Since the beginning of the pandemic, what a small group of people used to discuss, has now hit home with the public. Food security has been a serious concern in New Brunswick since the 1980s when small family farms became increasingly displaced by food imports and corporate farms.
In early October, Global News reported on a study conducted by the Dalhousie University Agri-Food Analytics Lab, in partnership with Angus Reid. The study sought to understand how the pandemic influenced people’s decision to grow food.
There are many ways that we can increase our local food supply and growing annual crops are just one way. Many of the crops that we prize like tomatoes originate in regions of the world like South America. While those crops have been adapted to perform better in our climate, they still require a lot of care and are more prone to die in heavy frost and unpredictable climatic events. The most passive way that we can feed ourselves is through perennial crops and food forests.
Food forests are a term new to most of us in New Brunswick, but they have been around for thousands of years worldwide. In the arid Atlas Mountains of Morocco, there is an area of deep underground springs called Inraren. This lush area in stark contrast to its dry open surroundings, is a forest garden that is estimated by some to have been growing for thousands of years. This food forest influenced the life’s work of permaculture leader Geoff Lawton, who continues to teach the concept worldwide, including in desert areas in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He said that entering the forest was like entering into a living organism. Villagers still maintain the area and make regular harvests at Inraren.
In the 1960s, Robert Hart started the first modern working food forest in Shropshire, England. The Plants for a Future website explains,
“…The motivation behind the garden was not just based on growing more food in less space and with less effort. Robert was very aware of the inequalities in society, especially between the western cultures and the less developed nations. He wanted to demonstrate a lifestyle that could help to provide more food and an improved standard of life for those areas of the world where starvation is an ever- present threat.”
The documentation of Hart’s project became widely known in the 1970s when the practice of permaculture grew around the world. Permaculture is a set of holistic design principles that help people to meet all of our basic needs, while helping to reverse damages done on the planet. We can do this by observing and mimicking nature.
Food forests do just that. A food forest mimics a natural forest canopy, with mycelial layer, root crops, ground cover, shrub layers, small trees and larger trees, we can top it all off with vines that climb up the trees. A food forest doesn’t have to be large, in fact, many urban sites are only one-quarter to a half-acre in size.
Each of the layers has many edible perennial crops in them. Starting at the ground level, a New Brunswick food forest might contain horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, oyster mushrooms, creeping thyme and strawberries; perennial greens like sorrel; medicinal flowers like comfrey and calendula; shrubs like elderberry and highbush blueberries; Saskatoons (service berries) and hazelnuts; and apple trees as first canopy and butternut as the highest canopy.
A food forest offers us very diverse crops, including protein rich nuts. We may not want to eat exclusively from a food forest, but it does offer us many of the calories that we need to survive. Indeed, throughout human evolution most of our daily nutrition came not from meat supply, which can be unpredictable and energy intensive to hunt, but from roots, nuts, perennial plants, eggs and insects (all of which can be found in a small section of forest).
A food forest can take a good deal of work to create at the out-set, but that work is minimal when spun out over the centuries that a food forest can produce. In July, the NB Media Co-op interviewed Jessie Saindon of Liberty Tree Nursery about his work and plans for the future.
“I can look at a seedling and see it 100 years from now, long after I’m gone, still producing food,” said Saindon.
In addition to having a long-production time, food forests require very little yearly maintenance (as compared to annual vegetable gardens). They create animal and plant habitat as well as sequester carbon and cool the local environment. This makes food forests particularly useful in urban and public settings. We could use food forests to create new public commons to feed anyone passing through.
There are a few mature food forests in New Brunswick, including the Community Forests International site at the Sackville Community Garden. New food forests are going in all the time, including at the Dieppe Market, Hampton High, and there are now four food forests underway in the Miramichi region. In 2019 the Roots to Table Community Food Forest was established in the city. The recent fall plant completes the first phase of a five-year, one-acre urban outdoor community classroom flanked by sensory and vegetable gardens next spring will see the installation of universal access sloped land terraces and a First Nations medicinal garden.
“The idea is to integrate the natural relationship between native knowledge, the wisdom of our land, and the science, which supports permaculture. We want to celebrate common ground through shared food. It seems a novel concept, but one that is now in its time now for our greater community,” said Terri Cormier, a member and volunteer of the Roots to Table Regional Good Food Collective.
The Garden Cities Project is another leader in food forest development. They are on a mission to normalize urban edible landscapes in and around Moncton. They have already done two successful plantings this year at the popular Saint-Anselme Rotary Lodge Park in Dieppe and the newly established Park and Pine Collective Garden in downtown Moncton. In the Spring they will continue with a demonstration site in Riverview near the busy Gunningsville Bridge.
“…So much knowledge has been lost in our modern society and we’re here to help bring it back. Over time these demonstration sites will provide a fresh source of nutritional edibles that are easily accessible and visually identifiable with the educational components we’ll be installing into 2021. We hope to see these examples inspire and empower others to grow more food close to home,” said Christine Lund of Garden Cities.
As the Chinese proverb goes, the best time to plant a forest is 20 years ago. If you are keen to get started this coming spring, don’t wait, reach out! Although trees take some time to produce, you can still have the reward of blueberries, saskatoons, raspberries and elderberries in just a few years. You can get information from the Growing a Better Future Project and initiative of the RAVEN Project (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment).
Amy Floyd lives in Taymouth, N.B. and is the Senior Food Security Policy Analyst with the Growing a Better Future Project. Amy also runs the Permaculture Atlantic Network. PAN and community partners host regular permaculture meet-ups in Moncton and Fredericton.