Forest Farming for the Future

Forest Farming for the Future

Part of the process of retaining your sanity when middle-aged is to recognize you are not young anymore and things, for better or worse, have changed. Avoiding a mid-life crisis can be as simple as casting your gaze forward and not back. Learning from the past is essential, but living in the past is a dangerous lifestyle.

So it goes with the socio-political development of the ‘new world’. The majority of North American colonialists and their descendants have tended to view the world through the eyes of youth. A world of expanding frontiers and virgin territory to exploit. A world where there is enough land and room for everyone to do their own thing.

But that is the world of the past. We are on the exponential climb in global population from 6 billion plus to at least 9 billion people in the next 30 to 40 years. Three billion more mouths to feed. Three billion more children to house, cloth and school. Nine billion plus of us with aspirations for a good life. And while most of that growth will occur outside North America, its effects will be felt in every corner of the globe.

This monumental population surge will be the driving force behind at least concomitant increases in demand for food, energy and other raw materials. And the demands that a 50% increase in population will bring for food, fibre and energy will need to be satisfied by a finite productive land base, that is shrinking through degradation and development of urban areas, transportation systems and other industrial activities. And the area devoted to resource use will need to be further reduced if we are to set aside more areas to conserve and restore natural functions and biodiversity.

In the ‘middle age’ of North American society, we collectively need to adapt to mounting land use pressures and demands for natural resources and economic development. At the same time there needs to be more emphasis on conservation and restoration. In simple terms, in the coming decades we will need to produce more with less. Many changes in the way we use and allocate resources are needed. And agroforestry, and forest farming in particular, offers practical options for rising to these challenges.

Forestry and agriculture in North America still largely operate as if there were unlimited room to expand. Arable land ear-marked for agriculture is often stripped clear of it’s ‘unproductive’ forest cover. Areas used for forestry equate forest management with timber management, leaving the full natural productive potential unrealized. And in many jurisdictions there are mountains of regulations and zoning restrictions to make every possible effort to keep different activities on the land divided.

But politics and regulations are usually reactive, not proactive. Society and enterprise are already leading the way to an integrated future. We are already seeing a convergence in forestry, agriculture and bioenergy industries and markets. Bioextracting and biorefining technology will mean that we will increasingly look to forest and field for the raw materials for health and wellness products, petrochemical replacements and other bioproducts. Treating forestry, agriculture, energy and conservation as separate entities that can be compartmentalized as unique disciplines or sectors, no longer makes sense.

Forest farming provides integrated land use systems to blend agriculture, forestry and conservation, independent of whether food, fuel, fibre or any other bioproduct is being harvested. Structured properly, forest farming operations can produce more per unit area than separating forestry and agriculture into single use activities. Managed properly, timber and non-timber crops not only coexist, but benefit from the synergies that flow from the natural facilitative processes in nature.

So, for our collective mental health, let’s skip the mid-life crisis and the self-destructive distractions that come from looking back and trying to live in our colonial youth. There are integrated options that will allow us to meet the demands for natural resources in a more efficient and productive manner from our working land base and also devote land to conserve and protect the natural wealth. It is time to recognize that forest farming is the future, and start making public policy and regulations that support this option.

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