Community supported agricultural initiatives are a great way to build interpersonal bonds and provide a valuable service simultaneously. That said, food forests may be the next evolution and so far, the results look very promising.
What exactly is a food forest?
A community sponsored forest composed of edible fruits, nuts, mushrooms and other native edibles. It differs from a community garden because there is no ownership of individual plants and trees. A regular community garden fosters a sense of individualism. In other words, someone grows a specific row of vegetables, tends to it and harvests it when the time comes.
In a food forest, the produce is owned by everyone. This represents a welcome departure from the more traditional community model that could significantly improve the sustainability of an entire town or city.
There are a couple of food forests already in the United States. Primarily, the food forests in western Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington have already proven that the concept works on a large scale.
The small mountain town of Basalt, Colorado is the newest adopter of a local food forest – and for good reason. Located near the popular ski town of Aspen, the residents of Basalt know what it’s like to run out of fresh produce. Often, the town can be cut off from traditional produce supply chains during the winter months as heavy snow and avalanches make roads impassable.
More than once, residents have gone to the local grocery store to find store shelves empty because trucks cannot navigate the mountain passes through the Rocky Mountains in the winter. Food security is a major concern in the area and the creation of a food forest is a promising solution for this community of approximately 50,000.
Unfortunately, growing conditions are not ideal in the high elevations and alkaline soil of the Basalt community. Coupled with a short growing season, agriculture in the area presents a unique challenge for individuals and community projects alike.
Lisa DiNardo, Basalt’s horticulturist, has implemented a plan to save native seeds from the food forest. In a few years, these seeds will be adapted to the harsh growing conditions in the area making for a more robust strain of common food-bearing trees and plants. The native seeds are also donated to the local library as part of its seed lending program.
Obviously, there are some concerns about how well the new food forest will work. Although there is the possibility that community members could take more food than they should, DiNardo thinks that most people in the small town are respectful enough to eliminate this risk. Also, the fruit trees are still a couple years away from the first harvest which allows ample educational time for residents.
The work being done in Basalt is a perfect representation of the future of community supported agricultural initiatives. We can see this phenomenon sprouting up around the world. In fact, you can follow the progress of this movement yourself by checking out fallingfruit.org; a site devoted to mapping the rise of food forests globally.
Food forests represent a viable option in most regions. Although the work being done in Basalt is designed around a small-town mentality, the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle opened this year and has been very successful so far. Spanning seven acres within the city limits, Seattle’s first food forest proves this concept can be implemented in many areas and sizes.
Food forests are permaculture at its best. In fact, we should all look into starting a small food forest in our own communities. A small corner in a public park is all that’s required to get started once approved and most people are surprisingly open to the idea of creating a community space with free food. It’s an excellent way to educate the local population while providing a tangible, sustainable service that can be enjoyed by all.
Remember that a food forest doesn’t need to have fruit trees. It could be vegetables and other edibles including mushrooms and nuts. If you want to start your own food forest, try focusing on plants that grow well in your climate without lots of attention. As a community effort, low maintenance plants will be much more successful early in the life of the forest. As people begin to realize the benefits and show an increased interest in the project, it would be easier to include additional plants, a functional compost pile, etc.
We will be keeping an eye on the success of the Basalt Food Forest as it develops. The difficult growing conditions there prove that we can put up food forests anywhere with just a small amount of community involvement and a desire to create a sustainable community asset.