Rather than farming orchards that can deplete the soil, Duke Jackson is planting food forests, an ecosystem of fruit trees and edible plants that improve soil health and help keep groundwater levels stable.
“It’s not only producing for humans, but also it’s meant to benefit the environment as a whole,” he said.
Jackson, a recent Fort Lewis College graduate, is coordinating an effort to turn the orchard at the college into a food forest, as well as helping plant one next to Turtle Lake Community Farm on County Road 205. Turtle Lake Refuge, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability, is helping to plant the forest. Katrina Blair, founder of the organization, expects it will lend itself to education.
It’s a model of agriculture that is much more resilient than planting huge fields of a single crop that are susceptible to disease, said Rachel Landis, coordinator of the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center. Food forests are a growing trend. A self-reported database includes more than 60 across the U.S.
In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement recognized large-scale crops of a single food are vulnerable to climate change. Food forests can help protect the environment by capturing carbon, in part because they have healthy soil and they don’t require chemical fertilizer, she said.
“We are really at a place where building a more resilient food system is paramount,” she said.
FLC’s food forest will be a teaching tool for students in several areas of study. They will measure how carbon is captured, study the health of the forest system, study soil content and the plants and use it as a basis for business plans, she said.
Voles killed about 62 of the 100 trees in the college’s orchard two years ago by stripping the bark, and another of Landis’ students proposed turning the orchard into a food forest in the fall, she said.
In January, Jackson, Landis and others started planning how they would revamp the orchard. They plan to start work on the garden in April and plant garlic, chives, thyme, strawberries, asparagus, shrubs and trees.
Jackson is planting the food forest near Turtle Lake with neighbors and other volunteers. On Thursday, volunteers dug a swale, a trench that follows the contour of the land, to help capture water so that not as much is lost to evaporation.
The group plans to plant trees around the swale, patches of perennial vegetables and thick ground cover, Jackson said.
Ground cover, such as red and white clover, helps replace nutrients in the soil and it keeps the ground cool, which improves water retention. Siberian peashrub, sea buckthorn and buffaloberry will help replace nitrogen in the soil, Jackson said.
While it will need water for the first few years, Jackson expects the forest will be able subsist on rain in future years.
Food forests, as the name implies, borrow much of their concept from nature. In traditional agriculture, when there is lots of bare ground, the soil and nutrients tend to blow away, Blair said. Planting ground cover, shrubs and vegetables thickly helps keep out the weeds, Jackson said.
“It’s a more efficient use of water and space,” Blair said.
Jackson interned last year at the Hawaii Institute of Pacific Agriculture’s food forest.
“It really inspired me and showed me what’s possible,” he said.
Jackson graduated last year with an environmental studies degree, and had taken only one sustainable agriculture class. He got hooked on gardening volunteering with the Environmental Center his junior year and plans to work on food systems for the foreseeable future.
For more information on these projects, visit the Turtle Lake Food Forest Facebook page.