Ecosystem Services Production from

Established Woody Polyculture

Our team is collaborating with established, productive polyculture farmers to assess ecosystem services production from their farms. In particular, we aim to understand the potential for woody polyculture systems to increase farm yields, enhance carbon sequestration, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve water quality (i.e., reduce nutrient leaching) when compared to conventional agriculture in the Midwest.



What are ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services are the benefits we obtain from ecosystems. Ecosystem services include: provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services. Provisioning services provide products we use, including food, fiber, timber, and freshwater. Regulating services provide important controls over climate, water and air quality, flooding, pests and diseases, and pollination. Cultural services are the nonmaterial (e.g. aesthetic, spiritual, educational, and recreational) ecosystem benefits. Finally, supporting services provide essential ecosystem functioning such as nutrient cycling, soil formation, primary production, and biodiversity, which underlie all other ecosystem services.



Where does this study take place?

This project takes place on established food-producing woody polyculture farms in the Midwest.



Why work on real farms?

Working on real farms allow us to look for the ecosystem services production across various woody perennial crops, soil types, farm ages, and management regimes. Working with farmers directly guides the development of research questions and experimental trials relevant to farmers.



Why do you expect woody polyculture to increase ecosystem services production?

Midwest U.S. agriculture is currently dominated by annual monoculture systems. These cropping systems rely heavily on inputs of energy, fertilizers, and pesticides, which result in greenhouse gas emissions, surface and groundwater pollution, biodiversity loss, and soil degradation and erosion.


Woody polyculture cropping systems offer a sustainable solution through their unique advantages over conventional annual crop systems. Perennial growth allows for efficient utilization of nutrient and water resources (reducing the required inputs) and sequesters more carbon in biomass and soil. Continuous soil cover and the sustained presence of roots provides soil conservation. Integration of tree crops supports vertical layering of production; while a mixed community of fruit/nut crops diversifies products and increases the financial resilience of farms.


In short, we expect that woody polycultures will provide farmers with resilient livelihoods, while preventing soil erosion, minimizing synthetic fertilizer inputs, conserving nutrients, increasing farm biodiversity (including non-crop biodiversity), improving visual quality, and removing excess nutrients



Research Objectives

1. Build an integrated community of Midwest woody polyculture farmers and researchers

2. Quantify ecosystem services (yield, nutrient leaching, and soil greenhouse gas emissions) of woody polyculture versus conventional corn-soy agriculture.

3. Characterize the life cycle environmental implications of a transition from corn-soy to woody polyculture systems

Research Team

Wendy Yang, [Lead PI] Assistant Professor of Plant  Biology and Geology

Sarah Taylor Lovell,  Associate Professor of Crop Sciences.

Jeremy Guest, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

William Eddy, Postdoctoral Associate in Plant Biology

Diana Kapanzhi, M.S. in Environmental Engineering


Conceptual diagram showing predicted ecosystem services production from high-input corn soybean rotation and woody polyculture. The size of a flower petal corresponds to the relative productive of an ecosystem service.

William Eddy pulling a soil corer from one meter depth.

Intercropping of Chinese Chestnut and Pawpaw


Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice  at Red Fern Farm (Click to read more) in Wapello, Iowa

Savanna Institute