Food Forests

Key Skills of Forest Farmers

Creating a food forest in a team makes sense when looking at the diverse skill set necessary. Ideally, there is farming, entrepreneurial and interpersonal know-how, specifically on:

Growing and managing perennial polycultures: Perennial plants in a food forestinclude fruit and nut producing trees and shrubs, culinary and medicinal herbs, perennial vegetables, as well as service plants for pollination, fertilization and pest management. Food forests can also include mushrooms and annual vegetables, and in a desert environment, also bean trees and fruit-producing cacti. Animals such as chicken can also be included, however, requires particular fencing or they can be included in a later stage once plants are more established. Often food forests include exotic plants which may come with special requirements. With so many options, it is beneficial to focus on a few plant species from each layer to study, know well how to take care of them and develop marketable products from. For example, for the apple tree more than of 7.500 cultivars exists with different characteristics and requirements, e.g., for the harvesting and storage timing of fruits. Besides knowing how to raise them and take care of them individually, it is also relevant to know how to combine them in a beneficial and locally suitable way. This can be a complex undertaking. Without any gardening experience, it can be good to start exploring on a smaller plot or collaborate with someone knowledgeable.

Processing diverse produce into added-value products can be an important strategy to receive a higher margin, and sustain the many hours of manual labor needed. Processed goods can include foods, beverages, supplements, medicinal products, fodder, natural paint and wood products. This handbook focuses on food products. Each area usually requires expertise on how to process, market and deal with relevant regulations. It can be beneficial to focus on a few high-value, signature products for income generation to work efficiently within all the complexity. Otherwise, different or additional processes for harvesting, storing, processing, labeling and marketing of each product may overburden the already labor intense work of small-scale farming. Focusing on signature products requires growing larger quantities of certain plants for income generation. Additional crops can be used for self-sufficiency, gifts for volunteers and/or be sold unprocessed to a market or restaurant.

Managing a complex, long-term and sustainably oriented farming business relates to common business management practices such as monitoring yields, planning and marketing products and services as well as account keeping. The diversity of products and services may require a high level of organizational and documenting skills and/or tools. The long-term orientation and change of main produce over time (growing from low to high level with each year) requires flexibility and foresight for future markets. A new product line may be necessary every 5 years. Preparing activities with foresight and structure can also be relevant, e.g., creating or revisiting agendas and minutes for important meetings such a funders or land owners, or preparing the site for volunteers on work days. Regulative literacy can be relevant early on when looking for land (e.g., what can be grown on different land use types) as well as for later product development. Working with alternative organizational models and processes, e.g., cooperatives or benefit corporations, requires skills and motivation for joint decision making and shared leadership. Here, strong interpersonal and communication skills (see below) are key. As food forests are often part of hybrid organizations with multiple goals, balancing focus and flexibility can be an important asset. Furthermore, skills to setup and maintain technical infrastructure, e.g., fence, irrigation system and nursery, are relevant.

Interpersonal and communication skills are relevant to network, inform about the project, leverage support and provide educational and/or consultation offers. Networking strategically broad and deep can help access necessary resources such as access to land, infrastructure items or regulative permissions to experiment. Communication skills can include writing of convincing grant or loan applications to cover the high investment cost as well as creating and maintaining a website, newsletter and social media presence. It also includes good listening skills, especially when negotiating or dealing with conflicts. The principles of non-violent communication by Marshal Rosenberg [3] may help in conflict management. A short summary for times of conflict:

  1. State objectively what you have observed without judgement
  2. Share how you felt about it, e.g., I got angry/hurt/triggered…
  3. Share what your needs are, e.g., I need acceptance/peace/compassion…
  4. Ask for a specific and doable request of the other person, e.g., I would like you to…

You can write this down as a reflection before talking to the relevant person. With practice this flows more and more naturally. Navigating within a short-term oriented food system may create challenges as well as opportunities in- and outside the farm. Challenges may include, e.g., damage of small seedlings working on a young site with volunteers as the forest is not visible yet, or the high transaction costs of accessing various product-dependent marketing channel. Opportunities may include funding opportunities, e.g., for environmental benefits created, and a creative and healthy work environment.

The FFC entrepreneurs Maria, Ali, Brian, Nelli and Alexis (left to right, Source: FFC 2022)

The team at the Food Forest Coop brings together a diverse skill set interweaving skills as described above:

  • Alexis Trevizo builds on more than 5 years of experience in growing a homestead forest garden with over 500 fruit and medicinal plants. She further consults NGOs, firms and private households in planning their garden.
  • Maria Parra Cano is a Chef offering plant-based ancestral foods in her catering business Sana Sana and co-leads the Cihuapactli Collective. With her husband Brian, she leads community circles and shares traditional knowledge based on to their ancestral lineage. She also brings in a strong finance and grant acquisition background.
  • Brian Cano is a creative welder and runs a metal workshop. He leads the infrastructure development and the on-the-ground technical work at the food forest.
  • Nelli Evans is a school teacher and contributes to developing products and educational offerings in the food forest.
  • Ali LoPiccolo supports the business and administration of the FFC with a Master’s degree in Sustainability Solutions. She is also interested in on-the-ground work and on the land often besides Alexis.

What brings and holds them together is a strong vision of regenerating the health of the land and people.

[3] Rosenberg, Marshall B. (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2nd ed.). Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.