As a property owner of a tree farm in Wisconsin our family has been investigating alternative agricultural methods for about seven years. Many people think that because you are “just growing trees” means that you don’t have a “real” farm with corn and beans and other vegetable crops. A woodland farm is truly a farm that requires as much thought and management except on a slower scale. Think farming with perennial plants.
So what kinds of crops come from a perennial farm? Blackberries, blueberries raspberries, grapes, apples, apricots, pears, peaches, cherries, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds, herbs, such as Bee Balm, Lavender, Sage, asparagus; medicinal plants such as Golden Seal and Ginseng, and of course, mushrooms such as Morels. There are many more if you want to include some of the more obscure plant crops such as pine nuts and Wild Leek (also called Ramps) and so forth. This is not even including lumber!
Along the way to the USDA information files and research adventures online an interesting pattern began to appear; the more valuable and rare a crop, the more likely is was coming from a forest of some sort. Morel mushrooms are a good example of this. Shortly after buying our property in Wisconsin, the following spring we surprised some Morel hunters coming out of our woods with three large shopping bags of the tasty but elusive fungus (at $13.00-$20.00 per pound at the farmers markets)! Humm…We quickly posted the property and headed into the woods and later to the library.
Our property has both an old growth area and a newer planted tree plantation with similar species that are found the old growth area. It supports not just morels, but hazelnut, hickory trees, raspberries, and other marketable species. This pointed us to research about what you could do with woodland areas in an agricultural context and it was quite an education. Agro-forestry (agriculture from the forest) is a separate but vital branch of agriculture. According to the World Agroforestry Center (1993): “Agroforestry is a collective name for land use systems and practices in which woody perennials are deliberately integrated with crops and animals on the same land management unit,” This type of agriculture has much greater biodiversity than conventional farms.
When you mix all the above-mentioned perennial plants together, depending where you live, you have biodiversity and lots of food too. Many smaller family farms survive on the diversity of the many crops that they sell. Blueberries, raspberries apricots and various other perennial woody crops are value added items. We keep bees so we add honey to the production. When a farmer allows goats, or cattle to graze the area or chickens and geese to weed the woods, this is practicing Agroforestry.
Our research has led us in many directions. An interesting method of agriculture that we have become familiar with is called Permaculture. This type of agriculture as it has been around since the late 1970’s when Bill Mollison, an Australian agronomist became disenchanted with conventional agricultural technologies. He designed an entire agricultural system based on something called Perennial Polyculture as well as all the components of local economies, energy and power recycling and all manner of green technology, which is where greenhouses enter the picture. Mollison looked at the entire farm as a system, including the farmhouse and outbuildings. Greenhouses perform multiple tasks in a Permaculture system. They grow seedlings, obviously, but they also sequester heat in a home or out building as part of green energy cycling. How Mollison integrated all of these disparate pieces was to come up with a “zone” system. Zone 0 is the farmhouse it self. Zone 1 is the greenhouse/ outbuilding/ small garden compost area on out to Zone V, which is non-managed forest. Zone IV is the Agroforestry area. The concept in simple form is minimum input in work, fertilizers and petrochemical based agriculture machinery and high output from fruits, berries, nuts, animal products and firewood.
Many trees in a forest produce seed and fruit as part of their reproductive cycles. Nuts are a product of a tree or shrub that produces a high protein, and “good” fat seed that many forest creature relish. Plus walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, hickory nuts are all delicious. They also, in the case of walnuts, provide expensive cooking oil.
Hand harvesting the nuts is labor intensive work that often results in a sore back. One way to help eliminate this is to do something called “alley cropping” which involves planting rows of trees in between other row crops. The system has the advantage of slowing erosion and adding needed biodiversity. It also allows you to utilize small mechanical harvesters both manual and mechanized can be use to harvest fruits and nuts. Tree shakers and clever devices called the Bag-A-Nut machines that come in hand pushed to tractor drawn models.
Perennial polyculture has been on the minds of some agronomist researchers. This implies shifting some of the types of food we consume in different amounts, or being more adaptable in our diets. A case in point is an increase in the variety of different cooking oils used today. The marketplace offers corn, canola, olive, walnut, grape seed, peanut oil, as well as butter. Walnut oil is harvested from trees and grape seed oil is pressed grape seed. These are both perennial crops that can be grown in food forests. Also consider that many other crops can be grown in the same area. A Permaculture plant list for a temperate North American, Zone IV garden would consist of oaks, white and bur oak, hickory, butternut cherry, black walnut, pecan, peach, pear, plum, apple, apricot, paw paw, and filbert for a partial list. Shrubs would include blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, figs, gooseberry, current, black chokecherry and June berry. The herb layer could contain hyssop, lavender, rose, rosemary, and yucca. The herbaceous layer would contain amaranth, sunflowers, swiss chard, fennel, dill and edible “weeds” such as clover and chicory. The plants lists are vast and very local growing conditions allow for much biodiversity. The method also calls for local native species as a desirable part of the system.
This farming/gardening method has been around for some time in many forms and is gaining interest and momentum due to its low petrochemical input, ecological benefits and the movement to locally grown food. We are particularly interested in it for many reasons. A major one is that our tree farm is more than just a wood plantation. This form of agriculture offers many more possibilities for all sorts of areas that are not traditionally regarded as potential farmland. The agro-forestry/ permaculture method can be adapted to all most any sized property with a small to large amount of yard surrounding it. It allows for cleaner food production involving many more species and looking at edible “weed” species in a whole new way. It allows for biodiversity and it can be a very attractive just to walk through.
Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison; Tagari, 1991, 1995
Gaia’s Garden A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway; Chelsea Green, 2001
Caron Wenzel is the owner of Blazing Star Inc., a native plant nursery and environmental restoration consulting company founded in 1990 and Curriculum Director for Green University at MCSEEP. She may contacted at 815.338.4716 or firstname.lastname@example.org .