Ancient practice of forest farming becoming popular

Ancient practice of forest farming becoming popular

Forest farming is an ancient practice which is gaining in popularity, as more people are turning to ways to cultivate and manage wild crops like stoneroot.


Forest farming is an ancient practice which is gaining in popularity, as more people are turning to ways to cultivate and manage wild crops like pawpaws, persimmons, elderberries, medicinal herbs, fungi and other products.

The art of growing crops in the wood’s understory isn’t new. Native Americans and many other cultures gathered wild plants, berries, mushrooms, roots, and even bark for sustenance and medicine.

To help beginning and experienced forest farmers, Rural Action, a 600-member based organization near Athens, collaborates with landowners within the 24 county Appalachian region in Ohio plus other counties and surrounding states. According to its website, Rural Action’s mission is to build a more just economy by developing the region’s assets in environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways.

Rural Action offers many educational opportunities from consulting and classes in food, agriculture, forestry, zero waste, recycling, environmental education, watershed restoration, and energy. Current programs and resources include Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition, Non-Timber Forest Products management planning assistance, planting stock sales, and the woodland owners toolkit.

Sustainable Forestry Director Tanner Filyaw recently conducted two non-timber forest surveys in Holmes County, paid for by a USDA grant. During the walkthrough, he noted the condition of the soil, types of trees, native plants and suggested areas where products like wild simulated ginseng could be planted. Beside growing ginseng, there are many alternate opportunities to earn income from your woodlot beside timbering. Another way is cultivating mushrooms using small excess trees to generate a steady revenue stream without causing damage to the existing forest.

In using the under-story of your woods for forest farming you will need to get rid of “weeds” just as any farmer or gardener does to help his crops thrive. Large-scale timbering can open up the under story to undesirable invasive plants such as garlic mustard, Asian honeysuckle, and multi flora rose that need sunlight and can soon takeover the newly opened space left open when the trees are logged if left unchecked. “These plants are aggressive and will crowd out the desirable native plants,” Filyaw said. “Dig up the roots of the multi flora rose or kill with a recommended herbicide. Pull out the garlic mustard.”

He also explained that wild cultivated plants like ginseng need the right soil condition. “If the woodlot was pastured, the soil can be compacted. This is less favorable for root crops like goldenseal and ramps. If the site was previously disturbed, it can help to look for areas where the cattle might not have grazed, like steeply sloped hillsides,” he said.

“After you find a good location, plant the ginseng seeds in the fall and let them grow naturally,” Filyaw added. “Ginseng is a slow-growing plant and will take up to 10 years or more to reach a harvestable size. The first two years, the plant will be very small. Think of it like money in the bank. In Ohio both wild cultivated and wild plants must be least five years old and have at least three sets of mature leaves, or “prongs” to be legally harvested and sold.”

For rules and guidelines for ginseng, go to for more information on legally and sustainably harvesting it.

Another way to make income from your woodlot is to make maple syrup. Trees can be tapped in February every year for a steady revenue source. Harvesting ramps in the spring can be another way to generate revenue. Ramps are a cross between onions and garlic. They are versatile and in demand at local farmer’s markets and restaurants.

“You can cut off the leaves and use them in pestos and sauces without harming the bulb,” Filyaw said. ‘If you harvest the bulb, do it sparingly by only digging a few and leaving some to grow next year. Fall is the time to plant the seeds for next year.”

Because of illegal and over-harvesting, some natives plants may no longer exist in your woods but you can reintroduce them. Rural Action sells stratified ginseng for $120 for one pound plus shipping and handling. One pound will cover an area of 6,400 square feet. Larger or smaller quantities are also available to plant now. Rural Action sells a variety of native plants and seeds in addition to high quality stratified ginseng.

American Author Aldo Leopold summed up the concept of forest farming in his book Song of Gavilan:

“The oak which feeds the buck, who feeds the cougar, who dies under an oak and goes back into acorns for his erstwhile prey,” he wrote. “This is one of the many food cycles starting from and returning to oaks, for the oak also feeds the jay who feeds the goshawk who names your river, the bear whose grease made your gravy, the quail who taught you in a lesson in botany, and the turkey who daily gives you the slip.”

For more information on Rural Action go to www// or email

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