8 Ways To Start Sustainably Farming Your Forest Today

You don’t need to clear out forestland to have a productive farm. These crops actually prefer the forest shade.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Forest Farming/Flickr

Without much sunlight and with towering trees standing post, the forest just doesn’t seem like the friendliest of places to farm. Farmers will typically take their timber and firewood, and leave it alone. However, the forest holds a great deal of potential, not just for hauling out wood but for profit. You can grow woodland plants or herbs, edible mushrooms, and much more. Forests can be regenerative, sustainable places to make a little extra money and a great use of what is most often underutilized,but perfectly good farmland.

1. Grow Ginseng & Woodland Herbs

You will notice if you walk into any forest, there are many plants you never see in pastures or gardens. These are plants that have reasoned they’re happy to take a little less sunlight for a little less competition. And some of those plants are high dollar and very valuable crops. This is especially true for crops like ginseng, which when “wild simulated” (planted in a forest as opposed to found wild) can fetch upwards of $100 per pound—wild can reach several thousand dollars per pound. Other herbs, like goldenseal, can go for upwards of $20 per pound. Now, these crops can take several years to establish and should never be grown in monoculture, but can be highly profitable in the long run. For the best guide on this type of growing, pick up a copy of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal & Other Woodland Medicinals (Bright Mountain Books, 2007) by W. Scott Persons and Jeanine M. Davis, a book that focuses on both using the best management practices and turning a profit.

2. Grow Ramps

Every spring, chefs the world over eagerly anticipate the first ramps. Ramps, aka wild leeks, are some of the earliest and most flavorful wild edibles, popping out of the ground in March or April in many places. Fortunately, they can also be planted and harvested like anything in your fields if conditions are met.

In their book Farming the Woods (Chelsea Green, 2014), Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel say, “Ramps grow well in moist, rich soils with slight acidity, often the very type found in many hardwood forests.” Seeds and bulbs for starting ramps, either purchased or found, can be used for propagating this crop. Just make sure to harvest no more than 10 percent in any one season to sustain the ramps for many years.

3. Grow Sunchokes

Also known as Jerusalem artichokes, sunchokes are, despite their name, a well-suited crop for forest production. They do not require abundant sun and can even thrive under walnut trees, where most plants cannot survive the the toxic chemical juglone that the tree secretes. A relative to the sunflower, sunchokes grow impressively tall and can be added to cut-flower mixes. Once their yellow flowers are done, you can dig the edible root in the fall. Because sunchokes are somewhat invasive, plant the roots—in spring or fall—somewhere you do not mind them staying permanently or spreading out a bit.

4. Make Syrup

If you have access to birch, maple, walnut or sycamore trees, then you can make your own syrup—and you don’t need to be in the north. So long as you have an extended period of time where temperatures are below freezing, you will have good sap flow on these species. (We have no problems here in southern Kentucky.) Generally, in the late winter, temperatures will begin to go below freezing at night but above during the day. This is the time to harvest sap.

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There is much nuance to this practice, but essentially it involves drilling a small hole in the tree, placing a spile in that hole, and then collecting the resulting sap during the warmer hours. That sap must then be boiled off, skimmed regularly, then canned once it reaches the desired temperature and consistency. For more on this practice, pick up The Sugar Makers Companion (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) by Michael Farrell or How To Make Maple Syrup (Storey, 2014) by Alison and Steven Anderson.

5. Raise Animals

Pigs, ducks, guinea fowl and chickens all love the woods. These non-ruminant animals can get much of what they need from the forest floor and don’t require as much greenery as, say, cattle or sheep. Pigs love the bugs and grubs hidden in the leaf litter combined with the coolness of the soil. Without sweat, they need outside temperature controls—this is where wallowing comes from. Chickens, turkeys and guineas also thrive on the bugs, but likewise enjoy the protection of the canopy from predators.

What about goats? Yes and no. Goats can be great in a woodland situation and can even clear out briars, but they will also kill trees by eating the bark and destroying ground vegetation if left in one place too long. It’s best to rotate goats quickly and use them strategically in the woods, especially to clear out poison ivy, briars, honeysuckle and other invasive species.

6. Grow Mushrooms

Mushrooms are particularly well-suited for the forest because of how much they don’t just love shade but often require it. The woods offer a nice environment, as well as many of the materials, needed to grow food. Although growing under natural leaves you subject to nature’s whims, some mushrooms, like maitakes, are actually easier to grow outside versus indoors, according to mycologist Tradd Cotter in his book Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015). Locate places you can’t grow anything else, and you could quickly have a productive mushroom patch—or whole mushroom forest.

7. Grow Fruit

Perhaps more underutilized than the forest itself is the forest’s edge. Here is a great place to plant understory trees, like paw paws or mulberries, with blackberry or raspberry cane beneath them. This way, you’re utilizing space that so often just grows up to briars and impenetrable brush to produce edible and marketable food. Other excellent crops for this might be may apples or grapes, which naturally grow against the woods, and most anything else that vines, such as kiwis and passion fruit.

8. Cut Lumber

There are sustainable, even regenerative ways to cut timber from your forest that are not clear cutting. Coppicing, for instance, as described in detail by Bret McLeod in The Woodland Homestead (Storey Publishing, 2015) is “a reproduction method whereby a tree is cut back periodically to stimulate new growth through dormant buds on the ‘stool,’ or stump.” This allows you to harvest firewood, mushrooms logs, posts and other valuable items from the same tree in half of the time. Moreover, coppicing retains the living roots, which helps prevent erosion. Between that practice and pruning or thinning your forest, the resulting timber can become a great source of revenue for someone trying to farm predominantly in the woods. This may require a few tools—chainsaw, portable sawmill and maybe a draft horse or two for hauling—but could be worth the upfront investment for the long-term payoff.

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