When our family raised choose-and-cut Christmas trees years ago, we often saved the evergreen limbs we trimmed off at the tree base while cutting. We also sacrificed misshapen trees that would never be marketable as Christmas trees, simply for their evergreen limbs.
We used these "junk" limbs to make and market beautiful holiday door swags and Christmas wreaths, therefore taking something that had only salvage value and adding value ourselves or hiring someone to do it for us.
I didn't know it at the time, but we were harvesting non-timber forest products, or NTFPs, as they are known, from our Christmas tree fields. We were, in fact, forest farming. That is, harvesting something that wasn't directly related to timber, but was a useful, marketable alternative or secondary product from our woodlands.
Gary Wyatt, University of Minnesota Extension forestry educator, says the concept best in a recent webinar for the Minnesota Master Woodland Owner program. He defines forest farming or multi-story cropping as the intentional manipulation, integration and intensive management of woodlands that capitalizes on specific plant interactions to produce non-timber products.
When we talk about NTFPs, depending on the region you are living in, we are thinking of products like ginseng, decorative ferns and florals, pine straw, firewood, greenery, morel mushrooms, wild edibles, nuts, berries, maple syrup and plants with medicinal properties. Even eco-tourism ventures can have an NTFP component.
Wyatt says that most woodland owners start looking at these potential markets to add value to existing forests and woodlands they are managing. Certainly, NTFPs are usually no substitute for timber income. But woodland owners and managers may want to increase cash flow from the property and diversify family income, to reach out to new customers or to simply give their families another reason to spend time in the woods together.
According to Wyatt, there are several types of practices that fall into the forest farming category, each with a slightly different strategy:
• Wild crafting. This method is employed when you wild-harvest existing non-timber products. Morel mushrooms would be an example. Obviously, this type of forest farming has the lowest input. You still need to know what you are harvesting and identify a site where the product you are searching for exists.
• Forest tending. This is a method that manages a portion of the woodlands, perhaps clearing understory plants to allow proper sunlight through the canopy, so specific species of plants can grow better and be harvested. There is no seeding involved in this method.
• Wild-simulated. This practice takes place in the forest but simulates wild growth. Producers might plant seeds in the woodland floor, and they are left to grow naturally. These systems are still inexpensive and take very little labor.
• Forest gardening or cultivated woods. This higher-cost practice is the most intensive. It’s where ag economic methods are put into use, including weed and pest control and protection from wildlife. The input costs are higher, but the products being tended are of greater value as well.