A Fire-Adapted Forest

The question everyone who works with forests in Portugal has the unfortunate duty to ask is ‘How will this land burn?’ Not because everything will burn, but because predicting wildfire is imprecise, to say the least, and anything can burn.

Just to get a sense of how dire the situation is, in a recent assessment of the risk of wildfire in Portugal1, it’s been predicted that within the next 10 years there will be a “Black Skies” scenario; a single year in which of the 8 million hectares in Portugal, 750.000 will burn2. That’s about 10% of a country in a single year. While a burn rate of 5% of the country will be normal for the foreseeable future. Keep in mind that ‘normal’ until the 1970’s was about 0,3% a year3.

In the past, when a wildfire would ignite, it would burn a small section of wood or scrub, and quickly burn itself out. Until the 1980’s, a large fire was considered one that burned over 10 hectares, and Portugal had never suffered a single fire greater than 10.000 hectares. But, in 1986, this threshold of 10.000 hectares was passed for the first time, and there has been growing trend of severe fires ever since. Now, most years see single events in which fire extends over 10.000 hectares4. And 2017 set a new record with 11 such fires5.

The historic number of occurrences of Fire in Portugal6

So what’s changed? Why are fires growing in intensity and scope? It’s a complicated answer, but it boils down to there not being enough people to take care of the land. The rise in wildfire is strongly tied to the abandonment of the countryside8. For a few generations now, rural population has been in free-fall with no signs of stopping. People have moved away, either to work in the cities, or to other countries. They’ve left behind their traditional land, and their relationship with the Earth. While those people who’ve stayed behind prefer to work with invasive species like eucalyptus because of how little management is involved as well as the secure income it provides.

Population Decline in Portugal since the 1960s7

The result has been that a decade after the first wide-scale plantation of the eucalyptus in the 60’s the incidence of wildfires began to rise9. Fast forward half a century, and over half of the country’s forested land is eucalyptus or pine10, and 21% is highly flammable scrub-land11.

What’s the Alternative?

So, if we know that the cycle of wildfire is accelerating, and we know it’s because there aren’t enough people to manage the land, what can we do to bring people back to the countryside?

We would argue, that a large part of the solution lies in learning how to manage the land differently. That if we can figure out how to help people earn a living from the woods, while at the same time respectfully managing a strong biodiversity, many people would be inclined to consider learning how. And we might just transform the landscape into one that naturally slows the progression of wildfire.

What makes this both difficult and promising, though, is that the vast majority of land is distributed (more or less) evenly among the millions of Portuguese people, wherever they might live12. And most of the locals who are left are still connected to the traditional idea of the woods being, as my grandpa would call it, ‘The bank of the poor.’ So, since it’s easier to find people with land, then without it, we believe that if they were presented with realistic alternatives to the current monocultures of pine and eucalyptus, their could be a great shift in how the landscape is managed over the next generation.

As of today, no one’s proved to the average landowner that they can make as much money as they do from pine and eucalyptus by planting something biodiverse. And it’s that small but steady income generated every 15 years or so from monocultures (Unless, of course, they burn) that keeps most people planting them.

The most amazing part of this is that when you talk to anyone in Portugal, the vast majority of people will all say the same basic thing which we can summarize in two words. “Eucalyptus. Bad.” It’s widely known that these plantations degrade the ecosystems and cause wildfire, and yet people keep planting them because they don’t quite see any realistic alternatives.

This is one of the main reasons why we’ve been thinking about forests adapted to wildfire. If you could prove that a forest can be both profitable and biodiverse then people would plant it everywhere. And if these scalable forests were designed specifically to decrease the risk of spreading wildfire, then there would be nothing to stop their spread, and lower the incidence of wildfire for the whole country. So, for the rest of this post, we’d like to celebrate our first fire-adapted forest, that does just that.

Forests as a Defense Against Wildfire

If I were to visit the ecosystem best suited to resisting wildfire, I’d either go somewhere where there was almost nothing to burn like a firebreak. Or, I’d go somewhere with lots of water. Somewhere lush with fresh growth, people to care for the environment, ample shade to keep the temperature down, somewhere that spreads its needs for water evenly throughout the year, and keeps the wind at bay. Essentially, I’d be visiting a diverse forest managed by people.

Properly managed and biodiverse forests are much harder to burn than homogeneous landscapes like those composed of monocultures of pine and eucalyptus13. Which isn’t to say that these forests won’t burn – wildfire is an ecologic necessity that will always exist – but if you’ve ever tried starting a campfire with wet wood, you know what we’re talking about.

One of our main goals here is to create mature forests and mature soil that increase the capacity of the ecosystem to hold water 14. This increased water capacity lowers the risk of wildfire15. And that can lengthen the period of time between wildfires. Which, in turn, can lengthen the whole fire cycle, giving us more time to grow stronger, more resilient forests.

Often, wildfire can burn through the same space over and over, which makes it difficult to establish mature forests. A forest designed to slow down and be resilient to wildfire, however, might be able to turn a cycle of fire that occurs every 12 years (like what’s happened to our friend Rui’s land, burning in both 2005 and 2017), into a cycle that takes 20. Then 50. And in time, maybe 500.

Planting a Moat

In autumn of 2019, we decided to reforest a small portion of the land at the southern edge of the land in Silverto. Where the previous owners had left a section of clear-cut field, a weakened soil, and just enough vegetation to pose a serious fire risk, we dreamed about a forest specifically grown to protect against wildfire.

The forest site plan for the moat.

We set out to design a biodiverse forest that resists fire, and at the same time, could earn the people living in Silverto an income through the eventual production and sale of ice-cream using primarily fruit and nuts that they will have grown and cared for.

So, after a few months of research and design, we came to the conclusion (and honestly it took us entirely too long to realize this) that secret to stopping wildfire isn’t in trying to put fires out (though of course it helps). The solution to stopping fires is by maximizing the water in the ecosystem.

So, armed with that knowledge, we decided to build a moat. But instead of digging it down into the ground and filling it with water, we would build it up with soil and fill it in with a forest that serves as a living body of water to protect us. Below you’ll find some of the techniques we use to do just that.

Accelerating Forest Formation

It seems like there’s many places where an invisible clock hangs overhead counting down the time you have to establish the mature ecosystem capable of repelling the next wildfire. The fact is that people can work for years to reforest a space, only to have all of their work disappear in a few minutes. And since it can take decades to establish a mature ecosystem, whatever we can do to accelerate that process, gives us a better chance of surviving that next fire.

For that reason (and many more), we chose to use regenerative agroforestry. Through regenerative agroforestry, we’ll be able to: design the landscape to passively retain rain, increase the diversity of resistant species (which spreads water use out throughout the growing season), accelerate soil formation (which can hold a lot of water), increase moist green growth in the system (which stores and breathes water), produce goods for sale (which increases the management and presence of humans– who strangely enough are also composed mostly of water), protect from winds through hedging and forest structure (to keep moisture in the air), and quickly shade the soil (which slows evaporation).

Once we can do all of this, we shorten the period of time in which there’s an elevated risk of wildfire, which on a larger scale means less fire. This extra water, also means that we extend the growing season by a few weeks or months every year. And this extra growth, in turn, minimizes the time it takes for a space to go from being a young and vulnerable wood, into a mature and resilient forest.

Social Distancing for Forests – Our Fire-Adapted Structure

What’s clear to us is that we want to foster growth. And we want a lot of it. We want to sequester a lot of carbon out of the air, and turn it into productive and beautiful forests. This goal, however, brings with it an inherent risk when it comes to wildfire. The more you grow, the more there is to burn. And no matter how moist our forest is, if a fire on the neighbor’s land catches the right breeze at the wrong time there’s nothing we’d be able to do to stop it. At that point, all we can hope to do is minimize the damage.

But before we move on towards the structure we’ve chosen, it’s important to understand two common plantationstrategies. The first is to plant trees so close together that they push each other to grow straight up. This structure leaves the leaves of every tree in contact. As a result, if a fire passes through an ecosystem like this, it usually stays on the ground, and rushes through. But, sometimes, when the fire is strong enough it can reach up into the crowns of the trees, and the whole forest can go up in a real hellfire.

The second strategy is to spread species wide enough apart so that tractors can pass between the rows in order to turn the soil or clear the understory. This type of landscape lacks shade, leaves soil to be damaged by too much sunlight, and thus makes it hard to build soil and store water in the soil.

We needed a structure that retains the benefits of these common plantation structures (vertical growth and adequate spacing) while limiting some of the risks (crown fire, and weakened ecosystem). All while working with a diversity of species to use light effectively, building soil from within, and retaining as much water as possible. So we’ve landed on the following structure for plantations, which we’re now affectionately calling ‘social distancing for forests.’

This is a cross-section of what our forest might look like in 20 years. You can see that through the strategic placement of paths, a continual discontinuity of heights between the species, and active pruning (as well as composting of the ensuing organic matter), we can keep ample space between species, while at the same time maximizing growth. In much the same way that distance between people, even when they’re in close proximity, can keep the risk of infection down, the distance between species makes it so that the fire has to expend more energy then it receives while it tries jumping between moist leaves. And, since the crowns of the trees aren’t in contact, the forest itself will actively try and bring a crown fire down to the ground where it poses a less serious risk, and where firefighters will have an easier job of putting it out.

Final Thoughts

The reality is that a landscape can burn one too many times and lose the ability to grow back into a forest after a wildfire. This is already happening in the south of the Portugal16, and it seems like the center and north aren’t too far behind. What we’re attempting to create are forests capable of surviving this moment in human history, so that they can stay fertile and outlive us many times over. But this can only happen if the whole region’s culture of land management changes, which happens one piece of land at a time. The truth is that we can’t do anything without help, and in a country on fire, the most important thing to build is community. So, if you’re interested in planting your own forest, helping others to plant theirs, or want to know a bit more, we’d love to talk.

References

1 Portugal Wildfire Management in a New Era Assessing Fire Risks, Resources and Reforms, 2018

2 For the record, they published a similar report in 2008 in which they predicted that within 10 years there would be a single year in which 500,000 hectares would burn. That year was 2017.

3 Forest fires in continental Portugal Result of profound alterations in society and territorial consequences, 2018

4 Incidence and recurrence of large forest fires in mainland Portugal, 2016

5 Portugal Wildfire Management in a New Era Assessing Fire Risks, Resources and Reforms, 2018

6 Forest fires in continental Portugal Result of profound alterations in society and territorial consequences, 2018

7 Worldbank

8 Analysing how drivers of agricultural land abandonment affect biodiversity and cultural landscapes using case studies from Scandinavia, Iberia and Oceania, 2014

9 Investigacion sobre la historia forestal Portuguesa en los siglos XIX y XX: orientaciones y lagunas. 1999

10 The economic value of Portuguese pine and eucalyptus forests, 2013

11 The economic value of Portuguese pine and eucalyptus forests, 2013

12 Forest Land Ownership Change in Portugal. COST Action FP1201 FACESMAP Country Report, 2015

13 Fire Resilient Landscapes, 2010

14 Forest and Water on a Changing Planet: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Governance Opportunities, 2018

15 Soil Moisture Affects Growing-Season Wildfire Size in the Southern Great Plains, 2015

16 Are drought and wildfires turning Mediterranean cork oak forests into persistent shrublands? 2009

Regenerative Agroforestry: (A few) Basic Challenges and Solutions

In our last post we took a general look at Regenerative Agroforestry. We looked a bit at the philosophy of it, and the basics of why it might be necessary, but didn’t give a good sense of how it’s used practically. So, if you’d like to give that post a read before reading today’s post, you can find it here. Today, we’d like to take a look at some common challenges and solutions faced by projects that use regenerative agroforestry. Keep in mind that this is an art-form that extends well beyond the few basic challenges we’re highlighting here. Our goal is to provide some basic insight into the heart of the process, and some common solutions.

Challenge #1 – Soil Formation is Slow

Soil is decomposition. It’s the end result of all life when it’s broken down. As some wise man once (almost) said, “Soil you are, and to soil you will return.” For example, when trees drop their leaves and branches to the ground, or wildlife eats some fruit or grass they poop it out. Then, microorganisms are around to decompose those leaves, eat that poop and make soil. Even lichen, sitting on a rock for generations, is slowly eating the stone, breaking it down to the base minerals the stone is made of.

Any time one form of life eats another you can bet soil is the eventual result. However, this can be a long process. Under normal circumstances taking a few hundred years to create something as small as a centimeter of soil. But frankly, if we want to build soil at a pace that allows us to create healthy ecosystems and act towards mitigating climate change, we don’t have that kind of time. So, to be able to put back all the fertility we’ve eroded away, we need a some way to organically accelerate the process of soil formation.

Solution #1 – Accelerate the Cycle of Soil Formation

The clearest example of quick soil formation is compost. With the right ingredients, and under the right conditions, a compost can become very similar to a mature forest soil within a few weeks. But to understand why compost works the way it does, we’ll have to take a step back to understand a bit more about soil.

The fertility of soil is often equated with high numbers in a soil analysis. That’s the question too many farmers ask, ‘How many minerals are in my soil?” But, in reality, the amount of nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorous means nothing by itself. Soil is the result of a deep interaction between Minerals, organic Matter, and Microorganisms acting together as a single living organism. (The 3 M’s.)

What compost is doing then, is concentrating a much higher amount of those 3 M’s (minerals, organic matter, and microorganisms) than you would find naturally in nature. Then, by placing them into a moist and shady environment that decomposition loves, compost is able to take a process that can take decades and focus it into one that takes weeks.

And while regenerative agroforestry is definitely interested in using composts to improve soil quality, it’s also interested in turning entire forest floors into one gigantic compost. But, in order to have enough raw material (manure, green waste, wood, etc) for a forest floor to behave like a compost we have to accumulate it there. And all of that organic matter has to grow somewhere. Which leads us to our next challenge.

Challenge #2 – How Do You Generate Growth in Degraded Environments?

For most crops, the quality and quantity of what you produce is directly proportional to the fertility of the soil and conditions of the ecosystem. But, as we’ve established in the previous post, the majority of the ecosystems we work with are severely degraded. And we can’t realistically rely on them to support the health of what we plant.

At a small scale, compost would definitely work. But, when you start thinking about reforesting a whole region, there’s a bottleneck. Organic projects will usually buy their fertility in the form of hay bales, compost, manure, or woodchips. But every time you buy one of these, you’re taking it from another piece of land that’s losing that potential fertility. There is no way to produce enough fertility for a whole region without stealing it from somewhere else.

So, scalable projects need to discover a way to produce organic matter, and build fertility from within an ecosystem.

Solution #2 – Syntropic Growth

Most plants have more energy in reserve than what they use. It’s the bit of energy they’re saving for emergencies (browsing deer, insect attacks etc). So, it might seem that when you prune a plant you’re hurting it (and that’s sometimes true) but from another point of view, you’re behaving like a deer or an insect in order to stimulate growth.

Here regenerative agriculture owes a great debt to Ernst Gotsch and Syntropic agriculture which takes this understanding about plants and brings it to its extreme. Oversimplifying: through over-planting hundreds of species where only a few would otherwise be, the natural competition between plants along with vigorous pruning, stimulates a lot of growth. And, in this way, we can stimulate a soil and an ecosystem by accelerating the cycle of the 3 M’s currently available to it, without having to rely on external inputs.

The accumulation of organic matter in a syntropic plantation, as some growth is pruned.

Challenge #3 – How to distribute light?

Though we can do plenty about the fertility and quality of soil, there’s much less we can do about the conditions of the ecosystem (amount of light, water, strength of wind, etc). And the element we have the least control over is light. We can’t bring light from somewhere else like we do with water. So, instead, we develop strategies to use light as efficiently as we can.

We’d go so far as to say that farmers are meant to be artists who convert light into food. And while conventional farming has pushed away from having to consider light at all (usually by cutting everything down, and making sure that the chosen monoculture gets 100% of all available light.) any ecosystem that works with biodiversity will have to think about how it uses light. It’s a real puzzle to figure out how light can be distributed to make sure there’s enough light not only for the tallest canopy trees, but also for the bushes, climbers, and the smallest plants in the shade.

What we need to keep in mind here is that the more healthy leaves we can grow, the more light we can capture. In light of this, the quest that develops from this challenge of distributing light is “How can we, given that every plot of land is unique, use a diversity of sizes, shapes and species to create structures that maximize the growth of an ecosystem?”

Solution #3 – The Architecture of the Forest

In the same way most people wouldn’t simply want to start building a house without a plan, you might not want to start planting a forest without one either. Special attention needs to be placed into the architecture of the forest to account for each space’s particularities, that is, how species will be arranged to maximize the capture and movement of light.

How to arrange a forest is one of those rabbit holes that could easily take up a few years of your life. And, if that’s something you’re interested, here and here are the two volumes of probably the best (and most complete) book on forest gardening we’ve found. In this post, however, I’d like to explore some of the basics.

  1. There are 7 basic layers or strata in a forest. As an example, in a native forest here, you might see large oak trees shading smaller hawthorne trees, over some native wild plants, bushes, or ivy all while still leaving enough light left over for some native medicinals to grow in the deep shade. By understanding the different physical shapes and sizes a forest can take, we can understand the different ways a forest can capture sunlight and begin to design them in a way that uses the full range of nature’s variability.
  2. Niches (ecological spaces) aren’t all physical. They can extend in many ways: through a day, or over seasons. For example, aromatics only need about 4-6 hours of sunlight a day to develop, so they can be planted to the eastern side of a tree or bush so that they sit in full sun only during the morning hours and then stay in shade for the rest of the day. Or, spring flowers that enjoy full sun in early spring , but are then shaded out for the rest of the year when trees grow their leaves. There are many ways we can position plants to efficiently take advantage of the full range of the sun’s light.
  3. Building on this idea of niches, there are many species who thrive in shade, low-light or semi-shade environments. Currants, for example, don’t do much of anything after they get about 70% of a day’s light, while ginseng needs to be grown in complete shade.

Essentially, the deeper we can grow into 3 dimensions of space, the greater potential for production there is. And, regenerative agroforestry uses these insights to continuously deepen what an ecosystem is capable of producing. But this need to use differing structures, means getting comfortable in working with many species; which brings its own challenge.

Challenge #4 – Diversity

Monoculture’s easy. You can kill a piece of land, and not even have to think about it. You rip up the soil, pick a seed, sow it everywhere, apply plenty of convenient chemicals and poisons to ensure no other life can take hold, and then you water and wait.

Diversity is hard. Every piece of land is unique and needs its own design in which water, air, soil, fire, how the sun moves, and a thousand other small details must be taken into account. Instead of an individual plant, you have to think about and listen to a living, breathing system in continual evolving relationship with everything around it. It requires people. People who slowly become aware of the deep inter-relationships between all things. And it requires people to adapt their plans to the reality of their surroundings instead of imposing them.

And this need (people who know how to listen to nature), in our opinion, is the leading reason why conventional agriculture has not taken on the challenge. However, with the challenges of climate change and it becoming abundantly clear that a well designed diverse ecosystems outproduces monocultures in almost every way, its only a matter of time before diverse ecosystems become the norm.

So, what to do?

Solution #4 – Mimic/Organize Nature

If you’re ever lucky enough to discover one of the dwindling patches of undisturbed forest left, walk slowly and take in what you see. There’s a lot to learn there. Breathe in the musky scent of soil, while listening to music of life. Note the variety of species, and structures. How the light plays and pokes through the canopy, and how the air moves around you. This is how nature would like to behave. And this is the base on which regenerative agroforestry wants to design.

And while the art/science of designing/organizing these natural constellations of species goes well beyond this post we can begin to gain insight into the types of relationships that arise through studying ecological guilds.

A guild in this context is a group of species that live and grow in the same space and whose relationship leads to symbiotic connections that benefit the ecosystem and the people who live within it. Those relationships can be summarized by the following table.

RoleDescriptionSpecies
Edible/Productive
Species that produce food or materials that can be used. This can include not only calories, but herbal tea, syrups, paper, rope….
Everything you’ve ever eaten, or have ever seen made from organic materials.
Dynamic AccumulatorsAll species accumulate minerals in their tissues, but there are some species that accumulate especially high amounts of particular minerals. Sometimes hundreds of times more than a normal amount.Black locust, comfrey, yarrow, nettle…
Nitrogen Fixers
Species, mainly legumes and frankia, that have underground associations with bacteria that remove unstable nitrogen from the air, and convert it to stable nitrogen in the soil.Alder, Broom, lupine, clover, beans, alfalfa, wisteria, honey locust…
Mulch
Plants that generate a lot of organic matter and withstand chop-and-drop well. Ideal mulch species would be those that accumulate many minerals, are not very woody, and that have a strong root that regrow easily.Banana, comfrey, vetiver, Borrage….
Pest Confusers
Species that exude pheromones and components into the air that repel vermin and pests. In large quantities they can ensure that pests do not concentrate.Alliums, chamomile, marigolds…
Beneficial attractors
Species such as flowers that attract pollinating bugs, or other beneficial species to increase the diversity of the ecosystem.Calendula, parsley, comfrey…
Professors
Species that when present change the behavior of the species around them. As if they were being taught. For example, when mugwort is planted with tomatoes, the tomatoes become more resistant to herbivores.Tobacco, mugwort, stevia…

Nature doesn’t really go through a design process. She spreads her seed, and wherever they germinate is the right place. People, however, design. We have the capacity to look and learn from natural behavior of nature, and organize it to create ecosystems that maximize growth.

By learning from what nature does, regenerative agroforestry has the ability to make informed choices about how to create guilds of different species, how to distribute them effectively, and how to establish symbioses between our plantations and the wild world.

Regenerative Agroforestry

Imagine a single technology capable of feeding people and wildlife at the same time. Whose work removes carbon from the air, and whose residue builds houses (and heats them.) Now, imagine that this same technology was able to clean the air, water and soil, keep us healthy, create rain, and play a key role in reversing climate change. If you know us at all you’ve probably guessed by now that we’re describing a forest.

The catch to this miraculous tech, however, is that we can’t plant a biodiverse/productive forest wherever we like. The truth is that we’ve destroyed or seriously weakened most of the soils and ecosystems capable of supporting them. Most places we’d plant a forest these days would soon dry out, burn up in a wildfire, or succumb to disease. But instead of descending into the doom and gloom that seems to surround every conversation about climate change, we’d like to move instead towards something that gives us hope.

We have a tool at our disposal capable of transitioning degraded lands where barely a pine will grow, into thriving productive and biodiverse forests. That tool is regenerative agroforestry.

What is Regenerative Agroforestry?

Less a strict methodology, and more a kind of ecologic hygiene, regenerative agroforestry is a group of patterns, insights, and techniques that allow us to work within nature, instead of imposing our order on it. Through it we can create highly productive and biodiverse ecosystems. What sets it apart, is its capacity not just to sustain some small ecologic benefits, but to go above and beyond to use a strong, resilient, and healthy ecology as the primary engine that fuels productivity.

Through a deep understanding of ecology, regenerative agroforestry is used to design forested ecosystems that:

  • Improve and build soil through organic methods.
  • Direct natural flows of resources (light, air, soil, and wind) and materials to create positive feedbacks.
  • Accelerate natural processes in order to strengthen the ecosystem, and eliminate our reliance on external inputs and chemical fertilizers.
  • Work with a deep diversity of species and the interconnection between them to generate natural resilience.
  • Adapt to the contours and particularities of the land it’s on.

Why Regeneration?

This might seem quite straight forward, but we’ve noticed that for many people it’s hard to understand why regeneration is necessary if they don’t first understand how degraded our ecosystems are.

Most people have become so used to seeing nature in its current state, that they can’t quite imagine what it might have been like in the past. So, we’d like to ask you to use your imagination to travel back in time to a moment where people first began to cultivate a particular plot of land in our region.

You’ll see that those people understood that forested lands were very fertile. And it was worth it for them to spend months burning or cutting away the forest, digging into the soil to pull out roots, eliminating large rocks from underground, and often terracing whole hills by hand in order to plow it under and cultivate some annual cereal crops. Now, these few months of work would have generations of benefits as they would support their family year after year (with some down years, of course) with only the fertility already present in the soil, and the manure they’d cycle back to it.

Ask yourself, who created that original fertility? And then compare it to today.

Today, if you visit those same plots of lands it seems like they can’t produce without continual doses of chemical fertilizer, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides….. Something about our management has led to agriculture that left to itself produces poorly, becomes diseased, or simply burns away. This is the degenerated state of our land. We’ve made it completely reliant on our (poor) management.

It’s clear, that for better or worse, our choices transform the world. The good news, however, is that in the same way that we’ve degenerated the world, we can build it back up.

This is regeneration. It’s the understanding that we live in weakened ecosystems. But that we can return fertility, resilience, and health to them. And, in the same way that our influence has pushed us into this corner of climate change, we have the ability to change our behavior and regenerate ecosystems back to (and beyond) what they once were.

What is Agroforestry?

Agroforestry in its most basic form is an attempt to design land so that agricultural crops share space with perennial bushes and trees. By doing this, agroforestry creates ecosystems that instead of struggling to keep the land producing a single crop, actually benefit from the presence of multiple species (and animals).

A typical agforoestry system might look like quite simple: a row of crops, between rows of trees. However, this can get much more interesting. For example, here’s a picture of New Forest Farms run by Mark Shepard. You can see rows of annuals and perennials in between rows of trees. And, you can also see the diversity of species he uses, as well as how the design of the land allows for it to be efficiently managed by machine.

keyline-crop-design

This becomes especially interesting when you realize that in these same sections, he’ll also run cows, pigs, sheep, geese, chickens and more. Through projects like his, you really begin to glimpse how immensely productive land can be when our goal is to create an ecosystem in which we prioritize people, the planet, and profit.

Monoculture vs. Polyculture

For entirely too long, the majority of agriculture has worked mostly with monoculture. Or the practice of keeping only a single species on a plot of land. What agroforestry pushes towards is a deeply diverse polycultural system, in which many species coexist and actually help each other to create ecologically resilient ecosystems.

What’s become clear is that monocropping degrades the world around us. It’s most common implementations erode soil, exposing and killing microorganisms within it. While its design stops the natural succession of ecological events from taking place.

Nature relies on the relationships between all things. For example, the presences of birds and their manure fertilize soils. Their poop also brings with it a wide variety of “weeds” which (against common knowledge) actually work to improve the soil and protect from diseases while creating conditions for young trees. This is a very narrow example of a very wide and complex web of relationships that nature creates. But the richer the polyculture (the more species there are), the more relationships can arise, and the more stable the ecosystem can become.

Species gladly growing together: Rue, Cardoon, Ajuga Reptans, Chard, Rhubarb, Perennial Leak, Red Currant, Galium and others all under a Plum Tree.

Healthy Ecosystems

When you put regeneration and agroforestry together you get something that, in our opinion, is absolutely transformative.

We’ve become used to having to make choice between spaces that are either productive, or ecologic. To us, this has always been a bit sad to have to make that choice. Yet, regenerative agroforestry eliminates that choice. It as a tool capable of taking highly degraded spaces and converting them into beautiful and productive forests that regenerate the space in which they grow.

Yet the how it does that, is a very large question, we can’t fully tackle in a single post. Which is why we’ll be going over some of the challenges and solutions that Regenerative Agroforestry faces in our next post.

Until then, ciao!

The Forest is a Pantry

I often find myself thinking about what a culture would look like if it were actually able to live within the bounds of what their ecosystems could provide. One in which people cared for nature, and allowed nature to return the favor.

As it stands today, there’s a divide in our thinking: in one space is where we grow our food, and in that other space is where nature happens. But within this, agriculture shapes 39% of Europe’s land, while wild spaces are only somewhere between 1.7% – 4%.

What if we were able to grow ecosystem’s that did both? Create ecosystems that still manage to feed us, while giving nature equal say in their design. That’s the question we took up this year; as we sought to design a forest that produces everything a family could need to eat in the real amount of time they would have to care for it.

The Forest is a Pantry

Our answer is “The Forest is a Pantry” project. An exploration of how a forest can become a family’s primary source of food while at the same time, growing natural resiliency, and protecting biodiversity. How a plantation can be a regenerative experience for the land and the people living there. How a forest can combine wild nature, and agriculture.

It’s a bit of trivia to know that a person can survive on nothing but butter and potatoes. Somehow, those 2 foods contain every essential nutrient your body needs to not die. It’s not a particularly interesting diet, and not one I’d want to live on, but it works. What’s more relevant about that diet is that it’s often the image people have of what happens if you try and live off what the land can provide. (In Portugal, and Galicia, famine is etched into the subconscious of both my parent’s and grandparent’s generation.)

But the truth is that a well designed forest is capable of so much more than we think. So many of us have spent so little time in genuinely productive enironments, that we can’t imagine how much is actually possible. But when we begin to experience the possibilities of the forest first hand, and begin to trust in nature’s abundance, we can grow to expect a bit more than potatoes and butter. And towards that goal, of seriously out-competing butter and potatoes in every way. We’ve designed a regenerative forest that:

  • Boasts a complete nutrition, providing every calorie, amino acid, vitamin, and mineral we need to live healthy lives.
  • Provides a wide variety of possible meals that celebrate flavor and satisfy bellies.
  • Produce a resilient diet, that changes along with climatic conditions, but whose diversity allows it never to fear failed crops. (In practice this might looks like having too many hazels, and not enough walnuts one year, followed by too many walnuts and not enough hazels the next.)

And with these goals in mind, we’ve developed two unique forest systems that, together, aim to fulfill those goals.

Part 1 – The Pantry

For reasons, we’ll get into in a minute, we noticed that the first forest we would plant would be best served by following the principles of regenerative agroforestry. With regenerative agroforestry, we’d be able to keep the design and management intuitive while still producing serious calories, ensuring a full variety of vitamins and minerals, and creating something that a real person would actually be able to manage.

With this ecosystem, we really want to make something accessible to most people, yet we know that the more diverse an ecosytsem gets, the harder it becomes to manage. So we sought to create something that could be managed by someone who has:

  1. A desire to plant a forest that will eventually feed them. Establishing a forest is a generational commitment. One who’s fruit we may never see. This does require someone genuinely devoted to being present, year after year.
  2. A basic understanding of nature. Forests are complicated webs of relationships, and every new element increases the complexity of the system. For this reason, this forest was designed with simple repeating patterns that seek to minimize complexity.
  3. Limited time. Most people live believing they don’t have enough time for the things they care about. And so, this forest is thought out to be cared for with a minimum of interventions (pruning, fertilizing, etc) to keep maintanence time down.

The Physical Forest (as it stands today)

At the bottom of the land in Silverto, is a terrace about ~1,900 m2. At the outset of our actions there was a few meters of blackberry, tangled over a few scotch brooms. Our theory, since this land is accessible by tractor, is that it was cleared a few years ago, and never completed its succession (never was able to grow into a forest). For that reason, today it is much more open, and will require much more from us in the way of protection of species, watering, and general management in order to establish a healthy forest.

It is also closest to a very small tributary of the rio coura (a couple kilomters away.) The presence of this water, allows us to plant a few species that are more prepared for riversides, and will keep humidity higher than in other parts of the forest.

Design (How it might look in a generation)

Here, we’ve opted for grouping rows of trees into rows and waves. Beginning with a tall canopy tree like a pecan, then placing a fruit tree to its south, followed by a tall-bush (hazel or pawpaw) to its south, continuing to plant a smaller bush beneath it, and finally leaving an alley for a crop. After this the pattern would repeat. Starting again with a tall canopy tree, a fruit tree, a hazel and so on.

By directing these towards the southern sun, and working with species adapated to full or semi-sun, we’re able to effeciently use sunlight. And, by using rows we facilitate harvest, and create a pattern that can be extended almost indefinitely in any direction.

Species

These are the species we believe will be present in the mature forest.

StrataSpecies
CanopyPecan, Chestnut, Mulberry, Monkey Puzzle, Walnut
UnderstoryAmelanchier, Pawpaw, Hazelnut, Seabuckthorn, Apple, Pear
BushAronia, Eleagnus Umbellata, Eleagnus ebingeii, Currants
HerbaceousPumpkin, Native wild plants.
Ground CoverNative wild plants.
RootYacon
ClimberChayote

Part 2 – The Forage Forest

While ‘the Pantry’ is suited to provide us calories, and a few snacks, it isn’t so good at providing us with rich and diverse flavors (at least not while being low maintenance). For this reason, the second direction our design brought us was towards a forest that could produce a greater diversity.

‘The Forage Forest’ will do just that. It aims to be a forest you can always visit to forage a salad, gather veggies, or add a bit of spice to a recipe. A place where fresh food is ready to be picked every day of the year.

Here, we were served best by the principles of the forest garden. Well designed, and cared for, this type of forest will produce one of the most productive ecosystems possible. And will be able to supplement a family’s meals, through a large diversity of herbs, vegetables, seeds, nuts, berries, and fruit.

The tradeoff, is that this forest, though, more biodiverse and substantially more productive, is also bit more difficult to manage. It requires a bit more experience and time to implement. )Or a willingness to learn through mistakes.)

The Physical Forest (as it stands today)

The physical place in which we’ve chosen to plant the pantry is a ~500 m2 terrace on the Silverto land. It’s a beautiful space in which 15 years of abandonment have left a closed canopy of 3-4 meter Scotch brooms (and an inpenetrable tangle of blackberry we had to clear beneath it for the fire risk it posed) that have created the perfect nursery for a future forest garden.

The shade they provide will protect whatever we plant through their first few years while their roots become established, and as the brooms are cut, they’ll leave a gift of nitrogen in their roots, and organic matter with their branches in order to continue building the soil.

Design (How it may look in a generation)

As it goes with forest gardens, we will be establishing an open woodland. This means, that though the space will be forested, there will be quite a substantial amount of space between the crowns of trees. This allows us to distribute the sun’s light a bit more effectively in order to establish bushes, and plants that might not otherwise have enough space or light. In a native forest, for example, where the tendency is for the canopy to close and shade them out, these species might not find their niche.

Forest gardeners work much like a beaver might. Who by cutting down certain trees, and shaping the structure of the forest, create all sorts of niches in which different species can grow. Often resulting in some of the most biodiverse forests we can find. This diversity of niches, in turn, allows us to work with a richer assortment of species.

For example, in the different shades of each tree, we can work with native superfoods like nettle, or chickweed. While, farther south, in the semi-shade we can work with species that are happy in the semi-shade like currants, rosemary, rhubarb or a thousand others. While reserving the spaces south of each tree for the species who demand the greatest amount of hours of light like yacon, groundnut, or other vegetables.

Each tree will work with a different guild. (a group of several plants who work in concert to find a stable ecosystem.), and in this terrace specifically we’ll be creating guilds around the 12 central trees. Through their diversity these guilds will work to ensure that there is also something to harvest.

Species

This is an exploration of some of the species we believe will be present in the mature forest.

StrataSpecies
CanopyBlack Mulberry, Oak, Beech, Chestnut
UnderstoryPawpaw, Amelanchier, sea buckthorn, Lemon, Orange, apple, Plum, linden
BushEleagnus, Umbelata, currants, blueberry, ugni mollinae, barberry,
HerbaceousRhubarb, nettle, Leak, Turkish Rocket, Cardoon, Buckler leafed sorrel, Good King henry, Asparagus, Chives, Sage, Rosemary, oregano, Columbine, Broccoli, Kale, Cauliflower, Tree Collards, Sweet Cicely, chard, parsley, beans, beets, Yarrow, Chickweed.
Ground CoverStrawberry, Thyme
RootYacon, sunchoke
ClimberGroundnut, Kiwi, Grape, Magnolia Vine

The Diet

What quickly becomes clear when looking at the foods that these forests will be producing is that if we want to base our diet on what the forest can provid, our diet will have to change.

Keeping in mind that more than half the world’s diet is base around about 3 plants (Corn, wheat, rice.) who are not represented on our forests, I think it warrants talking over what this diet would actually look like in practice.

  • Our central starches would become chestnut and acorn. While ,in general, we would have fewer meals centered around starches.
  • Instead, our diet would be focused much more on good fats. Those central good fats would be walnut, pecan, an hazelnut. (Although, in lands closer to the coast where frost is less of an issue, you could easily grow all the avocado you could eat.)
  • This would also be a diet very reliant on fruit and berries. Providing a full breakfast and several snacks a day of seasonalities.
  • This diet also calls for a period of transitioning, as your body gets used to gathering its energy from fat instead of carbs, and as your skill with the ingredients grows.
  • In our land, geese and chickens will be rotated through, to produce eggs and meat if you’re into that sort of thing. (While in larger pieces of land, you could begin to consider goats, sheep, pigs, cows, turkeys, rabbits…)

Figures

Yields

These are the expected yields on 2,500 m2 of land.


The Pantry (kg)Forage Forest (kg)Total (kg)
Nuts92242964
Fruit7713461117
Berry442190632
Aromatics0.150.15
Leaves1.55.57
Vegetables5386241162
Total2674.51207.653882.15

People need an average of 900kgs a year. (Although that figure is for americans, who everyone knows are the hungriest of the lot.) Which means, theoretically, 3800kg of food is enough to feed 4 people on 2,500 m2. Although we wouldn’t recommend more than 2-3 to account for seasonal variability.

Hours

Average Hours of labor per year at maturity, including management and harvest.

The Pantry (Hours)Forage Forest (Hours)Total (Hours)
230131361

With 361 hours a year, this brings the average amount of work for a family down to an average of about 7 hours a week spaced out throughout the year. With the majority of time spent in spring and fall during the harvest.

Our Pantry

It’s a sad reality that most people are only a few days away from empty cupboards. Recent history has made it all too clear how fragile our world is, and how directly we’re effected by events halfway around the world. If our hope is to transitions to a more local world, where we can maintain that connection to the world, while at the same time improving our local resilience, then the ability to feed ourselves is an absolute must.

And, of course, the supermarket is still down the road. As most people lack any other way to feed themselves. What we’d like to see through forests like these, is a transition to a world in which supermarket becomes that place we go to buy the things we don’t feel like growing. (Or, to find all those things we can’t properly grow ourselves, like chocolate or coconut. Because everyone likes chocolate.)

But, what’s become clear to us, is that with a bit of effort, we’re able to feed ourselves on small tracts of land. We’re able to grow quality regenerative/organic food that fills our pantries, and free ourselves of damaging chemicals on our food. And what’s more, is that this change, once you have it, isn’t a temporary. Once a forest reaches maturity, it stays there. And with minimum upkeep, it will produce reliably, every year, for the rest of not only your life, but also the lives of your children’s, and your children’s children.