Forest farming involves the cultivation or management of understory crops within an established or developing forest. These systems represent integrated management of timber (which produces the canopy or overstory) and non-timber forest crops (which can be found below the canopy in the understory). The canopy of the forest is modified and maintained to provide the correct micro-conditions and protection for quality production of the understory or non-timber forest crops. Forest farming is a type of agroforestry, a land-management system that integrates agriculture and forestry on the same landscape. Forest farming may take place in a natural forest setting or in a more organized plantation and can be a sustainable production system that helps keep a forest healthy by introducing more diversity to the landscape. Management may range from intensive cultivated systems in which plants are introduced into the understory of a timber stand, to extensive approaches in which forest stands are modified to enhance the marketability of existing plants.
Forest farming combines the ecological stability of natural forests with higher productivity of agricultural systems. It is appropriate for marginal lands that may not be suited for intensive agriculture or for producing quality timber. Forest farming is relevant to a large segment of North America’s landowners. “Family forests” throughout this area have tremendous potential to incorporate forest farming to generate added income. In addition to creating income, the practice provides great opportunities to feed people and animals, to regenerate soils and restore aquifers, to control floods and drought, and to create microclimates that are beneficial and lead to more comfortable living conditions.
The intentional cultivation of high-value specialty crops under a forest canopy not only directly benefits the land owner, but also helps to conserve natural populations of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) that could otherwise become over-exploited. Most non-timber forest products are harvested from natural populations with little or no attention paid to management of the resources from which they originate. But forest farming is an alternative approach to providing NTFPs that can reduce pressures on natural populations, provide markets with consistent supplies of sustainably produced raw materials, and provide landowners new income opportunities.
People have been collecting and using NTFPs for personal use, long before the products had commercial value. Wreaths, bouquets, garlands, and other floral products have been used for their aesthetic value to decorate households and to bring enjoyment to the people who make and view them. Edible forest products — greens, vegetables, fruits, saps — grace peoples’ tables for added nutrition and as condiments. NTFPs are crafted into jewelry, tools, toys, and other personal products. Our personal connections to forests would be significantly diminished without non-timber forest products. For an example, see the research and publications of Marla Emery — (www.nrs.fs.fed.us/people/memery).
At the same time, NTFPs have economic value and have been collected for commercial use for hundreds of years. NTFPs are harvested for medicinal, culinary, floral, as well as the craft segments of a global industry. They are marketed directly to final consumers or through formal and informal market channels. NTFPs are harvested by people who make their entire living off sale of the products and by part-time harvesters who supplement income. They may be processed into finished, value-added products, such as carvings, walking sticks, jams, jellies, tinctures, or teas, which are marketed as specialty products for niche markets. Many are harvested and marketed as commodities — large quantities at low values. They are classified in many different ways, but one common method is into four major product categories: culinary, wood-based, floral and decorative, and medicinal and dietary supplements (Chamberlain et al. 1998) [ www.sfp.forprod.vt.edu]. For photo examples of medicinal, edible and decorative forest farming products, please visit the Forest Farming Flickr page.
To find possible non-timber forest products, all you need to do is look straight ahead, or down, while you walk through the forest. Take an inventory of what you see. Learn the common and scientific names. Then, do an Internet search to learn more about the flora and fungi of the forests, their social, ecological, and economic importance. Be creative in search terms, but try searching for non-timber forest products, non-wood forest products, edible forest products, medicinal, and especially the plant’s common name. Finding the markets may be a bit more challenging, but with persistence you can figure out the channels through which you can market the products.