Growing Opportunities beneath the Tree Canopy

Kate MacFarland
National Agroforestry Center
November 15th, 2017 at 2:15PM

A picture of the backs of participants sitting in chairs looking towards two presenters.
At an event hosted by Blue Ridge Woodland Growers, people interested in beginning forest farming gathered in Floyd, Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Holly Chittum).

Did you know that some plants prefer to be grown in the shade?

Forest farming is an agroforestry practice used to intentionally cultivate plants, mushrooms, and other crops under the forest canopy. This practice allows landowners to manage their woods and produce income while conserving other forest qualities that they value.

Sustainable forest farming can help reduce the demand for species that are gathered in the wild, reducing the risk of overharvesting.  The market value for forest-based medicinal plant products currently exceeds $1 billion dollars per year in the United States and is rising. To develop the operational capacity needed to capitalize on these growing markets, forest farmers need technical, administrative, marketing, and state regulatory training.

The Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition (ABFFC) is a forest farming project supported by the Forest Service and funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The coalition brings together federal, state, university, and nonprofit partners that serve the Appalachian region, which contains native habitat for more than 15 forest farmable plants that have long been part of the region’s social fabric.

The goal of this project is to increase opportunities in Appalachia and beyond for farmers and forestland owners who want to start or expand forest farming operations. To do this, the ABFFC teaches farmers and landowners how to assess the suitability of their woods for growing medicinal crops and connect with industry buyers. Landowners learn about the sustainable cultivation and marketing of plants such as ginseng, black cohosh, blue cohosh, and goldenseal.

In the first year of this project, over 1,000 members joined the coalition. ABFFC has hosted events in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and other states to share information about sustainable cultivation and harvesting, cost-share programs, markets, and value-added products. These events bring together people from across the medicinal plant supply chain from growers to retailers. In addition, ABFFC offers a number of newsletters and a website that provides resources and learning tools.

A close up picture a small plant in ground, within forested area.
One species cultivated in forest farming systems is goldenseal, used by some practitioners for digestive disorders and to strengthen the immune system. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Bukowski)

The project also serves as a resource for those who provide assistance to landowners, including state forestry staff, extension agents, consulting foresters, and non-profit technical assistance providers. Through workshops, service providers learn more how to assess land for growing these crops, identify markets for different species, and harvest sustainably. As the markets for forest-farmed products continue to grow, forest farming education has become more important than ever.