You’re probably familiar with community gardens – shared plots where local residents can grow their own vegetables or flowers. But have you experienced a community food forest? It’s a newer concept, and one that was recently supported by the University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Southwest RSDP).
A food forest combines trees, shrubs, vines, perennials and self-seeding annuals to provide edible fruits and nuts. Rather than individually maintained parcels, the entire food forest is open to the public for harvest. The idea is to create an ecosystem that protects the soil, provides healthy foods, and requires minimal labor to be productive.
Food forest for Luverne
Kimberly Rockman, manager of Luverne’s Prairie Ally Outdoor Center, was looking for ways to share her love of nature. “I am passionate about learning about and teaching systems of living in harmony with nature,” Rockman said. “Three years ago I began connecting with organizations and agencies throughout the region who have gotten creative with community-driven work that focuses on outdoor education.” Through these connections, Rockman learned about food forests.
A food forest is designed to operate as permaculture, a sustainable and largely self-sufficient agricultural system. According to South Dakota-based Project Food Forest, a food forest protects soil and water quality through planting techniques that keep rain water on site. The forest returns healthy plant wastes to the land, creates windbreaks through multi-story shrubs, and houses a diverse variety of plants that attract pollinators. “The big thing with agroforestry and permaculture is rebuilding the soil and cleaning the water, and doing so with these great plants that we can use for food or medicine or ornamentals,” Rockman said.
Rockman started working with Project Food Forest founder Veronica Shukla, and the Southwest RSDP connected Rockman and Shukla with Extension Educator Gary Wyatt. “Gary had been working on perennials that produce fruit and nuts, and Kim had approached the Partnership with interest in a food forest and plantings to improve water quality and soil health on the property,” said Southwest RSDP Executive Director Anne Dybsetter. “Working together, they were able to put together a design that would be both productive and educational.”
Rockman, Wyatt and Shukla designed a forest for the Prairie Ally property that would focus on perennials that continue to produce harvest. Some annuals were also planted initially to provide bounty while the forest becomes established.
"For the first few years of the food forest, we are able to do the full sun annuals, like tomatoes, surrounding the trees, as it will take time until those areas are shaded out,” Rockman said. “The lower levels of the food forest will be planted into herbaceous layer, shade-tolerant plants and even fungi as time goes on."
A key goal is to inspire the next generation of farmers and community members to care for the land. School children volunteered to help plant the food forest as well as a neighboring perennial buffer. According to Wyatt, “Families are interested in learning to grow perennial plants such as elderberries, aronia berries, juneberries and hazelnuts to supplement their nutritional needs at home, and to show their children where food comes from.”
With similar goals in mind, Wyatt and Rockman also developed what they call a “productive riparian buffer” on the site, with support from the Southwest RSDP and fellow Extension Agroforestry team members Diomy Zamora and Michael Reichenbach. The buffer runs adjacent to a stream on the Prairie Ally property (and is therefore “riparian”), and is considered productive for the edible nuts, fruits, vegetables and woody ornamental decoratives it may supply.
“It was such a perfect partnership on the buffer because we were already in the planning stages on the food forest,” Wyatt said. “It’s a nice compliment because it’s essentially the same system design process.”
Approximately two dozen species of native grasses and forbs were seeded in the buffer area. The perennial shrubs and trees are expected to produce nuts and berries for years to come. “It provides multiple benefits, improving water quality, rebuilding soil health, providing food and improving wildlife habitat,” Wyatt said.
The buffer is also intended as an educational demonstration plot, showing landowners that edibles can be incorporated into a buffer system. According to Wyatt, “Some landowners may want to plant plants in a buffer that would produce nuts and berries that could be marketable to farmers markets or other businesses.”
Both the food forest and the productive riparian buffer were planted in April 2018. Those interested in exploring the food forest or buffer are encouraged to visit Prairie Ally at 308 N. Blue Mound Avenue in Luverne. Prairie Ally is also on Facebook @prairieally and Instagram @prairieallymn.