What is Forest Farming?

Farmers harvest crops from their fields, and loggers harvest trees from the forest, but what do forest farmers do?

joshdrawbladeThey cultivate or gather an eclectic collection of non-timber forest products (NTFP) such as shiitake mushrooms, maple syrup, American ginseng, pawpaw fruit, walnuts and decorative plants like ferns and pine boughs, all while maintaining and supporting the health of the forest.

In the Northeastern US, forest farming has not been as common a practice as in many parts of the South and lower Midwest. Factors such as acreage, population, and the total economic value of non-timber forest products are some reason for this. Nevertheless, there is growing interest among Eastern forest owners in undertaking forest farming practices as a way to make more productive use of their wooded acres. Perhaps the most striking example over the last several years is the burgeoning interest in forest cultivation of shiitake mushrooms in the Northeast. Prospective forest farmers there can learn much from the Midwest and the Southeast, especially the Appalachian Mountains, where the tradition of forest farming has been practiced for generations.

bucketIt has been only recently that the term forest farming was applied specifically to cultivation of NTFP beneath and established forest canopy. The term “tree crops” was used much earlier by J. Russell Smith (Tree Crops, a Permanent Agriculture, 1929), to describe large scale tree planting on hilly land to provide erosion control as well as nuts and other food crops for people. This is sometimes cited as an early example of and inspiration for modern forest farming. Similarly, Douglas and Hart (Forest Farming, 1985) used the term “forest farming” to describe extensive tree planting in open pasture to produce fruit and mast for cattle. Hill and Buck (Forest Farming Practices, 2000) were the first to define forest farming in the “modern” sense that it is used in this book.

”…intentional manipulation of forested lands to produce specific products, most specifically food or medicinal products, although other non-timber forest products as well…”

market2It’s important to emphasize that the practice of Forest Farming is nothing new. Around the world, traditional and modern cultures have long valued systems that either make productive use of existing forests or grow new ones with a mixture of beneficial tree crops, shrubs, and herbaceous plants.

In the Eastern Hardwood forests, much of the assumption is that Native American tribes roamed the woods, mostly foraging from the bounty that primeval forests offered them. In actuality, while the native populations certainly wild crafted and hunted for some of their needs, there is ample evidence that they also both cleared forest entirely, as well as cultivated a mosaic of woodland areas, orchards, and forest gardens.

In the 20th century, alongside the rapid and expansive growth of industrial agriculture were a small group of academics and agronomists who proposed strong arguments for the role tree crops could play in a more sustainable food system. Initial attention has been focused high-value commodity tropical crops such as coffee and cocoa, and less to nut trees, legumes, and mushrooms.

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