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How farming in forests could sustain the planet


While growing crops under the canopy may not feed the world, it can help save forests from the axe.

On a small piece of land alongside the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, Jono Neiger has planted seven acres of trees. In around six years, these trees will start bearing chestnuts – a once staple crop used to make flour in the US, before most of the country’s chestnut trees were destroyed by a blight at the turn of the 20th Century. Neiger called the farm Big River Chestnuts.

But six years is a long time to wait for an income. To make the land more immediately profitable, Neiger recently added smaller trees and bushes beneath the canopy of the chestnut plantation – varieties of elderberries, pawpaws and persimmons – which will bear fruit within the next two years. He also released chickens onto the land to provide an even more immediate source of money.

Neiger’s multi-level forest farm, from its day-old chicks to towering chestnuts, is a departure from the intensive agriculture that otherwise surrounds his land. Typically, modern food production includes damaging practices like tilling the soil, overreliance on annual crops, and the use of chemical fertilisers – and an unhelpful aversion to trees. Overcoming this aversion is an essential task if farming is going to become more sustainable in the future, says Neiger, particularly as climate change and depleted soils threaten the planet’s capacity to produce enough food for future generations.

A large collection of chestnuts

“Trees fit in well in many places where it’s not suitable to do tillage agriculture. You can use hillsides, where, any time regular monoculture agriculture occurs, it causes a lot of erosion and soil loss. Having trees in these places slows erosion, starts to rebuild soil, and sequesters more carbon,” he says. It also adds diversity to the food system, which helps build resilience to food shocks. While chestnuts may not be commonly eaten today, for example, they are a great source of carbohydrates that could, in theory, replace grain or corn in our diets. “It’s basically growing grain on a tree,” adds Neiger.

The practice of incorporating trees into agriculture is known as agroforestry, and it has been practised for thousands of years in a number of variations. Some involve planting trees on existing farmland, while other methods use an existing forest as a living laboratory for growing shade-loving species.

For instance, the traditional hedgerows that enclose many English fields are an unremarkable sight for many people, yet they provide many ecological benefits including opportunities for foraging and a habitat for wildlife like hedgehogs. Less familiar are methods such as alley cropping, where trees are planted in wide rows with crops grown in between them. The approach practiced at Big River Chestnuts farm is known as forest farming, a technique which involves the intentional cultivation of plants beneath the forest canopy (as opposed to foraging for wild species in an existing forest).

These methods can avoid many of the pitfalls of our current food system, which has caused a precipitous decline in biodiversity and currently contributes around a third of global emissions. But forest farming also provides an incentive to protect existing forests themselves, by giving them an economic reason to remain standing, rather than being logged or cleared. Forest farms are usually associated with high-value species that thrive in a shaded environment, including foodstuffs like shiitake mushrooms, but also herbal and medicinal plants.

A forrest next to a group an are of deforestation

“Conserving the forest we have is really critical, but someone might be tempted to clear the forest if they feel like they need income from the land. We’re trying to say that there are things you can do to retain that existing forest,” says Steve Gabriel, who is a mushrooms and agroforestry specialist at Cornell’s Small Farms program, and who also runs his own forest farm. “When you’re cutting mushroom logs and making habitats for woodland medicinals, you’re doing good management. You end up with a healthier forest, and you’re often creating a better habitat for wildlife as well.”

Forest farming can also help to conserve the species that grow within forests and which have been depleted in the wild by overharvesting, such as American ginseng, a popular herbal remedy. “We know that many populations are threatened, especially when it comes to the slow growing types of species that live in the forest understory,” says Holly Chittum, a scientist who studies sustainable supply chains at the American Herbal Products Association. “Forest farming offers the opportunity to sustain an ecosystem while also growing a cash crop.”

This additional income stream can be particularly vital to forest communities in developing countries, where forests are often under threat from logging and agricultural expansion. In Guatemala, communities have started harvesting both palms and ramón nuts from the Maya Biosphere Reserve, using plantations and management plans to ensure that extraction is sustainable. These products have found some surprising markets abroad: the palms are sold to satisfy a peak in demand around Palm Sunday, while the nuts have been used to brew beer by Minnesota-based brewery, Urban Growler.

Dean Current, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who has been involved in the project, is now thinking about ways to expand the potential of the community’s land even further. “Honey is another product, allspice, the natural chicle wafer for chewing gum. We see this as a way to add value to the forest, but we want to diversify that production. If the market isn’t good for one, then another one picks up,” he says.

Forest Floor with a large collection of mushrooms

Despite its multiple benefits for the environment, farmers and food security, agroforestry has suffered a long decline over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the development of crop rotation meant that farmers became less reliant on woodlands to replace the nutrients in croplands, while the arrival of chemical fertilisers in the 19th Century hastened this separation between farms and woodland. More recently, agricultural intensification has played a destructive role: in the UK, over 50% of hedgerows have disappeared since 1947 as farmers removed them so that machinery could be employed more efficiently across larger areas.

Today, many farmers consider woodland and farmland to be separate categories and lack the expertise to combine them, while policies hostile to agroforestry have not helped the matter, says Helen Chesshire, senior advisor on farming at the Woodland Trust.

Yet as the need to provide food for a growing population while also protecting the environment becomes more acute, there has been a resurgence of interest in agroforestry. “If it’s done right, it will help to avoid those potential trade-offs between food production and other public goods. That’s quite important – to not take land away from food production but to support sustainable food production while delivering other benefits,” says Chesshire.

Two chickens in the forrest

According to an EU study, agroforestry covers around 3.3 million hectares across Europe, with Cyprus, Portugal and Spain leading the way. Forest farming has the potential to be part of this resurgence. In the UK, there is a growing number of people who run small-scale forest farming operations, such as the Bangor Forest Garden in north-west Wales or Holt Wood Herbs in north Devon, where medicinal plants are grown and harvested. In the US, a group of practitioners and experts have started the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition designed to raise expertise in the growth of medicinal plants in forests.

Reuniting farmland with trees has the potential to improve agricultural productivity and boost food security by creating a landscape that does not become exhausted through overuse. Forest farming is a small part of this, says Gabriel, and it will be particularly helpful as rising temperatures disrupt the stable climate in which agriculture has historically thrived.

“With climate change, whether it’s extremely dry or extremely wet, the forest is a very stable ecosystem. The food coming out of there is much less vulnerable than our cropping systems,” he says. “There is a challenge with the potential volume of production we need to feed the population – I don’t think it’s going to replace all the field crops that are grown – but I think it can be a really important way to add to the mix and diversify the foods we have available.”

Forest farmers have discovered that there is opportunity beneath the canopy – an untapped resource of mushrooms, berries, nuts, herbs, and other products that thrive in this shaded world. When the axe beckons, these crops provide a strong incentive to keep forests standing, and provide an alternative to the destructive model of agriculture that already dominates many landscapes. It may not feed the world, but it can help sustain the planet.

This article is part of Follow the Food, a series investigating how agriculture is responding to environmental challenges. Follow the Food traces emerging answers to these problems – both high-tech and low-tech, local and global – from farmers, growers and researchers across six continents.

Image copyright: Getty Images