Connecting Perennial Tree Crops to a Bioregional Food System

Connecting Perennial Tree Crops to a Bioregional Food System


The concept of a bioregional food system revolves around creating a self-sufficient and sustainable food network within a specific ecological and geographical region. Where we live, in the Kootenays of British Columbia, the steep land, deep snow and cold winters make it challenging to imagine how we might create that system. Creating a bioregional food system emphasizes local food production, processing, and consumption, thereby reducing reliance on external resources and fostering a place-based food culture. By closing ecological feedback loops with perennial crops, a bioregional food system ensures that the impacts of food production are directly felt and managed within the region, leading to more sustainable and adaptive practices.

In this context, perennial tree crops play a pivotal role in reimagining our challenging landscape for traditional agriculture to create an abundance of place based farm in the steep and deep. Perennial crops, which include various types of nut trees, fruit trees, and timber trees, offer numerous benefits over annual crops, making them integral to sustainable agriculture. We must challenge the false dichotomy that living in a paradise requires the resources of the outside world, demonstrating that a self-sustaining, mountain culture is achievable through thoughtful agricultural practices.

1. Understanding Perennial Tree Crops

Perennial tree crops are plants that live for multiple years, producing yields without the need for annual replanting. Examples of these crops include nut trees (such as walnuts and chestnuts), fruit trees (such as apples and pears), and timber trees (such as oak and maple). Managing these crops are rooted in the principles of applied ecology, often thriving within successional ecosystems and maintaining permanent plant cover. Their resilience and adaptability make them well-suited for an uncertain future of climate change and fragile global supply chains.

The benefits of perennial crops in addition to annual crops  are substantial. Firstly, they contribute to soil health by maintaining root systems year-round, which prevents erosion and enhances soil structure. Secondly, they promote biodiversity by providing habitats for various species and creating diverse plant communities that persist. Thirdly, perennial crops are adaptable to seasonal and long term climate variation. Moreover, these crops require lower resource inputs once established, reducing the need for frequent watering, fertilization, and pest control.

Diverse plantings of perennial crops create overyielding polycultures, where multiple species are grown together to enhance productivity and resilience by essentially creating overall higher yields per acre than single crop plantings. This approach can connect living and cultural systems, tightening the feedback loops between human activity and ecological health. Legacy farms and homesteads that focus on perennial tree crops create stewards who remain on their land, learning from it and passing down knowledge through generations. This deep connection to the land fosters a sense of responsibility and long-term sustainability.

2. Agroforestry Systems

Agroforestry is a practice that integrates trees and shrubs into agricultural landscapes, combining forestry and agriculture to create more diverse, productive, and sustainable land-use systems. Agroforestry principles emphasize the importance of diversity, resilience, and ecological balance. These systems are systemized and scalable, making them suitable for larger profit-driven enterprises.

There are several types of popularized agroforestry systems, including alley cropping, silvopasture, and forest farming. Alley cropping involves planting rows of trees or shrubs alongside crops in between, enhancing biodiversity and improving soil health. Silvopasture integrates trees with pastureland, providing shade and shelter for livestock while improving forage quality. Forest farming involves cultivating high-value crops like mushrooms, medicinal plants, fruits and nuts as a managed forest system.

Integrating perennial tree crops into current agricultural land use endeavours offers numerous benefits. These systems can produce food, fiber, and fuel from unused land that is considered marginal for traditional farming. They also enhance carbon capture, support wildlife, and improve nutrient cycling in the soil. By combining animal and plant agriculture, agroforestry systems create a symbiotic relationship that enhances the overall productivity and sustainability of the land.

3. Homestead Scale Food Production

While agroforestry systems are designed for large-scale implementation, homestead-scale food production is widely inclusive focusing on smaller plantings all the way down to a city lot. This approach reduces the cost of living by producing food at home, and most importantly it serves as a model for finding bioregionally adapted genetics that can be used in larger agroforestry systems. Homestead-scale food production emphasizes stacking functions and obtaining multiple yields from the same piece of land. For instance, a property can be designed to be firesmart, reduce landscape irrigation needs, and provide climate control for heating and cooling homes, all while producing food.

Perennial tree crops are particularly important for homesteads because they provide staples rather than just seasonal vegetables. Large nut trees like walnuts and chestnuts can produce copious amounts of staple foods that are easy to preserve, store, and process. Berry bushes, which have a low footprint and are shade-tolerant, offer nutrient-dense fruits that are loved by children. Additionally, trees like mulberry, caragana, and honey locust can support homestead livestock by providing fodder.

Homestead-scale food production also builds community and creates a generational legacy. Families that grow their own food develop a deeper connection to the land and pass down their knowledge and practices to future generations. This creates a resilient and sustainable local food system that is less dependent on external resources.

4. Bioregional Genetic Repositories

The Downingtown, PA food forest of John Hershey

Genetic diversity is crucial for the resilience and adaptability of perennial crops. Bioregional genetic repositories play a vital role in preserving and discovering local plant varieties that can thrive outside their natural range. These repositories ensure that the genetic material of valuable perennial crops is conserved and available for future use.

Successful bioregional genetic repositories include university breeding programs and legacy remnants left by immigrant communities. For instance, the Doukhobors in the Kootenays have left behind walnut and fruit trees that still thrive today. These repositories serve as living libraries of genetic diversity, providing a resource for breeding programs and local farmers seeking to enhance the resilience of their crops.

A future vision of community owned breeding orchards and plantings that conglomerate and test the best food producing perennial genetics preserved through trusts and legacy endowments is really what can move the progress of creating a tree crops crops culture in the right direction. Public spaces, community forests, and firesmart interface management are all great venues to conduct this sort of bioregional crop development. 

5. Developing Local Infrastructure

For perennial tree crop systems to thrive, local infrastructure is essential. In the early 1900s, fruit ranching culture in the Kootenays was supported by ample storage facilities, packing warehouses, and processing facilities. This infrastructure enabled a diverse economy and kept wealth within the community.

Developing local infrastructure today involves establishing nurseries, processing facilities, and storage solutions. Shared processing tools like oil presses and dehydrators can be housed in community centers, which already have strong support systems for community tools in place. Strategies for developing and funding local infrastructure include leveraging temporary grant support to create self-sustaining projects and providing economic incentives for small business incubation can be employed to reinforce the longer term sustainability of a bioregionally based food system.

Cultural acceptance and support for local food systems are already high, but there is a need for a concrete vision and examples to mimic. By creating and showcasing successful models of local infrastructure, communities can build on their existing strengths and enhance their bioregional food systems.

6. Case Studies and Success Stories

Several communities around the world have successfully integrated perennial tree crops into their bioregional food systems, providing valuable lessons and models for sustainable agriculture.

Pigs eating acorns in Portugal

Europe: Diverse Agroforestry Systems Throughout Europe, various agroforestry systems have been successfully implemented, showcasing the versatility of combining perennial tree crops with other agricultural practices. In Portugal, the traditional montado system exemplifies a sustainable agroforestry model where cork and holm oaks are integrated with pig farming. The acorns from these oak trees provide a natural feed for the pigs, resulting in high-quality pork while supporting biodiversity and soil health. Similarly, in France and Spain, silvopasture systems integrate trees with livestock grazing, offering shade and forage while enhancing soil fertility. In Poland and the Czech Republic, alley cropping systems with fruit and nut trees planted alongside annual crops have increased farm productivity and biodiversity. These examples illustrate the adaptability of agroforestry practices across different landscapes, reinforcing the potential of perennial tree crops to support sustainable food production. (Montado System)​​ (Agroforestry in Czech)

United States: Scaled Agroforestry and Citizen Scientists In the United States, there is a rich history of people that have embraced agroforestry, focusing on perennial tree crops to create self-sufficient food systems. New Forest Farm in Wisconsin is a prime modern example, practicing agroforestry with a diverse mix of nut trees, fruit trees, and berry bushes while integrating animals into all of these crops. This farm not only produces food but also provides ecological services such as carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and soil regeneration. Early tree crop pioneers like J. Russell Smith and John Hershey significantly impacted the tree crop movement. They focused on collecting the best tree crop genetics on their private farms through extensive personal exploration and contests to identify superior varieties such as persimmon, honey locust, and shagbark hickory. Their efforts laid the foundation for modern agroforestry practices by emphasizing the importance of genetic diversity and resilience of tree crops. (New Forest Farm) (Tree Crops) (The Most Important Tree Crop Farm) 

China: Integration of Perennial Crops in Rural Development In China, integrating perennial crops into rural development programs has shown promising results. Projects focusing on cultivating chestnuts, walnuts, and jujube trees have significantly improved the livelihoods of rural communities by providing sustainable income sources and enhancing food security. These initiatives demonstrate the potential of perennial crops to contribute to rural development and poverty alleviation, showcasing how such systems can be adapted to different cultural and ecological contexts to support sustainable agriculture. (Tree Inter-Cropping


Connecting perennial tree crops to a bioregional food system offers a pathway to sustainability and self-sufficiency. By understanding the benefits of perennial crops, integrating them into our local agriculture systems, and supporting homestead-scale food production, communities can create resilient and adaptive food networks. Bioregional genetic repositories and local infrastructure are crucial for preserving genetic diversity and supporting these systems. By learning from the work of past perennial pioneers, communities can build on their strengths and create a sustainable future.

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