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How a communal food forest teaches us ‘longterm thinking’

 

A food forest, also called a communal forest garden, is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. Food forests are three dimensional designs, with life extending in all directions – up, down, and out.

Food Forest Living Web

Setting up a food forest is not just a trend, it’s a necessity. The Dutch Governmental Department recently announced it supports the ambition to create 1000 hectares of food forests in The Netherlands.

These days we are often used to short-term thinking and planning. Yet to be able to beat the climate issues, to help our next generations to survive and grow, we should be thinking much more long-term. Starting a food forest is certainly a long-term adventure that also takes us back to our roots. Literally: back to the soil around us as this process will not just teach us how to plan for the next 5, 10, 20…but for the next 120 years to come. Trees live longer and when well cared for, they will give us back many things. From harvesting food to co2 storage, from an increase of biodiversity to well…more life.

Where to start?
When one has the intention to start a food forest (either big or very small), you’ll come across many questions. Is the soil appropriate? How can we improve the soil quality before planting trees? What about regulations? In location policies of the local municipality and the national government, the plan for a piece of land is often pretty strict. You’re not allowed to just plant trees wherever you want, even if you are the owner of the land. Even though everybody says we need to plant more trees, it’s still hard to convince governmental institutions to quickly grant permission to start. These processes take time. Do we want more fruits or nuts? How much time and resources do we need to manage the forest? Should we let the natural ecosystem do its own thing, or do we want to manage it and fight the grass or nettle? How do we obtain the land? How do we generate the funding? Which people will participate? Who will be the curator of the forest? Then the design process starts: where do we plant what? How do we decrease the grass or weeds? How do we plan the walking routes for the people?

Our colleague Sanne Smeets has high ambitions with the foundation Vers aan de Vecht in Weesp, as they are now in the process of finding answers to all these questions. They started this sustainable adventure with many possibilities, but also with no one set of instructions. There are no short-term results visible on the horizon and the group cannot guarantee any harvest next season. Here comes the long-term thinking and with it a slight hint of fear and uncertainty. Everyone that hears about this, loves the idea. Certainly, they’re not lacking any engagement and passion. Sanne: “Let’s start with our own neighbourhood and focus on the dream of our own forest, where our children will enjoy nature at its best.” So what’s next?

Research
Some members of the ‘kartrekkersteam’ of the foundation visited a food forest in Den Ilp, next to DeGroeneBoerderij. The owner, Amber gave a tour through her forest and explained with sincere passion what she loves doing but also how the grass is sometimes testing her patience. As she ‘only’ started this forest three years ago, she is still building on what works best. It’s a privately managed forest and Amber with her partner work hard all year round to take care of it as best they can. Don’t worry, they don’t keep its treasures to themselves: they collaborate with the local community, engage with the people in need of care and facilitate small events in the tipi-tent.

This forest arises on a piece of peat bog land, meaning that it is pretty soggy and difficult for most plants to root. Amber uses woodchips for the walking paths and grows a little hill – so specific roots have more soil there. The type of soil you have is of course the basis of your forest. Amber: “Just experience your land for a while, observe what happens, what do you see around you? Then start designing the forest.”

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Learn from the process
As the main objective for the foundation Vers aan de Vecht is: ‘education about food production, nature and us’, they think it is already a major win by just learning about setting up such a forest. Sanne Smeets from Vers aan de Vecht: “We learn from each-other; we learn from the process. And hopefully when we will start, we’ll tour the local community around the forest, make sure students and schoolkids learn from the young trees and plants, and can walk through the forest and discover new birds, while also eating the first berries or hazelnuts.”

Next steps
In close collaboration with the owners of the 1 hectare of land where the foundation is aiming to start the forest, the team of Vers aan de Vecht is now connecting with the local municipality and Provincie Noord Holland, to see how quickly they can give permission to start planting trees. Meanwhile, they are researching the natural features of the land, like watermanagement, birds and other species living there as well as the quality of the soil. Last but not least: the group is budgeting the whole process. Keep following Vers aan de Vecht for the latest news.

Foundation Vers aan de Vecht

This foundation is now starting with the first phase of a CommunitySupportedAgriculture-garden next to the biological dairy-farm De Groene Griffioen in Weesp. Here three professional gardeners will grow vegetables for the community consisting of 100 households. Besides vegetables, the families can adopt a chicken or a cow from the farm, so they will also have their own local biological eggs, meat and dairy. In the second phase, the foundation will expand the number of members and develop programs for local schools. The food forest will also be part of the second phase. Follow their adventures here: www.versaandevecht.nl and on Facebook.

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