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Forest farming

Forest farming is cultivating high value specialty crops in woodlands managed to provide suitable shade and site conditions. 

Why practice forest farming?

Forest farming diversifies forest management and enhances associated income opportunities. It also improves forest composition, structure, health and long-term economic value.

Forest farmers actively monitor and manage interactions between trees and understory crops with long-term forest health and productivity in mind. Both timber and non-timber crops can be managed on the same forested land, or non-timber crops can be grown in forests where timber harvesting is not possible or desired.

Benefits and challenges

Benefits of forest farming include:

  • Enhanced forest health.
  • Improved forest composition.
  • Improved timber quality.
  • Diversified income opportunities.
  • Profit from the rising popularity of forest farmed products.
  • Great animal habitat.

Forest farming also poses some challenges:

  • Informal or immature markets.
  • Variable yield.
  • Limited information available on how to produce crops.
  • Volatile markets for some products.
  • Some crops attractive to poachers.

Crops from your Minnesota forest

In Minnesota, the potential for forest farming is large. There's more to harvest in your woods than just trees!

  • Fruits. Currant, elderberry, raspberry, blackberry.
  • Nuts. Black walnut, hazelnut, beechnut, chestnuts.
  • Medicinal herbs. Ginseng, bloodroot, burdock, catnip.
  • Woody florals. Willow, dogwood, holly, red birch.
  • Other products. Maple syrup, honey, mushrooms, pine straw, ferns.

See Gathering and growing edible fruits and nuts

Design considerations

A successful forest farming system should have a forest management plan based on the owner's objectives, resource inventory and business plan. In order to achieve optimal light conditions in the forest, thinning will need to be done in your woodland or plantation. Typically, landowners keep the best quality trees to create a canopy that is not fully shading the understory and can later be sold as timber. Your design will be determined by your objectives. When designing forest farming, consider the following factors when assessing suitability of the site for the practice:

  • Soil pH, organic matter, mineral nutrients and drainage.
  • Land formation (slope, aspect, erosion, surface drainage).
  • Precipitation, temperature, overstory canopy cover.
  • Existing forest vegetation.
  • Pests, pathogens and beneficial organisms.

Marketing your products

Marketing your product is the most important aspect of having a successful business. Before beginning your forest farming endeavor, you must assess markets and see how much demand there is for the products you would like to sell.

Minnesota examples

Herbal Turtle Farms is a family run farm in Winona, Minnesota specializing in forest grown mushrooms and specialty herbs. Herbal Turtle currently cultivates shiitake, wine cap, and oyster mushrooms and is certified by the University of Minnesota and the Department of Agriculture to forage and sell wild mushrooms.

Camp Aquila Maple Syrup began in early 2000. The owners worked with a Department of Natural Resources forester to come up with ways to monetize their forested property. With a woodland full of sugar maple trees, maple syrup production was an easy choice.

Stu and Corrine Peterson tap over 1,200 sugar maple trees on 150 acres. They produce over 200 gallons per year with a gravity collection system and a wood-fired elevator. They have won several awards including first place at the Minnesota State Fair in 2011.

Diomy Zamora, Extension educator and Gary Wyatt, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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