Black walnut alley cropping is economically competitive with row crops in the Midwest USA

Kevin J. Wolz, Evan H. DeLucia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The maize–soybean rotation (MSR) dominates the Midwest United States and degrades many ecological functions. Black walnut (Juglans nigra L.) plantation forestry (PF) and alley cropping (AC) are two alternative land-uses that can enhance productivity and restore ecosystem services. Given the lack of robust market mechanisms to monetize ecosystems services, we tested whether the profitability of PF and AC could drive adoption in the Midwest. Publically available data on black walnut soil suitability, timber prices, crop productivity, and cash rents were combined in a high-resolution spatial analysis to identify regions where these alternatives can outcompete MSR. To avoid selecting an arbitrary discount rate at which to make comparisons, we determined the threshold discount rate necessary to make PF or AC economically competitive with MSR. We show that, with a 5% discount rate, PF and AC could be more profitable on 17.0% and 23.4% of MSR land, respectively. Contrary to the common assumption that woody agricultural alternatives should first be adopted in marginal row crop areas, the economic competitiveness of PF and AC was not correlated with MSR productivity. Instead, black walnut growth rate was the central driver of PF and AC competitiveness, underscoring a necessary shift away from the current MSR-centric perspective in defining target regions for land-use alternatives. Results reveal major opportunities for landowners and investors to increase profitability by investing in PF and AC on both “marginal” and productive MSR land.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01829
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019


  • agroforestry
  • discount rate
  • intercropping
  • land-use change
  • marginal land
  • silvoarable

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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