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Wetland Farming

 
aaron sandvig
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Does anyone know of any in-depth sources for "wetland farming."  I know Mollison and others have touted the diversity in a wetland setting.  But, forgive the pun, when looking for reliable sources on commercially farming a wetland, I'm running into a bit of a dry hole. 

I live in north eastern South Dakota and regularly find parcels of land that are very inexpensive (per acre) when they are in the middle or near a wetland.  I am using the term loosely, because I'm not sure whether there's a distinct legal designation of "wetland" that would be applicable or not.  I am intrigued by chinampas. More importantly, I would like to do something like Mark Shepard's New Forest Farm, where it's not merely a homestead, but also (predominantly?) a commercial operation.  I would love to find a way to do agroforestry in these areas if it's possible. I would intend to raise a variety of animals.  And for areas that are unfarmable with agroforestry or market gardening, I would hope the income from the farming would allow me to set aside and develop as necessary the other areas for habitat for wild animals.  Imagine a combination farm and wildlife preserve.

As I see it, there are three categories of considerations: 1) legal issues pertaining to federal regulation of wetlands, 2) infrastructure development on seasonal wet lands, and 3) plant selection.

For reference, an example of some property I've seen available is here: http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/Henry-Township-Aberdeen-SD-57427/2098091373_zpid/

Most of this stuff is not wet year-round.  Twenty years ago, much of this area flooded after terrible blizzards and continued rains and snows over a few years.  This past year we have had historically wet sloughs become completely dry.  Drying has been a trend here for a few years now. I would like the ability to use land as best as possible in wet and dry years, whether that means a greater diversity of crops, or more investment in infrastructure up front.

Oh, and we are Zone 4.

Any thoughts, help, direction, snarky comments, or otherwise are appreciated.

 
Eric Bee
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When you say commercial farming, do you mean that you intend to make a living from it?

What you are suggesting actually sounds perfectly reasonable except that success in commercial organic farming is dictated by market -- both proximity too and the kinds of things you can sell. Living in Aberdeen, SD you will already run into problems there because you are many many miles from any major market, let alone one willing to pay a premium for organic anything. If you pick land where you can only grow certain crops, and may have additional challenges on top of that then it really doesn't matter how cheap the land is, you will never earn a living.

Now if that's not your major concern, ie you are just doing this as a hobby and for supplemental income, then I say go for it. Bottom land is awesome, and flooding is a great way to renew soil. A good part of my main field floods almost every year and it is by far the best soil. YMMV, but for me far from an obstacle it is quite useful. Mind you I can't use that part of the field until much later in the season, but that's not hard to work around.
 
Miles Flansburg
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Howdy Aaron, welcome to permies!
I think I would have to do a lot of research into the rules on farming that due to federal regs, as you have already said.
I think if we were allowed to buy land and have true ownership of it, that that would be an awesome place for chinampas. Aquaculture too.
Probably would take a lot of work and special equipment to do the earthworks?
 
Travis Johnson
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Suffering goodness man, you do not know what you are asking. It is just not allowed.

Before ANY kind of commercial farming can be done, a wetland determination has to be made, and if wetland is present (and you would be surprised what counts), you simply can not farm it. Farming it would result in severe fines that are not calculated once, but every day that the issue is not re-mediated.  In agriculture, it falls under the "swampbuster act" which I encourage you to google under Wikipedia; it is accurate information. If you try to do so under another commercial operation, it falls under stormwater protection. As with most environmental regulations, neither have grandfathered status, meaning even if you are a 270 year old farm like me, you still cannot farm wetland.

This past year the Supreme Court ruled for even stronger restrictions. In the past you only had to get permission from the Army Corp of Engineers IF you were doing something within navigable waters, now though they control every acre in the USA. Recently I had a wetland determination done, and was told if I left some stumps within the designated wetland, not only could I be fined by the State of Maine Dept of Environmental Protection, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, but also the Army Corp of Engineers. Because the ruling is recent, and they are besieged with permitting request, it is a 2 year wait before they can even come an inspect the project.

The only thing that is allowed in wetland, is the grazing of animals, but considering the health risks of that, who would ever want to?

Now am I suggesting farming wetland is a bad idea; not at all!! As a next-generational farmer who has farmed all my life and is a full time farmer now, I know how well wet fields grow crops, but to actively pursue wetland on a commercial basis would be problematic to say the least. I have contacted my congressman on the issue of the Swampbusters Act in the farm bills, but I have never gotten anywhere, nor do I expect to. To do so would be political suicide since their opponents could make they case that they were not "environmentally conscious". Now what you and I perceive would happen on wetland soil on a commercial basis is far different then environmental destruction, that is not what others envision happening.

I hope this makes sense. Feel free to ask questions if I am confusing you as I probably am. It is late, I have farmed all day, and extremely exhausted, but your question deserved my best attempt at a reply.
 
Travis Johnson
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By the Way:

When I say you would be surprised what counts as wetland, I truly mean it. My farm is 15 miles from the coast and yet is a substantial 720 feet above sea lever (which is a big hill here in coastal Maine). I am so high that my farm actually is in two watersheds because it splits them in half down the ridgeline. I have no streams on my farm because they all START here and not run through it, YET despite this elevation I have ample "wetlands". This picture proves what little it takes to be considered wetland.

I do apologize for the nature of the picture, it is just I don't normally take picture of forests. It is interesting to note that logging within a wetland is completely legal. In fact I can clearcut and stump anything I want, even in the wetland, but as soon as I start farming it or using it for commercial purposes, I am in violation of the environmental laws.

It makes no sense. None.

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Joseph Lofthouse
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Travis Johnson wrote:It is interesting to note that logging within a wetland is completely legal. In fact I can clearcut and stump anything I want, even in the wetland


So sounds like trees are the crop to farm in wetlands.

 
Janet Reid
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:
Travis Johnson wrote:It is interesting to note that logging within a wetland is completely legal. In fact I can clearcut and stump anything I want, even in the wetland


So sounds like trees are the crop to farm in wetlands.



I am in Australia and live opposite a park which is swampy in winter. I have planted some swamp mahogany but I was wondering if food trees like Bunya nut pine would cope with wet feet in winter and baking heat in summer?
Carob? Macadamia? Suggestions welcome.
 
aaron sandvig
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Thanks all for the replies, especially Travis Johnson. 

Travis, do you know the name of the recent decision you're referring to? And if not, do you know which specific law or laws they were interpreting? I would gladly review it to better understand current status.  As regards the Swampbuster Act, what I see on Wikipedia and a NRCS landing page for the topic, it appears to me that the Swampbuster Act aims to dissuade someone from farming wetlands by denying them USDA benefits, but does not provide for fines.  Other than farm grants, what types of USDA benefits would a permaculture farmer seek to utilize? The only one I'm aware of is federal crop insurance which I assume is largely unimportant to a small, permaculture farmer with a variety of crops that can guarantee a somewhat more steady income than an ordinary grain farmer.  But I'm new to this, so I'm not sure what it is that I don't know. And do you know whether any other federal laws apply that might impose fines.  To my knowledge (and I will have to research further), South Dakota does not impose fines for wetland conversion.  At most, we have nuisance laws that would prevent me from dumping my land's water onto my neighbor's fields. 

To clarify, the vision I have for this property (whether I can accomplish it I'm still not sure) is to plant trees and bushes throughout that would produce an annual food crop.  If dealing with the "wet feet" problem for some variety of crops (let's say apples or pears) can be accomplished by raised hugelkultur beds that would keep the trunks and some of the roots above water level, even during seasonal flooding, then that would seem like an "easy" solution.  Of course, it would be "easy" only after moving tons upon tons of wood and debris and then covering that debris to form mounds.  Perhaps in the alleys I could still plant some seasonal crops and/or graze animals. 

Regarding markets in the area, this has been one of the considerations that has slowed me down substantially in planning.  There is a growing "organic" market in the area.  But I don't think it's enough in itself to pay for the cost of land and the necessary improvements.  Mark Shepard on his New Forest Farm said he specifically avoids farmers markets and value added products.  He sells directly to wholesale.  Of course, he has Organic Valley co-op there in Wisconsin which makes it possible for him to do that.  I still need to explore my wholesale marketing options in that regard. In reality, I would prefer a combination of wholesale and direct-to-consumer sales.  An uncle also owns a nearby grocery store and I would attempt to put some products there as they are seasonally available, although that would be for brand marketing purposes more than income. 

Does anyone have any experience with food crops, specifically perennials, in a seasonally wet/flooded field? I'm still not finding more than cursory treatment of that issue on the interwebs. But perhaps I'm not searching for the right terms?

Thanks again for everyone who's responded.
 
Casie Becker
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Janet Reid wrote:

I am in Australia and live opposite a park which is swampy in winter. I have planted some swamp mahogany but I was wondering if food trees like Bunya nut pine would cope with wet feet in winter and baking heat in summer?
Carob? Macadamia? Suggestions welcome.


This is a very interesting question. It is probably worth posting as it's own topic if you want more input. If I could add individual posts to more forums I would be connecting yours to the tree or forest garden forums to increase visibility. I do look forward to seeing what kinds of trees people suggest for a location with seasonal inundation. I could see that being useful in our area where trees commonly drown in clay soil during our rainy seasons.
 
aaron sandvig
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Casie Becker wrote:

This is a very interesting question. It is probably worth posting as it's own topic if you want more input. If I could add individual posts to more forums I would be connecting yours to the tree or forest garden forums to increase visibility. I do look forward to seeing what kinds of trees people suggest for a location with seasonal inundation. I could see that being useful in our area where trees commonly drown in clay soil during our rainy seasons.


Casie,

Thanks for the input. I wasn't really sure of the best place for my post.  I'm hoping it's not obnoxious to have the same post in various forums?
 
Casie Becker
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The way the site is set up, choose one forum to post it as a topic. Those of us with the ability will add that topic to other forums that seem relevant. It won't be a duplicate post but will be accessible to people who would otherwise have filtered out some of those forums. I just don't have any way to select one post within a topic to do this with. It would be the whole thread or nothing.

Edit: fixing punctuation
 
Eric Bee
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Aaron, if there is a number one rule in farming, particularly small scale organic farming, it is that the market has to come first. Assuming that you can develop that market after or while you are growing is a recipe for disaster. Also, the wholesale market is a real bear and only works if you are operating at scale. This is a lesson learned hard and repeatedly by organic farmers everywhere, and it really boils down to math: 1. You can never compete with Sysco -- ie. you will never be able to compete on price, only quality and if not enough people in your market care about the latter, yer hosed; 2. Your margin selling wholesale might be half of what it is retail while at the same time your savings in logistics are not what you'd think. E.g. salad greens I can sell out all day long at $12-14 / lb but get less than half that while still being expected to deliver for free. On top of that those damned chefs are amazingly fussy, so they demand only the best, cut a certain way, etc. It's not that I can't sell certain restaurants spinach at $10/lb compared with the $1-2 /lb they pay from Sysco, but what ends up happening is they buy a little from me and a lot from Sysco and then say it all is from my farm. They really do that and it is extremely damaging to my reputation.

I am wording this as a stern warning, but of course every market and situation is different. Only you can determine if that makes sense. Still, I have learned those hard lessons and it's not a fun experience. I think with the extra challenges and costs you will encounter with very wet land (purely aside from the regulatory aspect) you will find your costs are higher. Really, unless you are tractor farming selling at anything less than top dollar will mean you can't make a living.

On grants and loans from the USDA and other sources: Investigate this first if you can. There is so much help out there it's crazy. Everything from riparian restoration and conservation to money to pay for a whole, very fancy greenhouse. You have to jump through hoops, but it's basically free money.

Finally, as I said my main field floods seasonally. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be called a wetland but I've learned that if you have to ask the answer is usually not in your favor, so I ignore the problem and it's been fine for years. Looking at the property you mentioned I have to assume that's a whole different can of worms. I'm still skeptical of Travis' dire warnings though. I know many farmers who are in watersheds or on rivers and there are no problems...  hopefully it's not a case of all of us ignoring the reality and hoping for the best   Like I've said I've never asked and don't intend to.
 
Travis Johnson
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Here is the link to the new ruling: webpage

The ruling is pretty clear and answers a lot of questions from you and others. Basically if it was formerly converted wetland to farmland you are grandfathered, but that grandfathered status would be very limited. As long as you farmed it as it was always farmed you would be fine, but you could be fined if you cleared back the edges of the field, added drainage, built sodded waterways, etc. And of course if you have a new farm then you would not get that exemption either. Planting trees as you mentioned for food forests would certainly be allowed, as would the grazing of animals, but cultivating crops wouldn't.

As for fines, the Swampbusters Act is unclear on that because it is correct when it states violating the SwampBuster Act causes the farmer to lose its USDA subsidies, but that is because the Swampbusters Act is part of the US Farm Bill. It has no authority to actually cause teh farmer to pay a fine. That comes in with the destruction of wetland itself, which falls under the US Environmental Protection Agency and now the US Army Corp of Engineers.

As for what people are allowed to get away with and what is not; it all depends if anyone complains. There are not enough Government Agencies with enough personnel to run around and look for problems, but if someone complains then they will be sure to show up. A case in point is a custom-hire forest-to-field I just built. They had a Code Enforcement Officer come in to give them plumbing permits when he looked up and saw 18 acres of mountainside being bulldozed. The thing was the owner had explained to him what was going to happen, but he was not paying attention when he told him. So he was told, just not expecting a huge job going on. Even then the owner has a dozen horses and so in Maine it fits as a Agricultural Enterprise, but the CEO claimed it fell under Storm Water Rules? There was no wetland destruction in this case (it was on the side of a mountain), but we put up a lot of silt fence, sediment ponds and rip-rap just to appease them. We could have been fined that is for sure though.

(A view from the top of that latest land clearing job after stumping with an excavator)



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