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What is Forest Farming?

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Forest farming is the management of an existing forest canopy to support the growth of a variety of edible, medicinal, and decorative nontimber forest products (NTFPs) within the forest. NTFPs can include medicinal plants, food crops, ornamentals, and wood products. Some examples of NTFPs are mushrooms, herbs such as black cohosh, and ferns. While many of these plants either require or can thrive in shaded environments, they benefit from intentional forest management activities such as cutting down some trees to thin the canopy and allow more sunlight to filter to the forest floor.

Image: Ginseng forest farm

There are three approaches to managing and harvesting woodland plants – wildcrafting, wild simulated, and woods cultivated. Wildcrafting refers to harvesting wild populations of forest species. Finding and picking morel mushrooms or gathering acorns are examples of wildcrafting. Wild simulated and woods cultivated are more labor intensive approaches to producing NTFPs. Wild simulated is the practice of growing NTFPs in a managed forest stand to provide the most optimal environment for the production of the species of interest. In this scenario, the goal is to mimic the growth and appearance of the NTFP as one would find it in the wild. Lastly, woods cultivated requires the most labor as NTFPs are produced in raised beds or under more intense production methods which can include constructing cloth canopies for controlled artificial shade. The goal is to maximize the production potential of the NTFPs. With the extra care, woods cultivated NTFPs often grow larger and more quickly than wild simulated or wildcrafted but cost more in terms of time and resources to produce. Forest farming is a great approach for wild simulation of NTFPs.

Images left to right: shiitake logs stacked in forest, ginseng plants, ginseng root

Species grown in forest farming systems include ginseng, goldenseal, ramps, black cohosh, and shiitake mushrooms. The market for each of these species varies with ginseng and shiitake having relatively established markets and other forest crops growing in popularity.

The practice of forest farming is receiving increased interest as farmers and outdoor enthusiasts alike seek opportunities to connect with their forested lands, support conservation, and harvest edible products either for market or home consumption. Forest farming is unique in that the practices can simultaneously improve forest species conservation, generate wildlife habitat, produce important products for human use, and provide important recreational opportunities.

There are plenty of books, guides, and workshops available to assist serious grower and recreationist in pursuing forest farming. Farming in the Woods by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel and Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal, and other Woodland Medicinals by Jeanine Davis and W. Scott Persons are great information sources to dive into for forest farming.

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