Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Food Forest

We have been considering the dark side of food distribution as described by the ecology of the food desert and the food swamp. We now turn our attention to the more positive approaches and what we can do about food availability within the food desert, which will also help neutralize the food swamp.

A food forest is one way to reinvent food availability and distribution. The food forest uses concepts from permaculture that includes low-maintenance plant-base food production based on woodland species by using fruit and nut trees, edible shrubs, shade tolerant herbs, vines and perennial vegetables, which can be harvested and directly utilized by residents of our neighborhoods. In a technique called companion planting various species can be intermixed to grow in layers, to build a forest like habitat.

In the 1980s, Robert Hart first used the term "forest gardening" after adapting these forest principles for temperate climates. Mr. Hart created a system based on his observations that natural forests can be broken down into multiple distinct levels. He took an existing small apple and pear orchard and with intercropping he created an edible polyculture landscape with these specific layers:
  1. ‘Canopy layer’ consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
  2. ‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
  3. ‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
  4. ‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
  5. ‘Ground cover layer’ of edible plants that spread horizontally.
  6. ‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
  7. ‘Vertical layer’ of vines and climbers.
A key component of the Hart seven-layer system were the plants he selected. Hart utilized shade tolerant perennial vegetables. If you are interested there are lists of vegetables that will work in this environment. This seven layer system has become a permaculture design element.

Now that we have some of the concepts defined, how does this apply in Rochester. We can neutralize the food desert and swamp by planting fruit trees and edible perennials in our yards and boulevards. So instead of the need to bring the people to fresh healthy food, we can bring the farm right into the neighborhood and literally the backyard.

The great thing about this approach is that some of the trees and other plants that work in this system are quite delightful. Things like apples, pears, cherries, plumbs, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and even things like Shitake mushrooms. The minor down side to these plants is they typically require some maintenance and care to get started. Most of these plants are also seasonal and so would require some basic food preservation techniques. like canning or drying, to use off season.

We are just starting to experiment with these techniques on our farm. We have some areas of the farm that are not suited to growing vegetables due to the steepness of the slope of the land. These can be used to grow a perennial polyculture of our choosing. We have started some raspberries and asparagus. With the deer pressure at our farm, fruit trees might be a little difficult to get started, but once established would hold their own and thrive.

We are strongly in favor of using the "whole farm" for production, but are still gaining an  understanding of what this means. In the same way, urban landscapes can often be used in non-traditional ways. A grass boulevard can support fruit and nut trees, a back yard can grow trees, understory edibles and shade tolerant vegetables. The urban family can "live off the land" just like the rural family can.

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