear: "intuitive" ideas about how to breed very often are proven incorrect. If we are to hope for real progress in our goal of domestication, we have to use the best tools available.
Fifth, we try to do everything at Badgersett scientifically. It doesn't take long, when you start growing trees, to find questions about how to do it for which no one can give you good answers. It is very easy, and very common, to then proceed by the "best guess" method. For example, when fertilizing young trees, it is easy to guess, according to the requirements of local crops, that the trees will need some added nitrogen. It is then very easy to simply buy some fertilizer, and put it on all the trees. However, trees are not corn or soybeans, and young trees are not old trees, and my soil is not your soil. It is quite possible, in fact highly probable, that the trees will do better with more, or less, or different, fertilizer than your initial guess. Because we are growing many trees, it is relatively easy for us to do everything with "controls", ie. according to scientific method. In the example of the fertilizer, we fertilize most of the trees according to the best guess, but leave at least 100 (of the same type) unfertilized, and apply 50% more fertilizer to another 100. Then we write down the treatments, and in a year, take a look and see whether there are any measurable differences. This sounds like a lot of work. It is. However, it saves work in the long run. This example of fertilizer application is something we are actually doing, and with some definite results. No one has ever grown chestnuts in our region before, and there really were no reliable recommendations available. Young seedlings commonly grow between 1 and 3 feet per year, without fertilizer, and at that rate many of them are growing so vigorously that they don't quit growing soon enough in the fall, and then freeze back several inches. More fertilizer than the rich soil already provides might be a bad idea. Although we are still evaluating the situation, it appears right now as if some additional nitrogen is a good idea; the unfertilized trees not only grow significantly slower, they seem to be slower to start flowering, and there does not appear to be any detrimental effect of extra nitrogen on hardiness. Either way, not knowing is the most expensive course of action. Whenever we can, even if it means more work, we try to make and care for the plantings in more than one way, and always with the essential controls.
Sixth: don't just talk about it, do it. Demonstrate. If we want people to begin to plant trees as crops, then we have to actually show them. It will serve no purpose to preach the wisdom of planting trees until we can invite our neighbors onto our farm and show them: it works. No farmer in his right mind should make extensive plantings of tree crops without such demonstrations. As soon as it is possible, we want to have small scale working commercial plantings. Our goal remains primarily research, but the research will be pointless unless put to use.
A description of the farm and the climate seems in order, so that anyone interested can make clear comparisons between performance of trees in our plantings and elsewhere.
Badgersett Farm is in the southeastern corner of Minnesota, about 8 miles north of Iowa, and about 60 miles west of the Mississippi River and Wisconsin. While this sounds like it is probably the warmest spot in Minnesota, that is not the case. We are located on an inconspicuous highland, and our temperatures in the winter are comparable to those approximately 200 miles north of our location. The extra altitude does little to ease summer heat, however, and we often are hotter than temperatures reported for the Minneapolis area. The following numbers from the University Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, reported for the near-by town of Preston, will give the reader an idea of the extremes plants must endure here, and of the kind of growing season we have. Those measurements designated "farm" are what we have so far actually measured there.
January- average daily high: +19° F
average daily low: +1° F
July- average daily high: 81° F
average daily low: 61° F
Record farm maximum - 1987 +102° F
Record farm minimum - 1977 -42° F
Growing Degree Days:
Tb= 45° F : 3,120
Tb= 50° F : 2,257
Tb= 55° F : 1,502
What the growing degree day figures mean in simple terms is that while we do not have a good growing season for crops requiring many hot days, we have quite adequate conditions for crops that will grow well in cooler situations.
Regional average rain and snow- 1941 to 1970- 30.66"
Maximum farm annual rainfall - 1986- 35.5"
Minimum farm annual rainfall - 1985- 20.2"
are some of the best agricultural soils in the world, the topsoil being a well drained loess silt loam. The results of two test holes dug in our chestnut plantings show that there is about one foot of dark topsoil, underlain by between 4 and 5 feet of silt loam subsoil, with increasing amounts of clay towards the bottom of the stratum; beneath which there is a layer of sand varying in depth from a few inches to several feet, the sand sometimes carrying some water and with varying amounts of clay, and grading into the St. Peter sandstone bedrock. (Other locations on the farm have the Oneota dolomite limestone as the bedrock layer.) According to the general agricultural recommendations, this soil never needs to have phosphorus added, always needs some nitrogen, and benefits from the addition of potassium at irregular intervals, according to the crop being raised.
is truly continental, which means that it is colder in the winter and hotter in the summer than most people are used to; we are far enough from any large body of water that we do not get the tempering effects of big lakes or oceans. In the winter time we have a lot of bright, clear, sunny, very cold days, which means plants are under a lot of dehydration and sunburn stress. The landscape is gently hilly, and about 40 miles to the west the flat, glaciated, prairies begin, which regularly send us blizzards, days of high winds, and in the summer, violent thunderstorms. A lot of plants which might otherwise be cold hardy enough do not stand the desiccation of our winter winds; and likewise in the summer there are always a few days with very high humidity and very high heat, which stresses some plants. It is quite a tough environment.
We make no attempt at Badgersett to shelter the trees, in fact we do quite the reverse. The seed bed is up on the top of a hill, completely exposed except for a little bit of incomplete windbreak to the north. In general the wind roars across that hill in the wintertime, the seedlings get sandblasted by the snow, the sun warms them in the morning, and then they freeze very cold at night; the whole point being that if they are weaklings we want them out as fast as possible; if they can take it then we want to look at them a little more. The test plantings are getting big enough that they are starting to serve as their own windbreaks, but otherwise they are also unsheltered. An lot of trees that do extremely well in areas where there is some tempering from a body of water, will not do well here.
What this means is that as far as most of the rest of the country goes, each one of our winters is a "test" winter. If we have trees that survive 80% of our winters with no damage, it is probably a safe guess that they will be 100% reliable in most locations in the eastern US.
In general, test plantings are made with machine planted, bare root 1-0 stock, to allow us to handle more trees. They are planted at very close spacings, usually in double rows with 4' spaces within and 5' spaces between rows, and 30' between double rows. The 30' between double rows is intended to allow the trees selected as best to grow to full bearing without transplantation. Most double rows consist entirely of trees of the same age and seed source. This plan is aimed at speeding both the evaluation and culling processes. The closely planted double rows make it easy to compare many young trees rapidly, as one walks up the middle of the row, and any trees with extraordinary characteristics stand out all the better for the close juxtaposition of ordinary saplings. The close spacing also means the trees become badly crowded rather quickly. This is intentional, and is designed to counterbalance the very human desire to see each little tree thrive. There is a very strong emotional tendency to maintain mediocre trees for years, in the hope that they will suddenly begin to show highly desirable traits. We know it is a long shot, but when one has found or made the seed, weeded the seedling in a seedbed, protected it from rodents, transplanted it, watered, watched, re-weeded, and fertilized it for several years, one just naturally becomes attached to it. It is hard to cull a mediocre or borderline tree, just because we care about the trees. In the crowded planting, however, it becomes easier. When we see an unquestionably superior tree struggling for space with several undistinguished neighbors, the desire to help the better tree out makes it much easier to get out the saw, and let the best trees really show what they can do. It should be pointed out that this kind of culling scheme will result in initial selection for vegetative health and vigor, and/or precocious bearing, as culling must begin before all the seedlings start to bear. We find this an acceptable program, as it may be reasonably assumed that healthy trees will be as likely (or more likely) to have good nut and bearing characteristics as weak trees.
What follows is an abbreviated census and description of just what is growing at Badgersett. Starting in 1986, we take a full census of all plantings every year, to keep track of natural mortality, and to record the culling process.
Hybrid Hazels - 287- oldest planted as seed in 1980.
The majority of the hazels we are looking at originated as seed selected from surviving bushes at Carl Weschcke's "Hazel