Frequently Asked Questions

Frequenty asked questions about Food from the Forest and the Measuring tools

The Measure your Food Forest Harvests project went live on October 29,2020. The webinar was attended by over 300 people, asking a lot of questions. We have anwered all questions of general relevance below. 

This is a logical question. When you begin a food forest, you want to give your expensive plants a good start. To do so, many food forests begin with a mulch layer that is brought in from an external location. Some go even further by adding champost (Spent Mushroom Compost), compost tea or charcoal to the mixture.

However, if you look at nature – and food forests are based on natural principles – then you see systems that are always searching for a balance on their way to abundance. Nature will make a poor ground richer on its own and overly-fertilised grounds will eventually return to a healthy nutrient balance. Nature does this in ways that we humans barely understand, but we do know the important role of pioneering plants and animals that come from themselves to the land. And, the less you add, the harder the already-present soil life will work on its own.

We state that you can, at most, add mulch when you first begin, but it is not obligatory. Everything added on top of, and after that, will disrupt the natural inclination of your forest, rather than support it. Food forests start up differently on different kinds of soils, but are all moving towards balance and a soil that is based on biomass and healthy soil life, whatever the original starting position was.

The best news is: the less you do, the better it is for those beautiful expensive plants. But keep in mind that sometimes the intitial state of your soil is so poor that it is better to begin by improving the soil quality with pioneer plants and a fine hedge than to plant expensive nut trees right away. In our trainings (in Dutch) you learn much more about about how to begin a food forest with these methods, because succession and soil buildup are maybe the most important things for you to understand to create a successful food forest. If you keep track of your forest’s progress with our measuring tool you will notice this too, and together we will prove it to the whole world.

See the question above: for the soil itself, it does not make a difference. The beginning on each soil is very different from the other, but on both soil types you are working towards a mature food forest. Regulation differences, however, are significant. In the Netherlands, a natural area is dealt with differently than agricultural land, in the legislation. You can read more about this on the page “Laws and regulations”.

This is actually not a question, but an entire course day. We will still address this big discussion in just one question. Some people think that food forests are natural areas in which only native species should grow. Others know that if that was so, there would be very little to eat for both us and animals.

Food forests are agriculture systems based on natural principles. In a food forest, we want easily crackable nuts, sweet-tasting apples and that means cultivars (specifically bred or grafted varieties that guarantee shape or flavor), that can guarantee good harvests. At the same time, we want resilient systems, and cultivars do not always guarantee that, so those who want to work with seedlings to develop new cultivars are welcome. But when you do so, your outcome is not guaranteed because each seedling will be different from its parents and from its siblings.

Then, we tackle the exotics discussion, which is really about invasive exotics that can become pests. It is far from the truth to say that every plant that is not native is invasive. Furthermore, if you look around you in gardens, forests, or in agriculture, the majority of the species present are exotic species which are fortunately not invasive.

Food forest owners should follow the law, and not plant any plants that are on the red list of invasive species. You can read more about this on the website from Greendealvoedselbossen.nl.

Food forests are becoming increasingly popular, but many traditional producers and neighbors do not yet understand and see mostly many weeds, a mess or feel that something will happen to their view. This is a big questions, but here are a few key points:

  • If your food forest is between fields and pastures that are sprayed, you want to provide a dense hedge that you don’t harvest from and/or other forms of buffer zones, especially in the dominant wind direction. This also helps with the next point.
  • If your neighbours (might) complain about weeds, a good hedge helps concel the plot and keep potential frustration at bay. 
  • From the beginning, keep good relations with your neighbors, but do not overdo it. Invite them, tell them what your plans are, show them beautiful images of the possible end result, but if they do not understand any of this (yet), then let it rest. Wait for a moment of good weather, beautiful blossoms or rich harvest to pick up communication again. Then, they will see the great potential of food forests.

A food forest is both agriculture and nature. In nature, you have animals such as mice, worms, birds, snails, snakes, frogs, beavers, foxes etc. etc. These wild animals are not bothered by us and each have their specific territorial behaviour. These animals are, in fact, needed, to achieve the ecological balance that keeps pests from getting out of control. So they are welcome in a food forest.

Livestock is another story. Chickens, ducks, pigs and cows do not fit into a system that is based on zero-input (they almost always need supplementary feeding). Moreover, they do not have territorial behavior, and even in small numbers can quickly become dispruptive to the soil and herb layer of the food forest. Often, they can severely disrupt the process of soil formation. 

Keeping cattle in combination with trees is another form of agroforestry, not a food forest. If you have enough space, you can of course keep cattle next to your food forest, but not in it.

We have now developed three ecological tests that can performed by anyone using simple materials and tools. Think of a shovel, a tape measure, a folding ruler, and free-to-use apps on your smartphone. This gives everyone a chance to participate and allows research to scale up very quickly to the whole of the Netherlands and beyond, including many different soil types. This quantity and diversity is scientifically interesting and relevant.

In terms of the depth of this research, which is also called Citizen Science, it is not as deep as research done by scientists. Measurement errors can possibly occur. We have already overcome many of the possible errors that can be encountered, and been able to correct them, and will of course continue to do so. The more measurements are done with our tool, the larger the scale of the research, and the better we can correct errors during the interpretation of the results. If we receive 1000 soil profiles (with a photograph, so a correction can be made there too) of many soil types, and 1000 biodiversity measurements, then that is enormously valuable from a scientific perspective. So, no matter how small your test seems to be, we would love to see you and your food forest participate in the  Measure your food forest yield project.

The economics of a food forest are a hot topic full of big opinions. In this test, we have kept it simple. Precisely because we want as many people as possible to actually do the test. We ask about:

  • The setup of your food forest: legal form, type of forest, and whether you keep cattle in it, for example.
  • The kilos of harvest per food forest layer (canopy layer, understory layer, shrub layer etc.)
  • The euro’s worth for each of these same layers
  • We ask if you have other revenues, and if they are from a local, regional or from a further-away source
  • The costs related to harvesting and maintenance (purchases in economic terms)
  • The other forms of investment and costs related to manpower and where they go: volunteers, staff, freelancers, people at a distance etc.

In this way, we collect very relevant information without giving food forest owners hours of work. We sincerely hope that you want to participate in the economic test, for yourself and especially if you want to help prove that food forests can have successful revenue models. You can enter the economic test’s information every year that your food forest exists and it can replace what you already keep in your administration books. A number of testers indicated that they did not have this kind of administration yet, and this tool allowed them to set it up themselves. You can also participate in the Measure your food forest yield project to measure CO2-storage, biodiversity levels and soil quality.

If you use the “Measure your food forest yield” tool, you will be asked what you are willing to share with other users: would you like for your food forest to be visible, as well as your ecological test results? Then you can choose “yes”. If you do not want that, you can choose “no”. Then, your food forest does not appear in comparisons with other food forests. However, if you participate, you will automatically be sharing data with an Open Source that any scientist can use, but this data is not traceable to your food forest.

If you stop participating, you can indicate this in your profile and all your data will be removed from the tool. Data that has already been used by scientists can of course no longer to be retrieved, but from that moment on, your data will not appear in the data stream. So it is really up to you, you are the owner of your own data stream. You can read more about the Open Source database on the Measuring tools  page.

The four ecological tests are made to be done on so-called “tree plots”, of which you create one for each hectare of food forest. If you have a 1-hectare food forest, we ask you to do these tests only once. If your food forest is larger, then we ask you to do them in several places in order to be representative.

The biodiversity and soil animal life tests should be done every year. The CO2 storage tests can be done every three to five years. Doing the tests more often is allowed, but not required. 

For the economic test, you fill in your information once a year. We recommend entering them at least every year when you are doing end-of-year financial assessments and statements.

Roughly speaking, you will spend one hour per test. If you carry out the CO2-storage and and Biodiversity tests together in May, you will spend about 2 hours out in the field and 1 hour behind the computer. The economic test also takes an hour and soil animal life test takes half an hour per plot in the field and 15 minutes on the computer. So a small part of the day in total. These are averages, but it gives you an idea.

This is a broad question, and the answer is certainly yes, but it means looking at land use, market, income, time and production in very different ways than usual. And that is precisely why there are so many fierce opinions and disapointments, and sometimes even arguments. See also question 1: a food forest needs time to start and it must be given that time. So it is unrealistic to try, in one year, to make income from a food forest. That usually only starts after 5 years or so and then possibly not fully. Keep your job during that time, or do something else on another piece of land, or work with volunteers.

In our annual trainings (in Dutch), the business plan module is precisely about this and we have already seen many interesting, beautiful business models that tell us the answer to this question is yes. But, there is no such thing as one recipe, one answer. In fact, you must learn to let go of that if you want to arrive at a beautiful business model.

We are coming out of agricultural and nature-maintenance systems full of generic solutions and straightforward monocultures. That is exactly what we, as humanity, need to get away from. And, that is what our courses are, to a large extent, about: food forests are about learning to look at landscape, food and nature differently. Only then can you move on to learn how to do things differently, how to budget and eventually earn an income.

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