The “Ice-Cream Forest”

A few years back, we were having dinner with our friend Rui, and we were talking about the problem of wildfires in Portugal. Every year thousands or millions of hectares go up in flames in a country that only has 8 million hectares. And though that’s terrifying enough in theory, the reality looks like Rui’s land. In 2005, his young woodland disappeared in a few minutes, and in the rains that followed, tons of topsoil eroded away. After the fire, Rui spent a decade managing his land, doing everything he could to minimize the risk of future fires. He planted trees, kept the understory cut while letting native trees grow in, and an ecosystem began to stabilize. Wild animals began to settle in, often spending whole days eating his grasses. And then one afternoon in 2017, it all burned away again.

Over dinner we talked through the main problems and solutions of wildfire. “It’s the abandonment of the land.” we said. “We need to bring people back to the country.” “It’s the microparcels.” we said. “We need to learn how to develop on a micro scale.” “It’s the lack of funding in rural Portugal.” we said. “We need to find a way to channel money for ecology, or it will all burn away.”

As the night went on, though, we couldn’t help but take up a sillier solution:

Ice cream.

I like to imagine an ice cream cone so large it puts out hectares of fire as it falls from the sky. But in reality, we were talking about a productive forest that grows all the ingredients we would need to make many different flavors of our own ice cream. A forest so vibrant and alive that it breathes life and moisture. A forest so cared for that it resists fires much better than its neighbor.

Over the next few months we set out to design that forest.

An “Ice Cream Forest”

The Ice Cream Forest

As we were already looking for a forest that produced “something” ice cream wasn’t too far a jump. We’d been considering a forest that produced jams and nut butters, or a forest that made different types of soaps, or essential oils. But ice-cream really captured our imagination.

So we looked into it. Researched it. Discussed the pros and cons. Worried about the risks. And there’s lots of risks. And finally we designed it, and crunched the numbers.

Now, it seems, that if we internalize the value chain, that is, we grow our own fruit and nuts, harvest them, process, transform and sell them ourselves. An ice-cream production makes sense on a very small scale. Even while keeping the price comparable to most ice-creams on the market3, it looks like a mature forest producing all its own ice cream would be able to hire a team of 2-3 people on only 1,500 square meters of production. And pay them a living wage.

The Design

As this will was our first forest that explored the possibility of regenerative agroforesty on the land in Silverto, we decided to plant it slowly over the course of a few years as we learned from the land.

Each stake has a young tree planted under it.

So, in November of 2019, we began the first phase of our ‘Ice Cream Forest. We organized a work weekend where, with a few friends, we planted out a few hundred trees and bushes that will function syntropically to regenerate the soil, along with about 1/4 of the productive trees. In November of 2020, we planted another 1/4. And plan on completing it over the course of the next 2 years.

Over the course of the next decade we’ll continue to plant more trees, work to regenerate the soil, improve the biodiversity of the whole valley, and eventually plan on growing all of the following species to create many different flavors of ice cream. All in about 1,500 m2.

StrataSpecies
CanopyWalnut, Chestnut, Pecan, Oak, Birch, Persimmon
UnderstoryWillow, Elderberry, Pistachio, Acerolo, Hazelnut, Lemon, Pawpaw, Saskatoon, Strawberry Tree
BushAutumn Olive, White Currant, Red Chokeberry, Black Chokeberry, Barberry Fig, Tea
HerbRhubarb, Native Pasture
VineAkebia, Kiwi, Grape, Magnolia-Vine,
MiscellaneousHoney, Assorted Mushrooms,

Conclusion

Forestry is a slow process, especially when compared to the speed that fire can blow through. But in order to confront wildfire, it isn’t enough to simply put out fires. A forest needs to be proactive and work on many fronts (ecologic, communitarian, personal, and economic). We believe that this forest and those like it will set the stage for us to begin to resist wildfire on a larger scale while still producing our food locally, and regenerating the land. And we’ll be exploring some of the ways that it does this in our next post ‘The 10 Goals of our Ice Cream Forest.’

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