The Woody Perennial Polyculture Research Site (WPP) at the University of Illinois is a multi-faceted research farm in which the arrangement of plants is similar to that of the climate’s natural ecosystem, but uses plants that are more practical for human consumption. While qualitative observations have described a WPP’s general characteristics — primarily through on-farm case studies — there have been no replicated, large-scale studies quantifying a WPP’s potential, especially in temperate regions. In response to this great need, the WPP Research Site at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was created in May 2012 with the establishment of 3,300 plants. The long-term research initiated here will study the agricultural and ecological characteristics of a WPP system in relation to the conventional corn-soybean rotation (CSR). Researchers predict that a WPP will decrease soil erosion, sequester atmospheric carbon, stabilize water fluxes, foster biodiversity, and produce an economic profit.
The structure of the WPP system put in place at the research site is the Midwestern Oak Savanna. This structure entails an herbaceous understory, scattered canopy trees, and a variety of shrub layers scattered throughout. By swapping out the original plant-life within this ecological system for more utilizable plants, researchers are able to recreate the ecological niche with an economically productive purpose. One example of such a switch is from oak trees to chestnut trees. While oak trees produce acorns, which are technically edible, the chestnut tree is a tree of the same family that produces a more commercially viable nut.
The productive life of each of the plants used in these systems is high, which is important in making the system sustainable. It also evens out the higher initial costs of implementing such a system, since that expense is the only major expense. Examples of plants used are the currant, with a productive life of 50 years; the grape, with a life of 70 years; the apple, with a life of 80 years; and the chestnut, with a life of 300 years. The productive life of the hazelnut and of the raspberry is indefinite.
Beyond the quantitative research garnered by the site, the WPP Research Site benefits the UIUC Campus by producing local foods to be utilized in the dining halls, restoring degraded land on UI property with sustainable agriculture processes, educating students and the greater Central Illinois community about sustainability issues, and reducing the carbon footprint of the campus by sequestering carbon in the trees and soil as well as reducing N20 emission from fertilizer use.
Research Director, Kevin Wolz spearheaded the site establishment as an undergraduate and continues to lead the research team as a PhD student in the Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology.