Regenerative Agroforestry in temperate climate is possible.
I wrote a blog about the Den Food Bosch research and showcase food forest about a year ago. Since then a lot of time has passed and I was curious to hear exactly how it all went. I caught up with Paul, designer and developer of regenerative agroforestry systems, asking him about the forest, the birds and the bees.
Den Food Bosch was your pilot, your baby. Although at 1 hectare of land (10,000 m2) it’s not exactly baby-sized. How did it all go?
November 19, 2018 the first trees were planted. We were busy until about January making sure things like the willow fence were intact. Spring came eventually and that was a gift; it was beautiful to see how everything we put together came to life and grew.
A lot of life ‘happened’ very quickly on this piece of land. Winter cover crop, along with the green manure, helped a lot. Peach and apricot trees were some of the first to flower. Lots of bees arrived as well. It was amazing to see this monoculture cornfield that had been degraded for decades transform in a matter of weeks.
Did you bring in the bees with a beehive?
In June we did place a beehive in cooperation with a beekeeper, but there were many wild species of bees and bumblebees that arrived beforehand. They were happy to find a habitat that offered both food and shelter because many bees that’s aren’t honeybees live in the soil or in pieces of wood. Homes aren’t usually available for them on conventionally farmed land.
Are there specific parts within the project?
As part of our Multistrata Agroforestry system (food forest), we have lots of diverse trees, shrubs, berries and herbs. In the rows between the trees we decided to grow annual crops in the first season to utilize time and space.
How did that go?
They tasted very good! We sold them to the surrounding neighborhood on a food forest market every Saturday including herbs, strawberries, already some perennials, and flowers. People loved it and it was also a great way for people in the local community to connect.
Any realizations or challenges?
We realized annual vegetables were very labor-intensive in such a diverse system as we decided to grow them. We still had great experiences, publicity and tours which enabled us to spend a lot of time there and consistently track the development of the trees. And at the end we did have the vegetables that tasted the best.
One of the biggest challenges was the severe drought of 2018. The system did well despite the drought – we didn’t lose any fruit trees, just some biomass trees which was to be expected. The percentage was very low, thanks to things like the woodchips we added that retained a lot of moisture. We also needed less water for the vegetables since they were grown in polycultures and had a layer of woodchips. We are not fans of large input; some areas didn’t have that much compost for instance. As a result some crops like corn and pumpkin didn’t make it.
And what about the system as a whole?
Ecologically we experienced a dramatic shift. Wherever you remove some woodchips the underlying earth is white with mycelium of various fungi which help decompose plant material and help plants absorb water and micronutrients. There are worms, bugs and life eating organic material. We have no more runoff from rain either. A nice layer of decomposing biomass is also found on the soil.
Do the Forest Farmers have any other projects?
Yes, Hoogerheide is a production food forest. The client’s goal was a system enabling lots of production on the given area. It’s 2 ha with two connected fields. Both of them are now planted, as of this we are just finishing the hedges. There are fruit trees, many different berries, about 5 to 6 thousand biomass trees that will rise and be pruned and nuts. Imagine a field full of apples, pears, figs, butternuts, honeyberries and more. It is inspired by Ernst Goetsch’s syntropic farming approach.
We have 26 main crops, while other natural systems have a couple hundred. Production systems must also consider value and market demand. Pawpaw plants seem to make sense here for example.
I have also heard about a “mosaic” project, what’s that all about?
We have a mosaic landscape project in Boxtel. A mosaic landscape is a pattern most of our lands would naturally have. In the Netherlands, there would be forest. Some open patches would exist thanks to larger heard animals or a flood or fire for example. Thus a forest clearing is created. The resulting mosaic landscape can be diverse and productive. It’s a blend of forest, grasslands, water and forest edge.
This combination can be managed in various ways like holistic grazing on the grasslands with the Alan Savory approach. If done right, this can quadruple the productivity and you can keep more animals on the land and improve soil and grass quality along with animal health.
What is your goal with the mosaic landscape setup?
We need to showcase alternative ethically correct and ecologically sound ways of rearing animals. Mosaic landscapes are a great opportunity. You can even grow fodder for the animal on the trees! Inspiring farmers to manage their land holistically is important. You’d never have a cow grazing on the same patch of land for a year. Either a wolf would come by and scare it away or the cow would move on because it wouldn’t want to stand where it has just pooped, which makes sense.
Most of our grasslands are overgrazed and understocked. This is not because of too many animals, but because the same animals are on the same piece of land for too long and immediately eat any new growth that appears.
What do your clients typically look like?
A business man, financial advisor himself, heard about us. He had some land and wanted a showcase for a productive food forest. A family, living on the land and managing it is another client. They have a vision of a more abundant landscape with wildlife and food production coexisting. We are advising a sustainable energy cooperative with 900 members at this moment. Vegetable farmers are also clients. They want more diversity in their fields. Farmers not only want to see more butterflies but also be more prepared for a changing climate.
What about other people seeing the forest? And your main goal?
At the Den Food Bosch food forest we gave 20 tours to 400 people from about 20 countries in 2018. This year we have demand for more tours.
We want to create ecosystems were humans can thrive alongside nature. We are part of an intelligent system, and we are not the intelligent ones. We need to learn to work for- and with that system. Our goal is to reconnect man and nature. Agriculture is a symbol of mankind, it’s the main way we interact with nature. We want this to have a positive impact so we can have a major positive impact overall.
Paul Müller and Janine Raabe offer design, project development and implementation of regenerative agroforestry systems. For more information on this and other projects, visit their website here.