QUEST Ohio Community Contributor Ken Mudge contributed to this story.
It is a hot and steamy summer day in northeast Ohio and the mosquitoes are out in full force. None of this seems to bother me or my associate, Dr. Kenneth Mudge, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University, as we roll over logs in a hardwood forest at the 3,500-acre Holden Arboretum just east of Cleveland. He is looking for edible mushrooms — particularly Shitakes, which can fetch up to 15 dollars per pound.
“This might not look like a farm in the traditional sense,” says Mudge, “but cultivating and harvesting non-timber resources, or ‘forest farming,’ might help foster the health and integrity of forests in the northeast U.S. and therefore exemplify productive conservation.”
Forested landscapes play a far more central role in our everyday lives than most people realize. In addition to providing beneficial timber and non-timber resources, sustainable forest management maintains biodiversity, preserves wildlife habitat, prevents soil erosion, and maintains water quality. It also sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide, helping to slow the rate of climate change by providing relatively long-term storage of this greenhouse gas in tree biomass and soil organic matter.
Despite their biological and economic importance, forests continue to be threatened by land-use change (urban and agricultural development), acid rain and nutrient enrichment, and invasive plants and pests, underscoring the need to conserve native forests.
Fortunately, opportunities abound to rethink the current concept and practice of forest conservation and management of ecosystem services at the landscape scale. The eastern U.S., in particular, represents a unique opportunity for forest research and experimental management because forest cover is actually increasing due to agricultural abandonment.
Forest farming, which is the cultivation of high-value, non-timber forest products like ginseng and mushrooms, provides an economically viable alternative to traditional management practices. Such practices promote productive conservation that maintains and enhances ecosystem services, while generating income that helps pay taxes and thereby avoids unsustainable timber harvest.
It isn’t a stretch to envision this sort of model. Non-timber harvesting has existed in northern Europe for centuries, and maple sap extraction for syrup, although energy intensive, is a common agricultural practice throughout the Northeast.
For example, a forest management practice called timber stand improvement (TSI) increases forest health by thinning overly dense stands of young trees, thereby allowing the best prospects to grow to maturity and contribute to the future harvest of high-quality timber. The trees removed during thinning can be used as substrate logs for cultivating Shiitake mushrooms.
TSI improves forest quality in the long term, while generating income from mushrooms in the short term. It’s an example of productive conservation and can be an important aspect of modern forest management, particularly in human-dominated landscapes.
“Farming forests does not have to be time consuming or energy intensive, and it sure beats a clear-cut full of invasive shrubs every 30 years,” adds Mudge.
Regions with large tracts of public land, such as the western U.S., are amenable to broad implementation of sustainable forest management practices. But in the eastern U.S., much of the forested land is privately owned and parcel size is trending toward smaller woodlots, two factors that present obstacles to the adaptation of forest farming methods versus traditional timber harvesting. Woodlot owners are often constrained economically by property tax policies that encourage unsustainable timber harvest, resulting in declining forest health.
Forests are at risk from many threats right now, which speaks to the need for new management approaches that foster forest cover and consider the functional aspects of forest ecosystems. However, the success of those management strategies depends on their ability to achieve conservation goals, while still being socially and culturally relevant.
Although forest farming approaches are a win/win for landowners and managers, future forest research is needed to investigate and quantify the effect of productive conservation practices (relative to traditional management) on ecosystem services and biodiversity. Only then can the true economic and ecological benefits be evaluated.