Overstory #117 - Between Wildcrafting and Monocultures
Agroforestry is an approach to plant and animal production that intentionally integrates natural resources conservation objectives into the system. By strategically selecting combinations of woody and herbaceous plants and managing them to perform complementary agroecological roles, often with animals, the sustainability of producing multiple products with comparatively minimal external inputs can be enhanced. Environmental benefits that agroforestry systems generate often can be captured directly by the managing landowner through the creation of niches that over time favor the production of a variety of unique and profitable products.
This article explores the potential for producing nontimber forest products in agroforestry systems. By identifying options for this type of practice we aim to foster appreciation for the numerous opportunities that are present, and yet to be invented, for integrating specialty forest products into farms and rural enterprises. Expanding market demand for NTFPs provides an important incentive for landowners to invest in conservation farming practices through agroforestry. Such practices can serve also to limit the overexploitation of nontimber forest products from their native habitats.
Enthusiasm for designing and managing NTFPs in agroforestry systems is growing. Such practice is complex and uncertain, however, and experience has not been widely shared. Success will depend on a constellation of factors. Strategies for investing in NTFP production through agroforestry need to consider technical, economic, social, and institutional feasibility within particular cultural and ecological settings. We draw attention to key issues that influence the potential effectiveness of agroforestry approaches to producing NTFPs and suggest some means of addressing them that may help to unblock current constraints.
Wildcrafting and the problems of nontimber forest products
According to legend, when the English colonizers of North America arrived, a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. Forests were, and remain, the dominant ecosystem in some parts of North America. European colonists, with a strong agrarian cultural tradition, never really learned to live in or with American forests, which were used as a source of timber, fuel, and fertilizer in the form of potash. Occasionally a special forest product such as naval stores - the sap from longleaf and other pine trees (primarily used for caulking in wooden sailing vessels) - became a key resource in support of the emerging imperial economy in Great Britain. No attempt was made to conserve this resource, and converting even longleaf pine to farmland signaled the "advance of civilization" (Williams 1992).
In the colonial process of usurping land and rights to the land of native peoples, much indigenous knowledge acquired by Native Americans over the millennia was lost. But Native Americans held and continue to hold an abundance of knowledge about native vegetation and technology for its use. A notable example is the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), which is a major tree species of the forests in the Northeast, from Kentucky to Minnesota and Maine and on into Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces in Canada. Indigenous people in this region knew the sweet quality of the sap and developed ways to condense the sap into syrup using stone bowls and hot rocks (Nearing and Nearing 1950), technology that over time was adapted by white people to eventually create today's maple sugar and syrup industry.
Indians taught colonists about the medicinal uses of slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) (Missouri Dept. of Conservation 1993). They also identified the value of black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) for treating the symptoms of menopause. Black cohosh, a herbaceous perennial forest understory plant, is the main ingredient in Remifemine, an over-the-counter botanical packaged in Germany and sold in health centers. These are just four in a wide array of so-called nontimber forest products, or special forest products (SFPs), that have modern-day international markets.
Foresters have long overlooked the value of these plants and have directed their efforts to silviculture and timber extraction, and more recently to rotational production of timber in monocultures or mixed stands. Another group of forest users has tapped the resources of the understory, often without the knowledge and consent of the landowners, whether the U.S. Forest Service, timber companies, or private landlords. In the eastern mountains of North America, these folk learned to derive an income from the land in niches ignored by the mainstream (Krochmal, Walters, and Doughty 1971; Crellin and Philpott 1990). Wildcrafters, as this group is sometimes called, glean the forests for roots, fruits, bark, branches and sap, or other products that they then sell to middlemen or processors. Some wildcrafters also actively manage sections of land for production, though not necessarily in a systematic fashion (Emery 1998).
Many plants of economic or cultural value are potentially at risk and alternative production systems should be considered. Determining ways to propagate and cultivate these plants in an economically viable way is essential. New ways of managing and harvesting plant populations will be situated somewhere between wild grown stock and open field monocultures.
Ginseng: a model for NTFP development?
Of all NTFPs, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) stands out as one of the best understood, arguably the most endangered, and certainly one of the most economically valuable. Ginseng acquired its status by virtue of its role in Chinese medicine. The Chinese species (Panax ginseng) has long been valued as a tonic for increasing energy and virility. Men chew pieces of roots, which look like tiny, misshapen carrots, the best having a human-like appearance. Due to the overexploitation of Chinese forests and expanding populations, Chinese ginseng production no longer comes close to meeting demand. American ginseng has achieved status as a valuable replacement, though it is not considered an exact substitute (Foster 1995).
Wildcrafted American ginseng of acceptable quality, as determined principally by age and shape, may sell to the collector for over $500 per pound. When prices rise to such dizzying heights, more people consider expanding domesticated production. Both in China and the United States, growers have made strides in producing ginseng under artificial shade. Shade-grown ginseng is an ingredient in many products now sold in the United States: herbal teas, soft drinks with ginseng, and a variety of herbal supplements. This type of ginseng, however, does not fill the same market niche as the wildcrafted ginseng in high demand by the Chinese market. Monocropped product sells for between ten and twenty dollars a pound, hardly a profitable price, because the roots do not possess the shape, age, or color characteristics desired in the Chinese market (Hankins 1997).
Since truly wild ginseng is becoming increasingly rare, and mono-cropped, artificially shaded ginseng does not bring a high price in conventional markets, searches are under way for alternative production strategies. One such method is called wild-simulated production. This process involves preparing seedbeds in the plant's natural habitat, sowing seed or one-year-old rootlets, and letting nature do the rest. Producers claim that the wild-simulated product will be comparable to wildcrafted roots and sell in that high-priced market (Beyfuss 1998).
Producers have tried other methods of growing ginseng in the forest understory with more intensive production techniques. Instead of simply preparing beds, landowners like Bill Slagle in West Virginia prepare an entire section of understory after thinning a hardwood stand and then plant the area with ginseng (Temperate Agroforester 1999). This mixed hardwood and ginseng production system, combined with the growing of shiitake mushrooms on the thinned oak logs, is a prime example of an agroforestry system designed for an on-farm forest. Sustaining ginseng production via Slagel's intensive method, however, depends upon the use of substantial quantities of chemical inputs, which may impair the long-term viability of this currently highly profitable strategy.
There are four main characteristics of agroforestry systems:
- First, they are intentional. Conscious efforts are made to incorporate trees into farming systems to improve the overall productivity and health of the farm, including the on-farm forest.
- Second, such systems are intensive. When these systems are in place, the overall complexity and diversity of spatial or temporal use of land rises, as does the type of management interventions.
- Third, agroforestry systems are interactive. Relations between the trees and crops are manipulated, enhancing the production of more than one product while simultaneously providing conservation benefits such as erosion control or expanding wildlife habitat.
- Fourth, these systems are integrated. The trees and crops are not seen as separate units but are managed together to increase productivity and protect the farm's soil and water.
Though all agroforestry systems share these characteristics, the practices themselves are highly variable, depending on the ecology of the farm, the types of products the farmers wish to grow, and the ability to market them. Until recently, some NTFPs have not been considered major components of these systems, while others have been part of some systems from the earliest stages. There are five categories of agroforestry systems that vary regionally across the continent but have similar spatial characteristics. These are considered in turn, with examples of appropriate NTFP management.
-- Forest Farming
"Farming the agroforest" generally refers to turning the understory region of a forest environment into a production zone for NTFPs in an intentional, intensive, and integrated fashion. Forest farming involves manipulating forestlands to create conditions that are conducive to introducing agricultural or cropping techniques into the forest system (Hill and Buck 2000). Many farms have some woodland. These areas traditionally were sources for fuelwood, fenceposts, and building material from selected woody species and sometimes provided a haven for farm animals from temperature extremes. Farm woodlands occasionally were sources for wild berries or fruits as well but for the most part were left unmanaged and underutilized.
Each region of the country will feature different understory crops. Any location with the potential to sustain a forest, however, will likely have a healthy selection of herbs, botanicals, fruits, mushrooms, and more that can be managed in the understory among the trees. An example from the southeastern United States is saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), a low-growing palm that occurs as a major understory plant in pine (Pinus clausa) scrub and savanna throughout Florida and northward into parts of South Carolina and Mississippi. This endemic plant is important to many species of wildlife for nesting and protective cover and as a food source (Tanner, Mullahey, and Maehr 1995). Human interest in the plant has grown as "enviroscaping" has expanded, saw palmetto being naturally drought- and insect-resistant and requiring no fertilizer. Landscapers have found it difficult to transplant the species from the wild and have it survive, thus nurseries specializing in native species have begun to raise plants from seed to supply this market demand (Tanner, Mullahey, and Maehr 1995). The medicinal value of the saw palmetto fruit for relief of prostate gland swelling has led to its commercialization, and in 1995 its economic value began to make the news when the price for raw fruit exceeded three dollars per pound. A strong projected demand for the fruit by European pharmaceutical companies can supply an added economic value to the pine-dominated landscape from which it originates.
In years after the term agroforestry was coined, alleycropping received more research and extension attention than any other agroforestry practice. As the name implies, alleycropping involves alternating rows of trees and crops in a cultivated setting. Tree rows may be straight or follow contours. Spacing between rows differs based on the types of benefits desired from the trees. In tropical settings, one benefit sought was enhanced soil stability and fertility, using deep-rooted trees, commonly nitrogen-fixing, to stabilize soils and add nitrogen through leaf litter to the cropped area of the field. In this system, trees are closely planted in rows that are spaced from ten to thirty feet apart depending upon conditions. Frequent pruning of the trees is required for nutrient release and to reduce light competition. These systems have tended not to be popular with farmers due to the high levels of labor and management required to control competition and obtain their multiple benefits. Alleycropping in developing countries tends to be most successful in contour hedgerow configurations where controlling erosion is important and in commercial, cash crop situations on relatively high-potential lands.
In North America, alleycropping, or intercropping with trees, is focused less on nutrient cycling benefits and more on producing an annual crop on producing an annual crop from the tree itself. The predominant species in these systems is black walnut (Juglans nigra), with research on its value in field settings conducted by various institutions from Missouri to Ontario. The tree has two major sources of value: the nut, harvested annually from trees that are fifteen years old or more, and timber, especially from veneer-quality logs derived from well-pruned and managed plantations (Garrett et al. 1991). Trees are planted in rows between forty and sixty feet apart to allow for use of farm equipment and thinned and pruned in the rows to an eventual density of approximately thirty trees per acre.
Opportunities for managing NTFPs in alleycropping systems will change as the tree component matures. During the establishment stage, a sun-loving herb such as echinacea might be grown in the alleys between rows of young trees. A shade-loving plant such as ginseng or goldenseal might be planted within the rows of trees even at an early stage in the development of the system. As the trees mature and cast more shade over a wider area, increasingly shade-tolerant species could be cultivated in the alleys. There are a number of multipurpose trees that might be used in these systems such as willow for floral displays, or pine for pins rope or pine straw. Presently, however, there is little experimentation or information upon which to evaluate the potential of this type of practice. Most alleycropping efforts emphasize nut production from black walnut, pecan (Carya illinoensis), or various cultivars of American hazelnut (Corylus americana), some hybridized with the common European hazelnut (Corylus avellana).
-- Shelterbelts and Windbreaks
Shelterbelts and windbreaks have been part of North American farming systems for a long time. One or more rows of trees planted perpendicular to prevailing winds reduce wind speed, prevent or limit snowdrifts, decrease evaporation, and increase infiltration of water in properly designed systems. Although often providing secondary products, such as fenceposts and firewood, windbreaks are seldom-considered product production sites. Through the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. agricultural policies promoted efficiency in farm equipment, and commodity prices encouraged many farmers to take out windbreaks and shelterbelts. With crop prices down and incentive programs like the Conservation Reserve Program encouraging them to take erodible land out of production, farmers again are considering these practices. Many express interest in also using these sites for producing additional products.
Developing a marketable product from plants growing in field borders and shelterbelts has precedents. A company called Minnesota Wild developed a line of products from wild chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) commonly found in fencerows and other farm sites. Now many farmers manage the chokecherry for fruit production rather than as an opportunistic invader of a field border. Probably the key lesson from the chokecherry is that market development pulls production more readily than surplus production can push marketing.
-- Riparian Buffer Zones
Probably no agroforestry land use has received more recent research support than the riparian buffer zone. The need to protect streams from erosion, nutrient loading, chemical pollution, and other forms of degradation associated with agriculture and urban sprawl spurs this research. Resources available to address these problems are large and growing (Tjaden 1998).
Tjaden (1998) lists a number of items that could grow in riparian zones for a profit. These include aromatic herbs, Christmas trees and greens, cooking wood, decorative cones, ginseng (upper flood plain only), nuts, shiitake mushrooms, and weaving and dyeing materials. To this list we could add poplars and willows for harvest as fuel or wood shavings to use as animal bedding, various riparian florals like pussy willow or curly willow, and medicinal plants such as slippery elm. Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) has an exceptionally wide range of traditional and medicinal uses by Native American groups throughout much of North America. Growing naturally in river bottoms and on low fertile hills from southern Newfoundland to central Florida, its ecological range extends west across much of North America. It is the white, inner bark of this forty- to fifty-foot tree that is used as an aromatic as well as for a variety of medicinal purposes (Harding 1972).
-- Silvopastoral Systems
Upon first consideration, integrating animals with special forest products may not seem a good idea. Given unrestricted access to forestland, animals will graze the understory down to bare soil, trample roots, and often browse or strip tree boughs and bark. In a silvopastoral system grazing needs to be carefully managed, which does not mean that the productivity of the animal component of the system must suffer. In fact, there is strong evidence that intensive, rapid rotation grazing actually increases the carrying capacity of the land as well as stimulating understory and grass growth. Much of the information on such practices comes from the work of Allan Savory (1988) on holistic resource management.
The basic theory is that cattle and other grazing or browsing animals in their natural state are always on the move. They move to avoid predators, keep ahead of flies, and pursue fresh fodder. Placing animals in a single field for long periods induces selective overgrazing and promotes degradation. By making fields smaller, moving cattle regularly, and providing alternative watering systems, the animals tend to concentrate on grass and herbaceous material, do less trampling damage, and eat less woody growth. This approach can increase the survival of an established tree component and permit the harvest of tree-grown products, although understory products would suffer from periodic grazing.
Regional and agroecological variations in NTFP resources for on-farm situations
A strategy to intentionally cultivate nontimber forest products raises a number of questions. Plant geneticists have not selected for cultivars of most NTFP species under cultivation or studied the factors affecting their growth. The economic potential of NTFP species is also poorly understood, and high demand for a wild-grown product does not necessarily translate into cultivars reaping the same profits. In addition, social impacts occur after domesticating a new crop, and these can be difficult to forecast. Finally, a sophisticated network of government agencies, commercial enterprises, and private consulting firms already serves industrialized agriculture in North America by helping farmers cope with selection, cultivation, and marketing questions. Similar services are not readily available for entrepreneurial landowners interested in new-to-market NTFPs.
The table below presents a list of NTFPs found in the four predominantly forested regions, arranged by product type. Some products are widely known, others less so, but all are expected to have market potential soon. Despite considerable regional overlap, especially in the East, cultivation practices in different regions may require the development of different cultivars that are adapted to regional conditions.
|Bear grass||American bittersweet||American holly||Christmas trees|
|Western juniper||Black walnuts||Bankers willow||Easter red cedar|
|Western red cedar||Christmas trees||Birch||Grape vines|
|Incense cedar||Corkscrew willow||Black ash||Pine straw|
|Christmas trees||Hybrid poplar||Boughs (fir and pine)||Pine rope|
|Hybrid poplar||Red osier dogwood||Christmas trees||Spanish moss|
|Noble fir (boughs)||Russian olive||Corkscrew willow||Smilax smallii|
|Boletes||King Stropharia||King Stropharia||Morels|
|Matsutake (pine mushrooms)||Oyster||Oyster||King Stropharia|
FOOD: NUTS, FRUIT
|Berries (variety)||Black walnuts||Berries||Black walnuts|
|Honey||Maple syrup||Maple syrup||Persimmons|
|Buckthorn||Black cohosh||Black cohosh||Black cohosh|
|Devil's club||Blue cohosh||Blue cohosh||Goldenseal|
|Pacific yew||Goldenseal||Goldenseal||Slippery elm|
Agroforestry is an important land use option for many landowners, particularly farmers who seek to diversify their operations ecologically and economically. Agroforestry practices can provide a variety of services such as crop protection from wind, riparian zone protection, soil conservation, and habitat for pollinators and pest predators. They also can provide products for additional income, such as fenceposts, firewood, foods, herbs, nursery plants, and others. NTFPs can fit into agroforestry systems to improve overall productivity, diversity, and ecological health.
Agroforestry, however, is not a simple solution. Such practices tend to require careful planning and design and knowledge-intensive management. Nor is agroforestry development a rapid process. Most NTFPs take time to establish and may require several years to bring a significant return. In the long run, however, agroforestry systems that include NTFPs can contribute importantly to sustainable agricultural development and to forest quality improvement while generating significant economic returns to the landowner (Buck, Lassoie, and Fernandes 1999). Accepting this challenge over more conventional pathways to crop development through monocropping is a mission that can help bind natural resources professionals and practicing land managers in their quests for innovative solutions to the imperatives of natural resources conservation and sustainable economic development.
Beyfuss, R. 1998. The Practical Guide to Growing Ginseng. Freehold, NY: Robert Beyfuss.
Buck, Louise E., J. P. Lassoie, and E. C. F. Fernandes. 1999. Agroforestry in Sustainable Agricultural Systems. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Emery, Marla R. 1998. "Invisible Livelihoods: Nontimber Forest Products in Michigan's Upper Peninsula." Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University.
Foster, S. 1995. Forest Pharmacy: Medicinal Plants in American Forests. Durham, NC: Forest History Society.
Garrett, H. E., J. E. Jones, J. K. Haines, and J. P. Slusher. 1991. "Black Walnut Nut Production under Alleycropping Management: An Old but New Cash Crop for the Farm Community." In The Second Conference on Agroforestry in North America, ed. H. E. Garrett, pp. 159 - 165. Columbia: University of Missouri School of Natural Resources.
Hankins, A. 1997. "Wild-Simulated Ginseng Cultivation." Temperate Agroforester. January.
Harding, A. R. 1972. Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants. Columbus, Ohio: A. R. Harding.
Hill, D. B., and L. E. Buck. 2000. "Forest Farming." In North American Agroforestry: An Integrated Science and Practice, ed. H. E. Garrett, W. J. Rietveld, and R. F. Fisher. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy.
Krochmal, Arnold, Russell S. Walters, and Richard M. Doughty. 1971. A Guide to Medicinal Plants of Appalachia. Washington DC. U.S. Forest Service.
Missouri Department of Conservation. 1993. Missouri Special Forest Products Project: Final Report. Corvallis, OR: Mater Engineering.
Savory, A. 1988. Holistic Resource Management. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Tanner, G., J. J. Mullahey, and D. Maehr. 1995. "Saw Palmetto: An Ecologically and Economically Important Native Palm." Circular WEC-109. Gainesville: University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Range Science Program.
Tjaden, R. 1998. "Real and Potential Income Opportunities for Riparian Areas." In Natural Resources Income Opportunities for Private Lands: Conference Proceedings, April 5 - 7, 1998, ed. J. S. Kays, G. R. Goff, P. J. Smallidge, W N. Grafton, and J. A. Parkhurst, pp. 199 - 208. College Park: University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.
Williams, Michael. 1992. Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
This article was excerpted with the kind permission of the authors and publisher from:
Teel, W.S. and L.E. Buck. 2002. "Between Wildcrafting and Monocultures: Agroforestry Options." In: Nontimber Forest Products of the United States, Jones, E.T., R.J. McLain, and J. Weigand (eds). University Press of Kansas. Copies of this publication can be purchased from:
University Press of Kansas 2501 West 15th St., Lawrence, KS 66049 Tel: 785-864-4155; Fax: 785-864-4586 Web: http://www.kansaspress.ku.edu/jonnon.html
A special thanks is extended to The Institute of Culture and Ecology http://www.ifcae.org/ who co-edited and contributed several chapters to Nontimber Forest Products of the United States.
About the authors
Wayne Teel is an assistant professor in the environmental science sector with the Department of Integrated Science and Technology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. His work at the university centers on undergraduate teaching and research including water quality, riparian land use, sustainability, and the interface between Shenandoah Valley agricultural systems and woodlands. Before JMU he did work on Special Forest Products with Cornell University (where he did his graduate studies) in cooperation with Dr. Louise Buck and water quality work in the Shenandoah Region. His interest in agroforestry was developed in Africa, where he spent 9 years working with the Mennonite Central Committee in Sudan, Kenya and Mozambique, developing extension materials and doing research on agroforestry practices relevant for small farms. During the time in Kenya he also wrote a small book on trees in that country useful for agroforestry, focusing primarily on indigenous species. Dr. Teel, who is originally from Seattle, WA, can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Louise Buck is a Senior Extension Associate with the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and a Senior Associate Scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research. Her interests are centered on actor-based knowledge and information systems to support integrated natural resource management. At Cornell she coordinates and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in agroforestry, and manages an integrated research and outreach program on forest farming systems of agroforestry practice in the Northeastern US. Louise worked for a decade in Eastern Africa with CARE International and ICRAF on agroforestry and rural development, in program management, research and technical advisory roles. She is senior editor of Agroforestry in Sustainable Agriculture (1999, CRC Press). As a social scientist engaged in forest management issues, Louise has facilitated action research to understand relationships among stakeholders in protected area management and to improve protected area management systems. She is senior editor of Biological Diversity: Balancing Interests through Adaptive Collaborative Management (2001, CRC Press). Address: Fernow Hall, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853; Tel: 607-255-5994, Email: email@example.com.
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