Frequently asked questions

Frequently asked questions about food forests and the project
Measure your food forest harvest

During the closing webinar on 29-10-20, many questions were asked via chat. All the questions that were generally relevant have been bundled and answered here.

This is a logical question. When you start a food forest, you want to give your expensive plants a good start. So many forests start with a mulch layer that is supplied externally, or go even further by adding, for example, champost, compost tea or charcoal.

However, if you look at nature - and food forests are based on natural principles - it is a system that always looks for balance on the way to abundance. Nature will automatically make poor soils richer and over-fertilised soils move back to a healthier nutrient balance. Nature does this in ways that we humans often barely understand, but in any case through the first pioneering plants and animals that come to the area of their own accord. And, the less you add, the harder the soil life present in the soil will work itself out.

We say that you can add some mulch at the very beginning, but it is not necessary. Everything on top and after will disrupt that natural movement rather than help your forest. Food forests start differently on every soil type, but all move towards a balance and a soil that is primarily based on biomass and healthy soil life, no matter what the original starting position was: heavy clay, poor sand, acidic forest soil, etc etc.

So the best news is: the less you do, the better it is for those nice expensive plants. But beware: sometimes the starting position of your land is so bad that it is better to first improve the soil with pioneer species and a fine hedge than to plant very expensive nut trees right away. In our training courses, you will learn much more about this, because succession and soil structure is perhaps the most important thing you need to understand to realise successful food forests.

If you keep track of the progress of your forest in our food forest monitoring tool, you will see it happen and together we will show it to the whole world.

See the question above: it does not matter for the soil itself. The beginning in both species is really different, but in both soil types you work towards a mature food forest. In terms of regulation, however, there are major differences. In the Netherlands, nature is governed by very different legislation than agriculture. You can read more about this at Legislation and regulations.

This is not really a question, but a whole day's course, but we will deal with this big discussion in one question. Some people think that food forests are nature in which only indigenous species are allowed to grow. Others already know that there will be very little to eat, both for us and for wild animals.

Food forests are a farming system based on natural principles. So, we want easy-to-crack and big nuts, sweet tasting apples, and thus cultivars (specifically bred or cultivated species that offer guaranteed shape and taste) that guarantee these harvests. At the same time, we want resilient systems that can take a beating, so people who want to work with seedlings to develop new cultivars are very welcome, but then the outcome is not guaranteed, because each seedling will be different from its parents and from its sibling.

The exotic species discussion runs right through this. Which is actually about invasive exotics, species that can develop as pests. Not every plant that does not originally belong here is invasive. In fact, if you look around you, whether in gardens, forests or in agriculture, most of what you see is an exotic species, which fortunately is not invasive at all. 

Food forest owners must abide by the law and be aware of the Red List of invasive species and not plant them. Read more about this on the website of the Greendealvoedselbossen.nl

Food forests are becoming more and more popular, but many farmers and neighbours still do not understand it and see a lot of weeds, a mess or feel that something is about to happen to their view. This is a very big question, but we will pick out a few elements:

  • If your food forest lies between fields and meadows that are sprayed, at least make sure that there is a dense hedge that you do not 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 will also help to avoid the notion of 'blowing over'.
  • Stay in contact with your neighbours as much as possible from the start, but don't overdo it. Invite them, tell them what you are planning, show them nice pictures of the possible end result, but if they do not understand any of this (yet), leave it alone and wait for a moment of extreme weather or beautiful blossoms or a rich autumn harvest to pick up the communication again. Because that is when you see the power of a food forest.

A food forest is agriculture and nature. And in nature you have animals. Mice, worms, snails, birds, snakes, frogs, beavers, foxes etc. etc. These wild animals are not fed by us and they all have territorial behaviour in their own way. In fact, these animals are needed to achieve the ecological balance that prevents pests from getting out of hand. So they are very welcome in a food forest.

Livestock is another story. Chickens, ducks, pigs and cows do not fit into a system based on no external input (as they are almost always fed extra). Moreover, territorial behaviour does not play any role and therefore, even in small numbers, they are very quickly disruptive to the soil and herb layer of a food forest.

Keeping cattle 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 be carried out by laymen using very simple materials and instruments. Think of a ruler, a pi meter, a measuring beaker and free-to-use apps on a mobile phone. This gives everyone a chance to participate and allows research to scale up very quickly to the whole of the Netherlands and beyond, and to a great many food forests on a great many types of soil, which is scientifically interesting and relevant.

In terms of depth, this type of research, also known as Citizen Science, is less far-reaching than research done by scientists. Measurement errors can even occur. Many of these errors have been overcome and corrected in the past year, and we will of course continue to do so. Moreover, the larger the scale, the better you can correct for this in the interpretation. If every year we receive 1000 soil profiles (with photo, so even there a correction can be made) of very many soil types, and 1000 biodiversity measurements, then, from a scientific point of view, that is extremely valuable. So, no matter how small your test seems to be, we would love to see you and your food forest participate in the food forest monitoring.

The economics of a food forest is 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 complete this test. We ask about:

  • The structure of your forest: legal form, type of forest, and whether you keep cattle in it, for example.
  • The kilos harvest per food forest layer (high canopy layer, low canopy layer, shrub layer, and other layers combined)
  • The Euros harvest per same food forest layer
  • The other income and, with everything, we ask whether you realise that turnover locally, regionally or further afield.
  • The harvesting and maintenance of the forest, i.e. the related costs (purchasing in economic terms)
  • The other forms of investments and costs
  • And, how you organise it in terms of manpower: volunteers, people with a distance to, freelancers, staff.

In this way, we collect very relevant information without giving food forest owners hours of work. And we sincerely hope that you, especially if you want to prove that food forests have relevant earning models, want to participate in the economic test. You can enter it for every year that your forest exists and you can basically take over what you already keep for your administration. A number of testers indicated that they did not have this kind of administration yet, and now set it up themselves using this set-up. Join the food forest monitoring.

When you join the food forest monitoring, you are asked what you want to share with the other participants: do you want them to see your forest and also your ecological test results? Then say yes. If you don't want to, say no. Then your forest will not appear in the comparison with other forests. However, if you participate, you will be sharing data that cannot be traced back to your forest with an Open Data Source that every scientist can use. 

If you stop participating, you can indicate this in your profile and all your data will be removed from the tool. Of course, you will not be able to retrieve data that has already been collected by scientists, but from that moment on, your data will disappear from the data stream. So it is really up to you and you are the owner of your own data. Read more at Open Databron and at Food-forest Monitoring

The three ecological tests are organised in so-called tree plots per hectare. If you have a food forest of 1 hectare, you only need to do each test once; if you have more, we ask you to do the tests in several places.

The biodiversity test and the soil animal test must be done every year. TheCO2 storage testcan be done every three to five years. More often is allowed, but not necessary. The soil composition test should also be done every five years. The economic test should be done every year. We recommend that you enter it every year when you close the year or prepare the annual accounts.

Roughly speaking, you spend one hour per test. If you pick up theCO2 storageand Biodiversity tests together in May or June, it will take you two hours per plot in the field and one hour on the computer. The economic test also takes an hour and the soil fauna 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 very broad question and the answer is certainly yes, but that yes means looking at land use, market, income, time and production in very different ways than usual. And that is exactly why so many strong opinions and disappointments and sometimes even arguments arise. See also earlier in this article: a food forest needs time to start. It needs that time to build up the soil. So, do not try to get income from a food forest in year 1, that will only start after 5 years or so and even then it is far from complete. Keep your job during that time, or do something else on a piece of land next to it, or work with volunteers.

In our annual training, module business plan is about exactly this and we have already seen many interesting, beautiful business models that tell us that this answer is yes, but also that there is no such thing as one recipe, one answer. Even stronger, that this is exactly the way of thinking that you first have to learn to let go of, if you want to arrive at a beautiful new business model. 

We come from an agricultural and natural system full of generic solutions and straightforward monocultures. That is exactly what we as humanity need to break free from. And that is what this course is also about to a large extent: food forests are about learning to look at landscape, food and nature differently. Only then can you move on to learning to do things differently, budgeting and earning.

Otherwise, take a look at our four food themes and their business cases.