Forest-to-table products are growing in popularity, not only for consumers, but for farmers as well.
A little more than 15 miles from the nation’s capital, a 10-acre experiment is under way. There, with wheat as a benchmark, landscape designer and permaculture practitioner Lincoln Smith is aiming to show that forest-based agriculture can produce a quantity of food-per-acre comparable to major crops.
The five-year-old experiment, however loosely defined, is beginning to bear fruit in the form of food as well as people learning about permaculture. Last year was the first for a community supported agriculture program as well as a forest-to-table supper in September prepared by Chef Michael Costa from D.C.’s Zaytinya, a Mediterranean restaurant. More than 1,000 people have been exposed to forest gardening through classes and tours at Forested.
For Smith, who has a degree in landscape design from The Conway School, Forested is a dream come true. A lecture by permaculture designer Dave Jacke greatly inspired Smith.
“I’ve been an environmentalist for a long time, but a lot of the environmental thinking in the U.S. has been ‘to repair the environment, get the humans out of it,’” said Smith. Instead, he believes it’s important to discover or rediscover ways of using land and live our lives in harmony with it or to benefit it in various ways. That, he says, is more inspiring than a simple footprint-reduction framework.
Smith worked at a residential landscape architecture firm in Annapolis, where, even though the projects were more often about “conspicuous consumption,” whenever possible, the firm encouraged clients to use native plants, install meadows and even take part in reforestation.
Most heartening was Jacke’s emphasis on the net primary productivity of the forest — how much plant material is produced each year from photosynthesis; how the forest is more productive despite not being fertilized or irrigated — as well as his encouragement to tap forests for fuel, fiber and food in ways that allow humans to reintegrate themselves with and restore ecosystems. But Smith remained skeptical.
A visit to family in London gave him the added push to quit his job and launch Forested. While in London, he visited Martin Crawford’s Agroforestry Research Trust, a forest garden established in Devon in 1992. “I wanted to see if Martin Crawford was just a charismatic person selling an idea or if there was substance there,” said Smith.
Smith didn’t initially call what he had in mind permaculture. Even though he finds permaculture inspiring as a grassroots movement, ways to define permaculture are myriad, and Smith doesn’t subscribe to all the definitions.
“That said, caring for people, caring for the land and some sense of giving back or sharing are great foundations. I tend to use ‘agroecology’ to describe what I’m trying to practice through forest gardening.”
Like many people, Smith was wedded to the idea that he needed his own land to start forest gardening, but he lived in Bowie, a suburb of D.C. with new housing developments and shopping centers and accompanying sky-high land prices. His wife works in the District and his children can walk to school, and he didn’t want to exchange that for a place in the country. He enlisted a realtor and looked at a lot of half-million-dollar properties, which quickly became discouraging.
He then began talking with neighbors. He asked a nearby church, which owns more than 80 acres, if he could rent some of the land. Because he sees forest-gardening as a long-term endeavor he was initially put off by the idea of renting land. “I thought about it more and actually became okay with the idea. Even if I could do it for a few years, even if I got kicked off, I could still learn a lot.”
It took about a year to get approved in principle, but Smith had to meet with every member of the local homeowner’s association whose neighborhood was wedged around the church’s property.
“It required a lot of patience, a lot of meetings and presentations, and sitting in living rooms where people were opposed to the idea, all of which was pretty hard.” Despite some opposition — a couple of homeowners were very concerned about the potential for trash or undesirable people coming around — many thought it was a good idea.
Smith discovered how to best communicate what he was doing more effectively. “Otherwise, everyone would have had their own ideas of what was going on out there. Instead, I had the chance to describe the project idea and the goals.”
Before beginning any work, he needed to install an access gate where the property fronts a busy road where people had sometimes illegally dumped things; that cost about $1,000. The gate sweetened the deal for people opposed, and he added a deer fence around the 10 acres.
“Having all these folks around and come through is so much better than if I were out in the country,” said Smith. “I would still have people over, but the land is part of the walking-loop trail in the local neighborhood.”
A core group of volunteers travels from D.C. and northern Virginia to help out.
“These people are desperate to have a reconnection with the land. If I were out in the country, they couldn’t have that. I’m lucky to be where I am.”
People who live next door and nearby are also involved. A teacher tends the ducks in the summer; volunteers mow the walking trails and clear branches; and a lawyer comes out after storms with his chainsaw to clear fallen trees.
Sectors, Zones and Mosaics
Among the 80-plus acres of land, an early question was where to site the 10 acres. Though Smith could have placed the forest garden in a corner, he chose to integrate it with the land’s walking trails. That idea faced opposition, but he says, “I wanted people coming through it. I wanted people to be able to interact with it.”
Smith made many visits to the site, in different seasons and always with a sketchbook. Although evaluating the site is an ongoing process, his initial assessment took more than six months. He noted where sectors were present — where water entered and exited the site; which directions prevailing winds tended to come from; how sunlight flowed across it. In time, he developed a rough trail layout that would encourage people to visit both field and established forest.
The basic layout has been through many iterations and gets updated as things change and shift. The space’s Zone 1 — the area that sees the most consistent use — is in the field, which had been farmed in row crops, probably tobacco at some point, and had been in hay. It’s where the most intensively managed plants are located, including beds of annuals, herbs and perennial vegetables; it’s also where classes are held and where people enjoyed the forest-to-table supper. It includes a canopy that serves as part of the understory and whose four posts provide structure for native honeysuckle vines that attract hummingbirds. The field has become an early successional forest, which is rare in the suburbs because people do not like overgrown-looking places, Smith said.
Smith’s patch design, which is already becoming visible in an aerial photo, includes: canopy trees, such as pecans; understory trees, such as chickasaw plums; plus understory shrubs, such as American highbush cranberry, blueberries and hazels — both American and hybrid types. This patch model is repeated through the field portion of the site. Throughout the field are nitrogen-fixers, including locust, alders and native false indigo, plus field plants like vetch and partridge pea and clover, which Smith and others seeded.
Smith is not dogmatic about native or non-native, though he has a strong preference to grow trees that are already on the site, which ensures they are likelier to survive. As an example, he prefers persimmons and cherries, but he has not taken a chainsaw to all of the Bradford pears, that spread easily. Instead, he uses them as root stock on which to graft fruit-producing pears, both Asian and European varieties. He has planted a large, mixed-species stand of bamboo with an 18-inch-deep trench. The stand serves as a windbreak for sun- and warmth-loving figs, pomegranates and feijoas, as well as provides food in the form of shoots.
The 2012 derecho brought down some trees and Smith and others have planted linden trees — which are both edible and medicinal — in the now-lightened spaces. He’s testing hog peanut to see how well it will grow against non-natives, such as Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose. He has also planted ostrich ferns along water channels he and volunteers created with logs as well as ramps and wintergreen.
Forest gardens require relatively little maintenance. Any forest undergoes disturbance periodically, and forest gardens involve intervention in the form of pruning and thinning and helping plants get established. There’s compost to be made and spread — with annual amounts at Forested of about 100 tons of wood chips, courtesy of tree companies, and 10,000 pounds of coffee grounds Smith’s wife, Becca, picks up from the local Starbucks. They get the occasional load of horse manure from a farm that eschews herbicides, and Smith has about five neighbors who set out their kitchen scraps for him to use; all are composted. Plus, says, Smith, “There’s always going to be harvest labor.”
Smith sees hands-on labor simply as a reality of creating and maintaining biodiversity. The design of conventional systems, whether a field or an orchard, is driven by the machines that do the maintenance and harvesting, but “they don’t do well with complexity.” Hence the need for human involvement.
Some 40 to 50 people have returned many times to help out and hundreds come for spring and fall events.
“There’s a lot of people who want to reconnect with outside, and I would argue the forest garden is better than your typical farming environment,” he says. “The polycultural aspect keeps it more mentally stimulating and interesting than 10 acres of veggies. We are trying to make this a place where people can re-engage with nature.”
Diverse Forest-to-Table Results
Besides planting for diversity, Forested has also managed to encourage natural diversity. For example, early on Smith and volunteers lightly cultivated some areas of the field to expose the soil before seeding it with pollinator plants. Of those, echinacea has thrived while goldenrod has come on its own. The goldenrod, says Smith, hosts a parasitic wasp, Scolia dubia, whose young eat Japanese beetle larvae. People working at the site collect seeds from these “seed banks” to disperse them elsewhere.
Smith’s business partner, Ben Friton, says, “We’ve already seen drastic improvement in organic matter, phosphorus increasing and a general trend upward of trace minerals.” He suspects that had the field been planted with annuals, they would have noticed those deficiencies immediately. Slow-growing perennials seem to tolerate deficiencies while they also, in effect, create and recreate the microbiome they need in their space, with the addition of some inputs such as composted mulch.
Friton, who joined Smith about three and a half years ago after taking a tour of Forested, had started a nonprofit, Can YA Love, to support his work on food security in East Africa, Kenya, in particular. He designed and patented two vertical planting systems that can be used to produce food by and for people with limited resources in places where the populations are dense and settlements informal. He acquired the patents so that corporations could not prevent the systems from being used in a philanthropic way to support food security. It was through that work that Friton, a former speech professional, met soil scientist Elaine Ingham, who supercharged his interest in soil microbiology.
“One of the things I’ve learned in ecosystem biomimicry is that no matter what kind of thing you’re growing, if you mimic what that ecosystem would give the plant, you’re going to support it,” he says.
At Forested, they’ve brought the forest to the field not only through composted mulch, but also by incorporating decomposing logs and putting them into the field. They use logs from different species, including spent shiitake logs, tulip poplar, oak and locust. Thanks to the logs, certain kinds of beetles and insects that live in and under and those microecosystems are finding their way into the field.
Friton sees extending the possibilities for agroecology into monocultural fields and riparian-buffer programs. For example, he says, corn growers could develop polycultures in the U-turn spaces when they combine-harvest on contour to help mitigate some of the collateral effects of corn production. Likewise, farmers who take part in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program could plant edibles as riparian buffers and perhaps sell some of what is produced.
Forested sells some of its products through an annual CSA program entering its second year. Smith expects the program to run this season from about April to November. A share costs $500 to $600 and includes herbs and flowers, greens, such as sea kale and sorrel, some annuals, such as tomato and yellow squash, native fruits such as pawpaw and persimmon, berries, such as mulberry and black raspberry, nuts, shiitake, oyster and winecap mushrooms as well as duck eggs. Ducks and geese are pastured in the field and moved about, depending on where they’re needed — to sanitize the veggie patches or go on slug patrol around the mushroom logs.
A potential product: acorns. They appeared in the “forest-to-table” supper as acorn falafel, acorn pawpaw cakes and an appetizer featuring shiso leaves with acorn gel, sesame and fermented sweet potato greens. Smith is experimenting with different species of acorns to make flour. He processed 12 pounds of acorns for the dinner. Processing is the limiting factor and includes harvesting, leaching the tannins and drying.
“We just don’t have a food system that supports three hours of labor for a pound of food,” he says. But he hopes for the day when there will be a community-scale processor to process acorns for flour.
Besides “propagating” the work of Forested through tours, volunteer opportunities and the CSA, Smith also has done designs for public food forests for lower-income residents in the cities of Hyattsville, College Park and Greenbelt. Residents have taken part in implementing, maintaining and enjoying them.
Smith’s design work — along with tours and classes — helps to foot the bill for Forested, though he hopes they will turn a profit this year. Though they could make a lot of money if they focused solely on mushroom production — Forested sells mushrooms to Chef Costa at Zaytinya — Smith says that would not be in keeping with the mission or emphasis on diversity.
Smith hopes he’ll be able to continue on the site with, perhaps in the future, a land trust purchasing it to keep it intact.
“This is obviously an experimental form of agriculture,” he says.
He spent Valentine’s Day dividing aronia bushes and planting suckers to create new shrubs.
“A ‘real’ orchard would buy them and get them in with a crew in one morning,” said Smith. “But I always return to — people are always going to have to eat, and the ecosystem needs to be restored. It provides the best-quality food and medicine for people. That’s not going to change, so we need to reintegrate as best we can. The bigger challenge is, how can we shift our culture to make our living from the forest? The forest works and every other creature is integrated with the forest, so I think we should be able to do it.”
By Leigh Glenn. This story first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A.
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For more information on Forested, visit forested.us or call 301-892- 8000.
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