Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tropical Food Forests: Sustainable Farming Meets Sustainable Forestry

When I think of a farm, I think of fields of grain, bushes covered in berries, and an orchard ripe with fruit. Despite my permaculture tendencies, the image that immediately leaps to mind when someone says “farm” is a farm of a single crop in long, straight rows. Then the more diversity-loving and sustainable side of my brain leaps in, admonishing the other side for the image, chiding it with mental images of companion planting and layered gardens.

No matter how much of a sustainable food lover or farmer you are, when most people think of a farm, a forest likely does not spring to mind. Forests? They’re for trees, for animals, maybe for those who gather food to a minimal degree. They’re not for intensive food production. Or are they? In landscapes where people desperately need to harvest food and forest cover must be maintained, food forestry or agroforestry is becoming a more and more viable option.

In the Philippines, food forestry has been practiced for generations. This island nation has a relatively small land base and a burgeoning population. Pressures on the land are intense, and as lowland farmers have moved into the hilly upland areas, farming practices have started to shift. There is a push towards agroforestry: sustainable farming that incorporates trees, food crops, and animals, all in one place. In addition to fruit, the trees also produce animal fodder, fuel, polewood, resins, and medicines. The forest becomes a farm, and the farm becomes a forest.

In the mountainous regions of the Philippines, removing the tree cover to create a farm can mean that the soil slips away. The water goes too, down into the valleys to create flash floods. By keeping existing trees and growing new trees for fruit and firewood, farmers help keep the soil in place and help that water drain more slowly into the soil, where it can sustain animals and other crops. Trees also help sequester carbon, and tropical forests play an essential role in reducing climate change.

Interestingly enough, after decades of research, education and practice in tropical countries, the idea of food forestry is finally making its way to temperate climes. Forest gardening is catching on in permaculture circles in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Drawing from examples like Robert Hart’s small forest food garden in Shropshire, forest gardeners try to create edible landscapes that begin with temperate forest trees.

As I muddle through the seasons in my small backyard, which is dominated by a maple tree, I like to think that I’m moving this trend forward as well. While my ostrich ferns and sweet cicely may not feed the nation, they provide food and tea for my family – a touch of sustainable agroforestry outside my door.

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