Conventional agriculture, intended to feed the world, can also create soil erosion, poison the ecosystem, and deplete soils at an alarming rate: ultimately threatening our ability to produce food for future generations. In the quest for more sustainable methods of food production, many growers are returning to the past by farming in forests.
Agroforestry is an ancient form of agriculture that was common on many farms until the advent of chemical fertilizers and machine-based farming. It worked in partnership with field-based methods, in places that often were not ideal for tilling, such as hills, slopes, and rough terrain.
Crops are grown vertically in layers, where hardwood trees like chestnuts, hickory, and walnuts share space with smaller trees such as cherries and apples. Beneath this canopy, berries and other food-producing shrubs create an understory that provides cover to perennial vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb. Mushrooms, ginseng, and herbs can also thrive in the woods.
“The forest is a very stable ecosystem. The food coming out of there is much less vulnerable than our cropping systems,” says Steve Gabriel, a mushrooms and agroforestry specialist at Cornell University’s Small Farms program. He’d like to see a return to forest farming as a way to save trees and grow food simultaneously.
Agroforestry can also provide additional, repetitive income to farmers who grow trees for wood or other commercial products, which is often a lengthy process.
Forest farming also creates feed for livestock, which are used to eat grasses, unharvested nuts, and insects, all while fertilizing the woodland floor. The entire system works together to produce fertility, sequester carbon, retain water, and improve the health of local waterways.
By reuniting forests with farmland, farmers can boost food security, creating a landscape that isn’t exhausted through overuse, not only generating a bountiful, renewable harvest for future generations, but saving trees and wildlife around the world as well.
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