New Farm Correspondence: Agroforestry Open House

One of the goals of New Farm Development Initiative is connect new farmers in the region with training oportunities and knowledgeable mentors. As part of this goal, we offer support to new farm correspondents who wish to attend and travel to agriculture industry events. These correspondents assist us in linking to information and contacts available in our region and beyond and provide valuable insight into the value of attending such events.

About Cam

I’ve been a student at UNBC for four years, and I can’t wait to farm this summer! I’m part of a small crew of students who will be growing food on a chunk of Foreman Flats that hasn’t been cultivated in over 20 years. I’m always interested in learning about food production, through both agriculture and harvesting wild foods, and I’m looking forward to lots of learning through experience this season. The birch syrup workshop was a great opportunity to learn about a non-timber forest product that I hope to produce and consume from now on!

Learning About Agroforestry

agroforestryopen houseWhile the primary purpose of farming is food production, any experienced farmer understands the importance of the forest, not just the fields. While the term ‘agroforestry’ may be unfamiliar to many of us, basic agroforestry practices are already integrated into many farms across northern BC. Agroforestry BC defines it as a “land management approach that purposefully integrates the growing of trees with crops or livestock”, including common strategies like shelterbelts or windbreaks along the edges of fields, and new approaches like forest farming to simultaneously produce timber and foods such as berries or mushrooms. Different climates offer different opportunities for agroforestry, and northern farmers could benefit from implementing existing tried-and-true methods and participating in ongoing agroforestry research in our area.

In an effort to spark interest and action around agroforestry, the Resources North Association (RNA) hosted an Agroforestry Open House on September 23rd. The event gave the agricultural community an opportunity to learn about agroforestry, with plenty of resources and handouts (and food) provided to fuel discussion. In addition to agroforestry-specific information, a wide variety of other farm-related information was available, including mentorships for new farmers, business management for existing farmers, and ideas around urban agriculture and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Opportunities for agricultural innovation in the north are abundant at the moment, and it seems like information, support, and even funding are available to those interested in experimenting!

Agroforestry, however, is by no means a new experiment – careful placement of trees, hedges, and bushes on and around the farm has benefitted farmers for centuries. In a conversation with a local vegetable and cattle farmer, I learned that cows will graze on young deciduous trees while leaving the conifers alone. Since spruce, pine, and fir are more valuable as lumber than poplar and cottonwood, using cattle to manage forest composition contributes to a profitable woodlot while also providing pasture among the trees, or ‘silvopasture’. Already used by farmers in the north, this strategy is one easy way to integrate forestry and agriculture within one farm system.

In other situations, however, deciduous trees are the desired outcome, and can be managed to provide fibre and fuel as well as windbreaks, snow fences, riparian conservation, and runoff control. Research from the USDA’s National Agroforestry Center describes several ways to use poplar and willow as short-rotation woody crops (SRWC) that rotate through a harvesting cycle ranging from 1 to 10 years. In multi-row stands, alternate rows can be harvested after the previously harvested row has grown back to a sufficient size, providing a permanently forested line (for erosion control, windbreak, visual barrier, etc) and producing wood biomass. These rows are commonly grown at the edge of a field, but can also be planted between rows of crops, known as ‘alley cropping’.

These methods are simple ways for farmers to begin implementing agroforestry on their farm, but more complex strategies can produce a wide variety of edible and marketable non-timber forest products with relatively low labour requirements. ‘Forest farming’ or ‘edible forest gardening’ involves designing forests to produce food while also creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that requires little maintenance. While it originated in the tropics and often uses fruit and nut trees, this approach can still be applied in the north using hardy fruit trees, native berry bushes, herbs and other plants that can be harvested for consumption as food or medicine. Since these systems take several years to reach maturity it may be worthwhile to start planting your food forest now, and expand and modify the forest in the future as research provides advice on how to implement this approach in the north.

There are, however, some farms in the Central Interior that already generate revenue from the forest; Moose Meadows Farm near Quesnel sells syrup and other birch-based products from their woodlot, and also harvest conifer boughs for decorative wreaths. They can be contacted directly, but the Resources North Association is also organizing tours, courses, and more networking opportunities for farmers interested in agroforestry. RNA has engaged in partnerships with government departments and other organizations to begin establishing a community of practice around agroforestry in northern BC as the industry develops.

Growth of the industry in other parts of the province is already well underway through the Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative (funded by Agriculture Canada and delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation BC), and more information can be found on the Agroforestry BC website . With a growing agricultural sector and deep roots in forestry, agroforestry could be the perfect opportunity for economic growth and sustainable production of food and forest products in northern BC.

Posters and resources from the Open House in Prince George are available through RNA at http://www.resourcesnorth.org/rna/573/2013+activities, where you can also find information about the upcoming “Agroforestry and Environmental Stewardship Tour” of Murray Creek on October 16th, a rehabilitated riparian site near Vanderhoof.

RNA Agroforestry
Photo of the Agroforestry open house courtesy of Cam Bell