There is a growing enthusiasm for tree crops. The concept of the food forest as a tool in homesteading for growing some of your own sustenance is gaining popularity rapidly. In the early 2000’s the focus on local organic food skyrocketed with popular culture books like the omnivore’s dilemma (2006) began sneaking into mainstream conversations. Now regenerative agriculture is the latest trending topic. With more than enough local lettuce available at farmers markets my enthusiasm for local food sorta hit a wall in the early 2010’s and tree crops helped me pivot my energy and ethics to center around perennial staple crops in cold climates. I want to make a general case for tree crops and perennial plants as key components of a resource economy and the different roles we can play in accomplishing this. We hold a future vision where food production is centered around integrated perennial crop ecosystems for food security, for the animals we rely on and for the land relationship we must balance.
(Saskatoon bush loaded with fruit, a perfect agroforestry crop for cold brutal environments)
Tree crops are critical to a real food security strategy on a bioregional scale. It blows my mind that a regionally based food system isn’t promoted as a critical resource failsafe by our political representatives. Food security isn’t just more farmers markets, it also includes our calorie crops like our oils, starches and proteins. Where we live, British Columbia, there is a climate suitable for staple producing perennials like chestnuts, hazels and walnuts for starches, oils and fats and between the lower mainland on the coast and drier Okanagan valley we could easily produce our seasonal fruits and berries too. The local food movement focuses on seasonality, place based cuisine and slow food ethics to ensure that the harvest is received well and perennial crops are strongly represented within these elements. The built in storage capacity of most perennial crops to be processed or stored for later consumption is a huge factor in their staple crop potential. Focusing on diversity in our staple crops has the effect of creating a resilient food system to ensure all of our eggs aren’t in one basket as the saying goes. Tree crops aren’t just for their human food yields but also offer the dual advantage of being easily integrated into raising animals in a humane way while also honoring the wild creatures that inevitably interact with our agricultural systems
(Wasp feeding on boneset flowers, a medicinal herbaceous perennial)
For the Animals
A sustainable agricultural system depends on animals interacting with the landscape. Wildlife and livestock are key components to nutrient cycling in any healthy ecological system and with appropriate design can be managed to add diversity and layer in system yields. Tree crops and raising livestock go hand in hand. Livestock are great perennial harvesters and you don’t even have to pay them. Nuts are great for human consumption but their best value might be found merging them with livestock food as seen in Spain with their famous acorn fed pork. Mulberries produce a tasty fruit but were originally bred in China for their edible leaves (for silk worms!) and cultivars and techniques for coppicing mulberries for “tree hay” to feed livestock are gaining popularity. Silvopature is the fancy name for these types of tree crop/animal relationships and has an extensive history throughout the world. Fruit orchard insect and disease management is helped immensely by using a cleanup crew to prevent pests from breeding and spreading in windfall fruit and ensures that the farmer can profit off of every bit of yield. Tree crops need the wild animals too. Designing our farms with wildlife in mind helps mitigate the negative impacts of a non native landscape while providing valuable ecological services our current agricultural systems pay a lot for such as pollination, fertilizer, pest and disease control. Diversity encourages a range of insects to pollinate trees and keeps the beneficials around if a pest imbalance occurs. The nutrient cycling of livestock is unmatched and critical for ecosystem health hence the cow being the most sacred animal in India. The goal with perennial agricultural is not simply to stop disturbing the soil but to connect biological and economic feedback loops to increase producer efficiency and economic gain at the benefit of our ecosystem lifelines.
(Pigs grazing in the forest, a practice happening in the oak and chestnut forests of the Iberian Peninsula for the last several thousand years )
For the Land
Tree crops for the health of the land are their greatest gift. We have a lot of topsoil to start restoring and terrestrial damage to undo. The impact of stopping the annual destruction of the soil biome by ending tillage cannot be overstated. Agricultural soil held in place and allowed to accrue organic matter (carbon) will be held at a premium in the future. With increased soil carbon comes an increase in water holding capacity. The regional water conflicts that are predicted to dominate our future will dictate how we will produce food and getting ahead of these future problems means acting now. Tree crops act as a long term paradigm shift for land management strategies. Tree crops promote long term land management strategies that promote ecosystem stewardship and generational farming which is desperately needed. Though some may protest that I’m being idealistic, and they’re right, I still have a belief that the shift is possible.
(Kousa Dogwood. Normally planted for its ornamental qualities it is a hardy perennial with edible fruit that deserves more breeding attention)
The Seeds of Change
The shift towards an agricultural system based on perennials and tree crops seems like a gigantic uphill battle but it’s important for advocates to realize their own important contributions even when it feels small in comparison to the task at hand. Fine tuned points of leverage deliver a large effect from a small source and the effect can grow exponentially through the asset of patience and time. The research and development for tree crops and their production methods has been left largely to the private sector and until we see a radical shift in this trend the private citizen will be at the forefront of a tree crop breeding movement. Planting seedlings, trying different methods of design, management and distribution of tree crop systems can be practiced in a wide range of landscape and social context. Tree crops are gaining cultural momentum and the ability for these methods of production to be scaled in a large manner is critical to the viability of future agroforestry, silvopasture, permaculture and any other fancy name people come up with. Proof of concept is the task at hand. The roles to play are varied and as diverse as the ecosystems that they champion.
(A Ginko tree kindly planted in a public area, yes the fruit is stinky but this hardy tree produces an edible nut!)
Small Act, Big Change
Obviously farmers and foresters will play key roles in the scalability of tree crop agriculture, but the homesteader and small municipalities can have a major effect on a grassrots level to find the anomalous varieties that are regionally adapted. Participatory plant breeding on an individual basis is how a commercial industry can find its cultivars and this is badly needed in our less than perfect production areas. Small population centers could facilitate genetic repositories of special regionally adapted tree crops that become lineage libraries and seed breeding banks. Though the act of planting a single tree on a city lot seems like a drop in a bucket, remember that a chance seedling can change everything about what we think is possible. I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate how important tree crops in agriculture can be and I hope you are encouraged by the importance all of our roles will be in transitioning to a sustainable future with tree crops.
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