About the Institute
The Savanna Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization working to lay the groundwork for widespread agroforestry in the Midwest US. We work in collaboration with farmers and scientists to develop perennial food and fodder crops within multifunctional polyculture systems grounded in ecology and inspired by the savanna biome. The Savanna Institute strategically enacts this mission via research, education, and outreach.
Our Case Study Program explores the potential of agroforestry practices as ecologically sound, agriculturally productive, and economically viable alternatives to annual, row crop agriculture. We are currently working with farmers across the Midwest to study the conversion of their working farmland into diverse agroforestry operations. This research addresses the need to better understand and implement these farming systems at commercial scales.
Our research is cooperative and participatory: scientists and farmers work together to collect crucial data concerning the economic, ecological and social impact of agroforestry. The Savanna Institute provides standardized protocols for farmer record-keeping, and we also collect data directly via soil samples, time-lapse photography, pollinator surveys, and pest and pathogen monitoring. We also facilitate collaboration among scientists at other institutions and farmers who are keen on research.
Farmers also have the opportunity to participate in our Bulk Plant Program. This program provides farmers the benefit of simplified plant purchasing and delivery through a single entity, rather than the difficulty of sourcing and receiving from numerous nurseries. We work with multiple nurseries to source planting stock of the diversity of species used in agroforestry, a substantial process that was identified early on as a primary hurdle for new savanna-based farmers. Most importantly, the Bulk Plant Program provides replication and consistency in planting stock across multiple farms, thus standardizing our research protocols.
Beyond research, our mission includes education. We help farmers think through questions about planning a new enterprise, including forthright acknowledgment of risks involved. We direct them to educational resources, including other farmers in our network, and a directory we maintain of institutions and businesses that provide various kinds of technical assistance for farmers. In general, as farmers in the Case Study Program encounter roadblocks while establishing their new operations, we assist in maneuvering through them. As we have capacity, we visit farms for a land walk to go over the details of each farmer's plans, talk about the land’s history and characteristics, review their farm design plan including crop/plant choices and physical layout, consider the plan for implementation and maintenance, and discuss the Case Study Program.
We also facilitate knowledge exchange. We host several on-farm field days each growing season and an annual farmer gathering each winter. Beyond these events, we plan to develop a formal mentorship program as we develop the capacity. We have also launched a program where beginning farmers record interviews with experienced farmers, and then share that what they learn through various media, including info sheets, photographic how-to guides, and podcasts. To further extend knowledge-sharing among geographically-dispersed farmers, we are also developing virtual communities of practice within our new PerennialMap.org, a centralized hub for perennial farmers across the US to find each other, join together, and share information. Our first two communities of practice will be for silvopastoralists and hazelnut value chain stakeholders.
Through the collection of on-farm data, we are learning the benefits and challenges of agroforestry. We are also learning what is necessary for systemic reforms in agriculture. In order to bring this knowledge to wider audiences beyond the farmers in the Case Study Program, we are working to build our capacity to share the opportunities and challenges of agroforestry. We partner with farmers and institutions to host field days and workshops, and we speak and participate in events hosted by others. We produce a newsletter and other outreach materials that we circulate via social media. Most of our educational media is free to the public, thereby doubling as outreach content. Our new project, PerennialMap.org, also extends our outreach circle considerably.