There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world. Despite this great variety, our diets are dominated by a handful of staple crops.
The most popular 20 species account for 90% of our total botanical energy. There are many lesser known exotic plants from all around the world which are both delicious and nutritious.
Electing to eat the exotic not only satisfies gastronomic curiosity, it serves a higher ecological purpose. It is easier to protect edible plants that have a market value. Rare and exotic edible plants don’t immediately have a market value, it is up to us to create it to save them from extinction.
There is limited opportunity to sell rare produce in wholesale markets, however, there is a valuable opportunity to sell it directly to consumers, fresh, preserved, fermented or dried.
Tesco sell approximately 180 different fruit, vegetable and nut products. It is possible for a forest farm to sustain a similar number of different plant species (some generating 3 or more different products) and many species of fungi. The reality of seasonality means only a fraction of products are available at any one time.
A significant challenge in selling extraordinary produce is educating consumers as to why they should eat or at least try something new. Farmers’ markets, and the internet, provide an educational platform which is hugely valuable. Visibility is key to inspire future buyers of this extraordinary produce.
The choice to grow rare produce is not feasible for a commercial monoculture farmer; they cannot reasonably expect to sell tons of the unfamiliar.
For all but the most experienced chefs, cooking with something for the first time can prove challenging, and may put them off the ingredient for life. Drawing upon similarities to conventional produce can make the unknown less daunting. Empowering consumers with knowledge of how to cook the produce they are buying is an important hurdle to overcome.
The nation of England was once a dense forest. Thousands of years of human activity have seen the amount of woodland decrease significantly. A flight above our island shows that although the rains make the land green, open fields now replace the woodlands that once dominated from shore to shore.
Turning back the clock
Forest farming is an agricultural strategy which involves the planting of many different plant species on the same site. Mature forest farms are environments of extreme beauty.
A forest farm is modelled on a young woodland – a canopy exists but enough light can penetrate to the herbaceous ground covering plants. A three dimensional system of herbs, shrubs and canopy trees – forest farms create edible produce at different heights throughout the year.
Through intelligent design different species interact to collectively maintain the soil fertility. As the vast majority of crops in a forest farm are perennial (living for many years) the soil is undisturbed by harvest – this benefits soil fungi and in turn the crops themselves.
Nature’s grand larder
Forest farming produces a wide range of edible products: fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, salad crops, herbs, spices and mushrooms. There is also significant scope for the production of herbal medicines, soaps and dyes.
Forest farming creates a riot of colour, scents and wildlife – this a significant step away from the uniformity of arable monoculture. Mechanised monoculture farming is optimal for seeding and harvest efficiency.
It takes multiple years to establish reasonable yields from a site, the target is to improve yield year on year. This is a characteristic of a perennial crop based site, there is no starting from scratch as with annuals.
Advantages of forest farms over arable monocultures
- Forest based systems are more resilient to climate crises – this will become of greater significance due to global climate change.
- The plant covered soil of a forest farm stays wetter in drought and is more stable in flood than open fields.
- Large perennial plants can more easily exploit minerals available throughout the soil due to their larger root systems.
- Forest farms sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into the soil and woody biomass of shrubs and canopies.
- Polycultures provide a greater variety of habitats for insect life, critical members of our Earth’s ecosystems.
- Plant diversity in agriculture is beneficial to wildlife, soil, the environment and people.