Multifunctional Woody Polyculture: Pilot Study

The  Multifunctional Woody Polyculture (MWP) Concept

A MWP is an assemblage of plant species that aims to mimic the structure and function of natural ecosystems to sustainably produce an agricultural yield while simultaneously restoring ecosystem services. This concept has grown and evolved out of fields such as agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture, silvopasture, carbon farming, and ecological restoration, but the application of this paradigm to large-scale industrial agriculture is a relatively new idea.



How did this begin?

While qualitative observations have described a MWPs general characteristics, there have been no replicated, large-scale studies quantifying a MWPs potential, especially in temperate regions. In response to this great need, the MWP pilot study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was created in May 2012 with the establishment of 3,300 plants. This pilot study has since inspired the creation of the larger MWP field trial which explores commercial scale planting of similar species and layouts.


Pilot Study research site

Diagram of plant layers in a perennial polyculture system

Inspiration From the Midwestern Oak Savanna

Before we can apply an ecosystem as our design framework, it's important to understand just what that native system actually looks like. While any ecosystem can by characterized in many different ways, here we will describe the Midwestern oak savanna by structural layer or niche. The seven commonly cited "layers" or niches in a Midwestern oak savanna are (with typical species listed alongside)


Canopy Trees: Oak

Medium Trees: Crabapple, American Plum, Black Cherry

Shrubs: American Hazelnut, Elderberry, Gooseberry, Rose

Brambles: Blackberry, Raspberry

Grasses/Forbs: Prairie Grasses & Forbs

Vines/Lianas: Wild Grape

Fungi: Waxcaps, Morels

The Midwestern oak Savanna Translated

How can the native system be modified for agricultural use?


Once we understand the basic structure of our native inspiration, we can "translate" the system for optimization as a managed, agricultural savanna. The goal here is to go layer by layer and substitute in species or varieties closely related to the native occupants but which are optimized for agricultural use. For example, rather than using oaks as the dominant canopy tree in our agricultural system, we use chestnuts. Chestnuts are also a large canopy tree and are in the same family as oaks, but they produce a nut more easily consumed by humans. In this process, we can take advantage of the latest advances in breeding, including varieties that are disease-resistant, cold hardy, thornless, etc. While this biomimetic translation can follow many paths and produce myriad final combinations, here is one possible outcome:


Canopy Trees: Chestnut

Medium Trees: Disease-resistant apple varieites

Shrubs: High-yielding hazelnut varieties

Brambles: Thornless raspberry

Grasses/Forbs: Optimized grass pasture mix

Vines/Lianas: Table grape varieties

Fungi: Morels

Intercropping Chinese chestnuts and currants

Research Site

Established: May 2012

Woody Species: Chestnut, hazelnut, apple, grape, currant, raspberry

Alley Composition: Perennial Pasture Mix (Grasses & Clover)

Experiemntal Design: Randomized Complete block (4 blocks)

Area: 5 acres (4 x 1/2-acre WPP, 4 x 1/2-acre Corn/Soy, 1 acre of buffer)

Soil Types: Flanagan and Thorp Silt Loam

Annual Average Weather: 52˚F, 40in precipitation, 25in snow

USDA Hardiness Zone: 5b/6a

Site Land-Use History: Conventional Agriculture for over 100 years

Hypothesis: Researchers predict that a MWP will decrease soil erosion, sequester atmospheric carbon, stabilize water fluxes, foster biodiversity, and produce an economic profit.

Click to see to enlarge thhe Pilto Site Layout

   See the Pilot Trial with daily photo updates!

UIUC Professors

Michelle Wander, Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences

Bruce Branham, Professor of Crop Sciences

Evan DeLucia, Director of the School of Inegrative Biology



Kevin Wolz, Ph.D. student in the Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology

Adam Kranz, Masters student in NRES

Dane Hunter, Ph.D. student in NRES

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