Farming the Woods

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What does one do with a forest?

For the past few centuries, North Americans have typically answered that question in one of three ways. One answer was preservation, to leave the forest alone and enjoy the valuable things it provides just by being there. A second approach was forestry, to manage the forest for its most obvious resource – timber. A third possibility was to cut the forest down to make way for a farm, an ecological redesign that replaced the original ecological community with a community of human choosing. In Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests, Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel offer another approach and argue persuasively that it ought to be more widely employed.

The central idea of Farming the Woods is that farms and forests are not mutually exclusive. “Forest farms” can produce a wide range of crops besides timber. Fruits, nuts, syrups, mushrooms, and forest-grown vegetables provide food. Herbs and mushrooms provide medicine. Forests can nurture livestock. Woody trees and shrubs can be cultivated for products other than timber, such as firewood, crafting products, and charcoals. And, the authors argue, farms based on these non-timber forest products can be both economically viable and ecologically sustainable.

The primary purpose of this book is not to simply advocate for more forest farms. Rather, it is to guide prospective forest farmers, both hobbyists and those with commercial aspirations, who want to turn their woodlots into productive forest farms. Comprehensive in its scope, Farming the Woods will be a valuable tool for people who want to compare forest crops, determine which suit their woodlot, and get started cultivating them in an ecological (and economical) way.

The text is lavishly supported by photographs and diagrams. Frequent sidebars offer case studies, step-by-step skill guides, resources, and recipes. The chapter on cultivating mushrooms is particularly well done, with excellent graphics that illustrate every step of the process. Other sections, on sugaring and managing forests to harvest firewood, for example, offer thorough introductions to these crafts with enough new tricks to keep more experienced hands satisfied.

As a forager, I took particular interest in the authors’ treatment of crops that are more commonly gathered wild. They suggest that many of these wild crops are more vulnerable to overharvest than they first appear and that cultivation of them is also a practice of conservation.

This book is not the first of its kind. Readers who have enjoyed books on permaculture design, agro-forestry, forest gardening, and other conservation-minded approaches to living with the woods will find much that is familiar. But Farming the Woods makes a unique contribution as a comprehensive guide that brings a wide array of forest farming practices together in one useful and attractive resource. It’s a book that’s sure to find a home on the shelves of those who love forests.

Benjamin Lord