Sustainable Forest Farming with Dr. John Munsell


Wild harvesting is the way that we’ve
sourced for generations our botanicals woodlands, and it, as the name
implies, essentially is finding these products where they grow naturally and
harvesting them in the wild. So technically defined forest farming is
the kind of intentional cultivation or propagation of non-timber forest
products, “NTFPs,” as they’re called. There are several ways you can go about
this, one of which really resembles farming in terms of planting and kind of
tending, growing, to harvest, harvesting, and then selling. Others are related to
existing plant populations, and rather than ignoring or exploiting, working to
tend and propagate and grow out those plant populations with a kind of market
end in mind and, you know, applying essentially these ecological principles
to the agricultural proposition in the woodlands. In terms of being an
alternative to wild harvesting, it offers an element of control with
respect to the quality of the product. It also provides assurances related to the
oversight and the tending of the stand such that there are objectives with
respect to our environmental benefits that can be achieved, and it also
provides companies assurances and the kind of product lines they need to
reduce adulteration and any of the kind of complications associated with large
volume orders that may come from those areas. I think one of the most important
factors is just the recognition writ large, or at least growing, on the part of
the consumer in society around that the products that they purchase, and where
they’re coming from, and the impacts that they’re having in terms of environmental
sustainability, market equity, social justice, and other issues around their
purchasing behaviors. And so there’s an element of social responsibility that’s
at play here on the part of companies and on the part of consumers, and that
can be pulled or traced back to forest farming in terms of the chain of custody
that is clear and consistent in that system. I think consumers should know
that there are people and there are places tied to their product, and it’s
not just knowing where your product comes from, but it’s also understanding
the context wherein that product is harvested or provided from, and that is
an important issue that the discerning consumer who does care about the
environment, who does have a sense of responsibility to society, can work to
grasp the real issues associated with the supply chains in the industry and
help, as others along the way have worked to help, improve the overall situation so
that those people and those places can be improved. In large part, where many of our woodland botanicals are harvested and sourced to the herbal products industries come from
areas in Appalachia that are extremely economically
depressed and distressed, and forest farming, through the possibilities of
better prices, greater recognition on the part of consumers, interest on the part
of companies in those raw materials, provides one avenue of a kind of natural
capital and environmentally focused economic development, which to me, recognizes the true wealth in that region that has not necessarily been in
the hands of the people that live there. And so it’s accessing that “green capital,”
if you will, and looking to kind of push the boundary with respect to market
evolution around the intentional cultivation and, at the same time through
that, helping to protect and steward some of those plant populations in that area,
so that the capital is not lost in the midst of generating revenue or income,
but in fact it’s enhanced, and developed, and grown. So I think it’s important to ensure that,
you know, a producer base that’s long been marginalized is not marginalized in the future, but lifted up at this kind of critical moment, where there’s a great
deal of opportunity enfolded into the possibilities. I think one of the biggest
challenges is how to move forward together in terms of outreach and
education, and by that, I mean there are those that are interested in forest
farming and that intentional cultivation system, which is an agroforestry practice;
there are those that have been long involved in the wild harvesting trade;
and neither, I think, should be segregated or separated or weighted one versus the
other, but we need to think about how those systems of production can move
forward together, such that the entire market benefits in terms of the
traceability, the confidence associated with the harvesting practices, and through all
of that, we’re doing right by our environment and our plants. One of the
biggest challenges associated with forest farming is the time lag. These are
slow growing perennial plants primarily, and so to invest today in something
that renders a saleable product in four to six years is a risky proposition
or risk proposition, and so those landowners that are interested, or those
others that are interested in forest farming, are facing a situation where
there’s some uncertainty regarding next steps or the possibility of sales. So
particularly at the outset, taking that step and investing with not all the information known (regarding where the sale may happen down the road) is a
difficult hurdle for those who are interested in forest farming. I think
also, too, we’re lacking some of the basic support structures that the government
has put in place for our field farming, insurance being a good example.
There’s not really a well-defined insurance possibility for forest farmers,
because for the longest time, many of these non-timber forest products
have been seen as recreational, or things that are of little consequence
or value in the market, but of course we know those markets are fairly large… they’ve just been, for the longest time, sourced through wild harvesting. Forest
farming at the stages that it exists now is not going to, say, take over the entire
supply chain, it’s just not going to happen. Nor do I think it should, really. I
think it can be balanced. I think that in that regard, the understanding of the
extent to which consumers will purchase these materials and where they will
purchase them, and pulling back to some sort of financial planning in terms of
buying forest farmed products relative to some of the other sourcing, is a critical
step that’s yet to be defined, but that could improve the opportunities for
forest farmers and expand the scale of supply. Mountain Rose Herbs is a leader in this movement, in terms of defining the next steps of the herbal products industry, truly. They have,
with passion and practicality, taken some very important steps, and they’re pushing
the boundary, and I think that’s critical and important. Working part and parcel
with others that have been involved with the forest farming proposition, not
shying away from that, but kind of diving in, has really been one of the strengths
on the part of Mountain Rose Herbs’ involvement, and then in doing that,
putting basically money where their mouth is by actually buying these
products at higher price points to demonstrate, in the region, where this
kind of economic development could really pay off, and that environmental
sustainability can be part of that. Through the purchasing of those forest
farmed, forest grown products, Mountain Rose Herbs has demonstrated that it’s
possible, and I think that right there is the most kind of powerful impact
that the company has had thus far, in terms of the work underway in
Appalachia and beyond. They are defining ways in which we can move forward, and to do that, they have to take on that risk, but that risk is being absorbed, because
they believe in a variety of principles associated with the business operation:
providing, obviously, quality products to their consumers, but then looking back to
the regions where those products are coming from and ensuring that we can do
right by those providers of that raw material, and so also do right by the
plant material itself, the forests, and the environment, and working in that
regard to show others how we can move together toward this end. United Plant Savers brings the
conservation piece of the equation to the table in a very powerful way. They
have a long history of working to conserve plants throughout Appalachia
and beyond, internationally even, and they have been
a key driver along the way in terms of defining these next steps. They have
partnered with many organizations to bring that conservation message to the
overall strategy. They stick to that, they are tried-and-true in that regard, and
that plays a very valuable and important role in the midst of this economic
development proposition because what they do is, they’ve helped formulate a
process that balances the environmental sustainability with the economic
development, and in all of that cuts through the issue of social justice. So
it’s the people, and the plants, and the products all together, and they help to
ensure that that piece of the equation, or that piece of the pie,
is front and center. There are a variety of places that
people can go to gather information related to forest farming. Universities
and their extension services provide fact sheets and other types of
publications around the particular plants, and even some of the aspects
of management. There are nongovernmental organizations such as United Plant
Savers, Appalachian Sustainable Development, Rural Action, that have
worked to put out information to provide workshops and training (the same with the extension services, they also do that), and all of those organizations that I
mentioned are tied into a coalition that focuses on promoting forest farming and
working with landowners and and other stewards that are interested in that
particular agroforestry practice, and transferring the techniques and market
information that would be relevant and useful in a forest farming operation to
assist those individuals as they move forward in terms of production. So you
can find that information on websites, the Appalachian Beginning Forest
Farmer Coalition is an outfit that was sponsored by the United States
Department of Agriculture and their beginning farmer and rancher development program, and that includes nongovernmental organizations and
university partners and agency partners, as well, and that is a clearinghouse of
sorts for this type of information. Also, training events are hosted by the
Coalition periodically…over the last three years, we’ve trained 750 people in
terms of forest farming practices, but we have 1500 members in the Coalition, and
we have events upcoming in the future. And so we continue to kind of push along
in terms of a centralized way to transfer information and make that
available.

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