Tree Crop Improvement Program

Tree crop breeding for Midwestern growers

Achieving widespread agroforestry on the landscape requires investment in tree crop breeding at a level more proportional to the transformational benefits it can provide. Savanna Institute’s Tree Crop Improvement Program is constructing diverse breeding populations for several key agroforestry species. Our approach is relatively simple: by combining precise measurements of plants’ performance with molecular genetic markers, we will be able to achieve rapid rates of crop improvement. Our predictive selection models will allow us to identify new varieties for wide-area testing, as well as enable rapid screening of progeny families in order to more efficiently utilize acreage at our research sites at Savanna Institute’s Campus in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Would you like to join our Tree Crop Improvement Team? We’re hiring soon.

Tree Crop Improvement Program Brief

Our Tree Crop Improvement Team will focus on the breeding and genetic analysis of seven key crops selected for their viability and scalability for US markets: 


    • high-value nut crops: chestnut and hazelnut
    • nutritious small fruit crops: elderberry and black currant
    • multifunctional timber and fodder species well-suited for silvopasture: black locust, persimmon, and mulberry

Download our program brief to learn more.

a hazelnut bush in summer

Why Tree Crop Breeding?

Agricultural research on tree crops has seen systematic underinvestment for more than a century. The handful of major annual grain crops that dominate Midwest agriculture have achieved and maintained their level of ubiquity on the landscape in part through a diverse, well-funded, and long-term agricultural research effort. Savanna Institute’s Tree Crop Improvement Team aims to level the playing field for perennial producers by investing in research that develops and steadily updates superior crop varieties and agronomic management techniques. We’ve selected a variety of nut, fruit and timber crops well-suited for temperate agroforestry systems that thrive in the oak savanna of the Midwestern US. The improved cultivars we will release through this program will enable agroforestry systems to realize their true potential, playing a significant role in helping to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration. 

Selected Tree Crops

Nuts for specialty and commodity markets

Existing specialty crop demand for chestnuts and hazelnuts in the US far outstrips domestic supply, providing immediate, high-value markets while production of these crops is still scaling up. Meanwhile, these crops have starch (in the case of chestnut) and protein and vegetable oil (in the case of hazelnut) characteristics broadly analogous to corn and soybean, aligning them with large-scale markets for bulk food ingredients, livestock feed, and bioproducts. This latent potential will help inform crop improvement efforts directed at improving yields and reducing production costs.

Corylus spp.
Castanea spp.

Small fruits for food and nutraceutical markets

Nutraceuticals have garnered immense attention in recent years due to an uptick in worldwide trends surrounding human health and nutrition, disease prevention and self-care. Black currant and elderberry are an emerging solution for meeting the increasing demand for superfoods, food & dietary supplements, sports nutrition, and functional foods & beverages. These crops also represent “quick wins”: they bear rapidly, and are important early revenue streams for farms implementing diverse agroforestry systems. This reduced time to flowering accelerates the rate of crop improvement as well, and thus we hope to make the most rapid progress on these species.

Ribes nigrum

Sambucus canadensis

Multi-use trees for livestock fodder, lumber, and specialty fruit markets

In addition to the use of persimmon and mulberry as specialty fruit crops, or black locust as a timber crop, these species have immediate, widely-scalable potential in silvopasture systems. Relative to orchard and intercropping contexts in which farmers need to learn to produce new saleable crops, silvopasture has relatively lower barriers to adoption — the trees provide supplemental forage for livestock and benefits such as shade and resilience to drought. The three species which are the focus of this aspect of our Improvement Program have to date undergone minimal genetic improvement for silvopasture use, and are poised for rapid gains.

Robinia pseudoacacia

Diospyros virginiana

Morus spp.
a hazelnut bush in summer


The Savanna Institute launches Tree Crop Improvement Program to boost Midwestern farm profitability, sustainability

$12.7 million in grants from Grantham Environmental Trust and the Matthew Zell Family Foundation will fund tree crop breeding to improve varieties for Midwestern farmers

Tree Crop Improvement Team


Fred Iutzi
Director of Research & Commercialization

Scott Brainard
Tree Crop Breeder

Eliza Greenman
Germplasm Specialist

Malachi Persche
Field Technician

Adam D’Angelo
Breeding Operations Manager

Lily Hislop
Tree Crop Breeder

Kathleen Rhoades
Tree Crop Breeder

Zack Loken
Imagery Analyst


a hazelnut bush in summer

From our Podcast: Perennial AF

“The Indiana Jones of Agroforestry” with Eliza Greenman


Eliza Greenman joins Savanna Institute’s podcast Perennial AF to talk about fruit exploring.

Give a gift that heals the climate

When you purchase a gift from our giving guide, you help plant more trees to draw down carbon and improve water quality for generations. Instead of buying plants from nurseries which increases our carbon footprint through transportation and delivery, this package helps us work in smaller packages of seeds and scion to get our Campus Nursery and plantings off to the most sustainable start. One lb of seed plants one acre and ensures further revenue to support education, research, and demonstration.