What is Forest Farming Anyway?
What is Forest Farming?
It’s a fair question, and one we get a lot. It’s also one I struggle to answer sometimes because - well - it’s complicated. But in this post we’ll try to explain forest farming as it relates to our farm.
There are numerous definitions of forest farming, but in general it is seen as one element in the larger practice of ’agroforestry,’ so let’s start there. The National Agroforestry Center in Lincoln, Nebraska describes it this way: “Agroforestry intentionally combines agriculture and forestry to create integrated and sustainable land-use systems. Agroforestry takes advantage of the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock. Agroforestry practices include: Alley Cropping, Forest Farming, Riparian Forest Buffers, Silvopasture, Windbreaks, Special Applications.” That’s a lot of unfamiliar words, but the NAC has detailed information about each of these practices on their website, if you’re interested in learning more.
In their book Farming the Woods (2014), authors Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel have a slightly different take. They define agroforestry as: “The combination of crops (plants, animals, fungi) and trees in forest-inspired agricultural systems that benefit human communities through greater connection to landscape, improved stewardship of resources, and enhanced economic opportunities” (p. 3). I like this definition because it focuses on the aspects of forest farming that matter most to us. Forest farming helps us reconnect with the land through building healthy soil and conserving trees and native plants. It helps us build community through local and sustainable food and medicine. And it offers a viable economic opportunity for rural landowners like us.
Forest farming is not a new practice. In fact, modern agriculture - where forests are cleared and plowed into fields to grow row crops - is really the newcomer in human history. Mudge and Gabriel point out that, in North America, “while the native populations certainly wildcrafted and hunted for some of their needs, there is ample evidence that they also both cleared forests entirely and cultivated a mosaic of woodland areas, orchards, and forest gardens” (p. 23). European settlers generally brought different attitudes about the land and its value. ‘Valuable’ land came to mean land that had been cleared of trees and was suitable for tilling or grazing. This notion of ‘value’ seems to still be prevalent today.
It’s important to note that, despite the push to clear the forests and till the land, the practice of forest farming persisted. I found evidence of this in a passage from the 1908 edition of an old agricultural journal called The Country Gentleman. Here’s an excerpt:
This passage hits especially close to home for us, literally, because our farm is also located ‘near the northwestern corner of Muskingum County.’ In fact, my amateur research suggests that Mr. Ashcraft’s ginseng farm was only about eight miles away from where our farm sits today. It’s somehow comforting to know that folks have been doing what we’re doing, here in this place, for over a century at least. The article is not clear on whether Mr. Ashcraft sold 80 pounds of ginseng seed, or the dried root, to the dealer in Zanesville, but just for perspective 80 pounds of ginseng seed would be worth right around $10,000 today, and if it was the dried ginseng root he was selling, his 80 pounds would be worth about $54,000 based on 2016 prices.
For us, forest farming means using our hands to cultivate valuable plants and fungi under forest shade. It means managing and maintaining our forest using a holistic approach that preserves the health of the forest itself and the plants we grow in it. It means re-introducing threatened native forest plants, both to our own farm, and to the larger community. And it means an opportunity to earn an honest living, in a sustainable way, that makes us feel good at the end of the day.
How does Forest Farming compare to Field Farming?
I think it might be helpful to understand forest farming by comparing and contrasting with traditional field farming. Someone says the word ‘farm’ and immediately certain images come to mind. Maybe it’s a big red barn with a tall white silo beside it, or a tractor plowing wide-open fields in the spring, or long neat rows of corn stretching for acres. A forest farm looks different. Instead of open fields basking in the sun, we have a hillside covered with tall sugar maple, wild cherry and walnut trees that provide an continuous canopy about 50 to 80 feet above our heads. Most of our woods is full shade to mostly shade but there are plenty of spots with dappled sun, and even small open areas where trees have fallen and opened the canopy. Instead of long, neat rows of corn or soy beans, we grow our plants in patches directly on the forest floor, or in the case of our nursery and garlic, in raised beds formed from the natural soil. Overall shade levels determine where we plant each crop. Ginseng likes full shade so we grow it in the forest interior, but black cohosh seems to like some sun - especially for flower and seed production - so we grow it along the edge of the woods. We grow garlic, our vegetable garden, berries and fruit trees in the few really open, sunny spots on our hill.
The tools and techniques we use also differ somewhat from field farming. No big tractors or combine harvesters here. While we do use an ATV to move materials around the farm, and we use all the common power equipment a regular homeowner uses (lawnmowers, string trimmer, chainsaw) to maintain the farm, the vast majority of the work we do is done by hand, using shovels, picks and rakes. We plant by hand and harvest by hand. We do not typically till our soil either, except when breaking ground for new raised beds, and we always try to preserve as much of the natural soil structure and biology as possible.
Unlike an open field planted with soybeans that will be ready to harvest in 6 months or so, most of the plants we grow are perennials that take many years to mature. We grow many native medicinal forest plants including American Ginseng, Goldenseal, Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Bloodroot, Red Trillium (Bethroot) and False Unicorn. Aside from their medicinal properties, these plants are also attractive landscape plants. They thrive in the shade and require very little care. We’re building our plant nursery now, and hope to have bare root planting stock, as well as potted plants, available for each of them in the near future. We also grow edible forest plants like ramps, also called wild leeks. These are a spring delicacy that are only available for about six weeks each year. We’re fortunate to have a large population of wild ramps that we manage to ensure a sustainable harvest for years to come. We currently grow three types of mushrooms in beds along the edge of the woods. Red Wine Caps grow in beds of sawdust mixed with wood chips. Wood Blewit mushrooms grow in beds made of shredded leaves, grass clippings, garden trimmings and wood chips. Our Almond Agaricus, also called Almond Portabella, grows in finished compost that we make here on the farm. Starting next spring we’re going to start growing other mushroom varieties on logs in the woods. We hope to have Shiitake, Oyster, Lion’s Mane, Reishi and more beginning next season. We plan to offer pre-inoculated logs for sale so you can grow them at home. Not all our plants are unique to forest farming. Garlic is the outlier on our farm. We grow it in the few areas of the farm that actually get a lot of sun. This allows to make these areas productive, plus we just absolutely love garlic. And if you’ve never tried the hard-neck varieties, you’re missing out on some amazing garlic flavor. Right now we grow four varieties: Russian Red, Spanish Rosa, Iowa German White and Chesnok Red. We plan to add a couple more varieties this season to be available next summer. Other items that are still in the experimental phase include handmade maple syrup, beekeeping for honey, and a variety of berries, nuts and tree fruits. More to come.
Despite the differences, there are also similarities between forest and field farming. Both depend on people working and maintaining the soil to produce a useful (and hopefully valuable) crop. Farmers of all varieties are at the mercy of the weather to a large extent. Too much rain, or prolonged drought, brings trouble to the forest just like the field. There is also overlap in the methods used by forest and field farmers. Even though they are the exception, there are plenty of field farmers out there that - just like us - use organic, natural methods and materials to build healthy soil, rich with organic matter; that use thick organic mulch to control weeds and soil moisture-loss rather than relying on herbicides and irrigation; and that appreciate the value of including (and actively attracting) numerous pollinators and other wildlife into the overall farm plan. And there’s no reason the two approaches have to mutually exclusive - they can even be complimentary. For example we are surrounded by small, family-owned, traditional corn and soybean field farms. But many of these farms also have extensive tracts of hilly, mature forest land perfect for forest farming, but not suitable for tilling or grazing. Incorporating forest farming practices into a traditional field farm could offer diversification and additional income potential for traditional field farmers.
Forest farming is a combination of agricultural techniques similar to field farming, but unlike field farming, forest farming also incorporates forestry techniques, and for that reason it has a unique set of considerations. In addition to maintaining the soil, forest farmers also have to maintain a tree canopy to provide appropriate levels of shade for the plants growing below. When trees need to be removed due to disease or injury, or to sell for timber, new trees have to be planted to take their place. We do minimal weeding in most of our patches, occasionally running the string trimmer over an area to knock down the tall weeds before they can go to seed, but as we do this, we’re careful to leave enough young saplings to fill in any voids (or future voids) in the canopy. It’s important to manage the forest in a sustainable way, keeping an eye toward the future as new trees can take many years to grow large enough to provide an appreciable amount of shade.
The trees provide more than just shade too. When we plant trees in the woods, we plant with purpose. We plant Sugar Maples because we have plans to start making our own maple syrup at some point, and we plant Wild Cherry and Black Walnut for their timber value. Plus they’re all native to this area and already growing wild in our woods, so we can assume they are well-adapted to this soil and climate.
Another important component to the forest farm is the plants growing in the understory. It’s important to recognize and control invasive plant species before they crowd out the native species you’re trying to cultivate. The main invasive adversary on our farm is Multi-Flora Rose, which we’ve been battling continuously since we purchased the property. For anyone not familiar with this vicious plant, it grows along the forest edges and in sunny spots inside the forest. It produces long round canes that can get up to 1” diameter and are covered with thick, hook-shaped thorns some of which can be a 1/2” long or longer. Once they get hold of you, you dare not move or try to pull away because you’ll get hooked like a fish. Rather, you have to very carefully pull the cane away in the same direction it hooked you. These thorns can easily draw blood and they seem to me to have some sort of irritant in them, because a few minutes after the initial scratch comes a burning, stinging pain. Think cat scratch - if you’ve ever been so fortunate. The canes get longer and thicker each year and eventually turn into a giant tangled mass that can easily get eight feet tall. And if they have something nearby to climb - say a small maple tree - they can wind their way up 20 to 30 feet. Sadly we’ve let a few areas get really overgrown which means a whole lot of bushwhacking and burning (and probably bleeding) in the next couple seasons as we clear out more areas to plant ginseng.
Controlling invasive species is important, but equally important in our mind is the re-introduction of native plant species. We are lucky enough to have a large population of wild ramps growing on the west side of our hill, and we have smaller wild populations of bloodroot, black cohosh and jack-in-the-pulpit that we have begun propagating in the last couple years. As mentioned above, our plant nursery is almost ready. This will be a protected area where we can propagate and grow plants until they are ready to plant out somewhere on the farm, or sell as planting stock. Part of the beauty of the plants we grow is that, managed properly, we can produce enough plants to sell, and enough for the planting stock we need for future production. We’re committed to obtaining our planting stock (that we use for propagating) from one of three sources: plants already growing on our farm, wild local plants harvested sustainably by us, or plants provided by reputable farmers producing in a sustainable way.
We try to take the long view and a whole-farm approach when we’re making decisions. We want to produce healthy plants next season, but also 30 seasons from now. In our experience, this is a learn-as-you-go endeavor. It’s just hard to know how the land and plants will respond to things like a harsh winter, a hot dry summer, or a spring with more rain than anyone could ever use, until you’ve had a chance to get out there, and pay attention, and observe over many seasons, and eventually start to tune-in to the various ways the land and plants respond to mother nature’s inevitable curve balls. And you’ll begin to understand how you can (and can’t) intervene to give a little assist from time to time. We generally take a minimalist - ‘wild-simulated’ - approach to growing our woodland medicinal plants and ramps. This means we plant the seeds or roots and basically walk away, only occasionally ‘weeding’ the areas with a string-trimmer as described above. We collect and plant seeds, and lift and divide roots to propagate the plants, but other than that they are growing in the same conditions as their ‘natural’ cousins nearby. Our garlic, mushrooms, and nursery plants, on the other hand, require a little more attention but even there we try to mimic the natural growing conditions as much as possible. When in doubt, we look to nature to see how the plants want to grow and use that as our guide. Understanding when to intervene and when to stand by is a crucial skill, and one we’ve only learned over time. At some level you have to let the forest be a forest.
Why Forest Farming?
We mentioned it earlier but it deserves repeating - forest farming provides a viable economic opportunity for rural woodland landowners; it’s a way to build strong communities by rebuilding markets for local, organic, sustainable food and medicine; and it’s an opportunity to conserve both our forests and native plants. We also think it's a unique niche in the market that's waiting to be filled.
Forest farming offers an opportunity for rural landowners to produce a viable and sustainable income from their woodlands without destroying or disrupting the natural forest processes. Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel refer to the practice as "productive conservation" (p. 14). We’re able to produce valuable products from our forest, with little or no external inputs, and little or no energy costs (aside from our own sweat equity, of course), while still preserving the integrity of the soil, the plants and the forest as a whole. We like the idea of ‘conservation through cultivation,’ a phrase coined by Dr. Eric Burkhart at Penn State. By purposefully planting native plants that are threatened in the wild - like ginseng, goldenseal and ramps - we can alleviate some of the market pressure off the wild populations. The more high quality, sustainably cultivated plants we bring to market, the less the market needs to rely on unsustainable wild harvesting.
Forest farming also offers a way for us to help the larger community reconnect with food, flavors and medicine that are native to this region but have largely been forgotten over the past century. It provides a sense of place, and provides a way to rediscover our local, natural heritage. These plants are a vital part of this place, and part of our mission is to re-introduce these plants so folks can see the plants' usefulness, beauty and value for themselves.
So, clear as mud, right? Over the next few posts we'll fill in some of the remaining gaps with posts about specific plants and projects around the farm. Thanks again for following along. Hope to see you next time.
USDA National Agroforestry Center (2017). Agroforestry Practices. Retrieved from https://nac.unl.edu/practices/index.htm
Mudge, K. & Gabriel, S. (2014). Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
The Ohio Society: Notes of the Columbus Meeting (1908). The Country Gentleman, volume 73, part 1. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=HOQxAQAAMAAJ&lpg=PA178&ots=rwmHpUQxdi&dq=country%20gentleman%20ashcraft%20ginseng&pg=PP16#v=onepage&q=country%20gentleman%20ashcraft%20ginseng&f=false.