Recently I attended a weekend workshop focused on forest farming.
I can hear you ask, “What’s forest farming?”
Well, it’s the process of growing non-timber forest crops beneath the canopy of an established forest. In this way, forest farming is a form of “productive conservation” – you’re reaping benefits of crops grown in the forest while protecting the land from destruction. Examples of non-timber forest farmed products include: maple syrup, medicinal plants, mushrooms, nuts, ornamental woodland species, and fruit. (Learn more here.)
All of these resources can be grown amongst trees that provide a host of invaluable ecosystem services such as shade, retention of organic soil matter, habitat for plants and animals, water quality protection, and hydraulic lift to maintain soil moisture. But if you work within a forest habitat effectively, not only can you maintain these services, but you can forest farm for an extra source of income, to reduce collection pressure on medicinal and ornamental woodland plants, for food, and to improve the overall health and conservation value of forests on your land.
Forest farming has quite a long history. Anthropologists suggest that some of the native U.S. woodlands were forest farmed by Native Americans. It appears that there was intentional manipulation of the forests and cultivation of trees such as paw paws (for fruit) and nut trees such as black walnut, hickory, oak, chestnut, butternut, and hazelnuts. I love to wander through our woods wondering if some of the older productive trees were intentionally placed there by Native Americans.
More recently, forest farming became discussed again in the 1920s when J. Russell Smith published information about his work with forest farming in the book: “Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture”. It’s pretty amazing that this sustainable form of food and medicine production isn’t more widely practiced, but we seem to have been stuck in a trap focused on fossil fuel intensive methods of farming for quite some time now.
However, as more of us become interested in permaculture, local foods, whole foods, and living sustainably, it seems like we will see resurgence in this method of production. Plus, there is definitely room for us to take these products to market! The value of gourmet mushrooms and hard-to-find medicinal plants is pretty outstanding.
Although we covered a lot of ground in this class, the two major topics were ginseng cultivation (I have my first baby ginseng plant!) and mushrooms.
It turns out that inoculating a mushroom log is a fairly easy process (provided you have the appropriate materials). To begin, you need a substrate on which to grow the mushrooms. Conventionally, oak is thought of as the best medium, but our instructor Ken Mudge’s research has shown that beech also works exceptionally well. You’ll also need to find mushroom spawn. In this instance, we inoculated the log with lion’s mane spawn.
To begin, we drilled 7/16” holes that were several inches apart from one another down four sides of the log.
We then placed mushroom spawn into each of the holes using a special inoculation device.
Then, each hole was covered with melted wax to keep the spawn protected.
In the end, all that must be done is to wait. Different strains of mushrooms take varying amounts of times for colonization (where the mycelium grows out of the plug and through the tree). This stage typically happens in a “laying yard” where the log is shaded (100% if possible) and kept from drying out. In about 18 months, the log will be fruiting with lion’s mane mushrooms! Yum!
I encourage you to learn more about this fun method of food production!
In the future, more information about forest farming will be available in the upcoming book co-authored by one of my class’s teachers, Ken Mudge, along with Steve Gabriel: Farming the Woods.
And by the way, for those of you who are interested in permaculture, forest farming is distinct from forest gardening, although that is an equally fascinating topic!
And finally – to reveal the surprise!
Did you already notice in the post?
That’s right, Mr. LF and I are having baby Light Footsteps who is bound to be interested in edible mushrooms and forest farming after this weekend. We are so very thrilled to be bringing about the next generation of permaculturists! I’m sure we’ll be sharing more about our efforts to raise a little one sustainably as we progress!