Forage Farming

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The idea of forage farming has gotten a bad rap in recent years – it’s considered akin to subsistence farming, which no-one in their right mind would leave their well paid city job to go and do, right? I mean, we’re successful people. We have serious dreams.

We didn’t work this hard and buy land just to dig in the dirt for a random root or something for dinner. We expect to invest lots of energy into creating food producing systems that look like a serious farm, that matches up with our serious dreams and serious commitment to downsizing, while trying not to look like peasants. 

Cats ear flowering on the Milkwood Farm creekflat – an incidental resident of the farm that is also a great dynamic accumulator and bee forage with edible leaves…

Fair enough. That is a possible road. But forage farming can be a beautiful thing, and its not just about grubbing in the dirt for roots (though if you’re smart, you’ll do that too – lots of goodness down there).

Forage farming is the idea of living lightly in landscape. Harvests are of ‘wild farmed’ foods, like edible, nutrient dense weeds, honey, tree crops, squab, fish and others. Literally (if only partly) living off the land.

Forage farming can be incorporated as a facet of a vibrant small farm or homestead, to provide resilience and ‘work the edges’ of the years’ cycle of harvests which come together to form a diverse, year-round food supply.

Warre hive at Milkwood Farm

Milkwood Farm honeycomb (chokkas with pollen as well as honey). A perfect map of the nectary in every direction up to 5km from our farm

Take Honey production. Naturally managed hives, I mean, that are sited in the landscape and live in that same place, year in, year out. This is forage farming at its most delicious.

Honey is wild food at its best: you site the hives, tend them with care (and not too much intervention) and… that’s it, till harvest time. The bees do the foraging, spreading out in a 5km radius from the hive.

The result is intermittent harvests which are a nutritional map of your farm and beyond, speaking in terms of nectar and pollen. Condensed sunlight, if you like, which is an incredible food as well as being medicinal. And it even stores for 3,000 years. This is a harvest to be appreciated.

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Cobblers pegs (Bidens pilosa) – green tips are edible and the flowers and leaves are used extensively for medicine in some cultures

Take wild herb foraging. Fortunately wild herbs (ok most of us still call them weeds) are becoming somewhat funky, which is a relief. Even if they weren’t, however, the nettles and dock and cobblers pegs and chickweed and dandelion or whatever else grows in the fields, creeks and hillsides of your area, are potent foods.

Regardless of your attitude to weeds (and see the comments here for a lively discussion of same), chances are, if you went for a walk right now, you’d find some. And some of them would be highly edible. So learn to identify them, and if you’re sure they’re not sprayed with something nasty, get on with eating them.

In the spaces beyond your veggie garden (bless it, don’t get me wrong), many wild herbs have concentrated levels of nutrients which are of great benefit to a healthy diet. And as you don’t cultivate them, there is an important aspect of resilience to their existence.

On top of all that, many wild herbs and weeds are indicators of what’s going on down below in your soil in that particular patch… so by engaging with this foraged harvest you are directly skilling up on what’s happening in your landscape, both above and below the surface.

Other forage harvests could be things like squabs from dovecotes – while there is initial setup involved for this system, the potential yields of squab for your table and high-value guano for your other growing systems might make you consider a dovecote a reasonable input of energy to create.

And then there’s the foraging in the wider environment, which may not be right at your back step, but are likely nearby… fish from the streams and feral rabbits on the creekflat (swap out ‘rabbit’ for your tastiest local feral animal as needed). Seasonal mushroom harvests from your nearest pine plantation.

All of which have the potential to provide excellent diversity to your diet without year-round system maintenance.

There’s also the idea of creating forage systems, with an intention to progress that system towards minimal maintenance other than intermittent harvest – tree crops (with under storeys of herbs etc) are a winner here… hardy plants that yield multi-layered goodness, like:

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Olives: which yield in about 10 years from seeding and are some of the hardiest trees on earth, as evidenced by the 2,000 year old specimens to be found across Europe. Many cultivars are good for both eating and oil extraction, with very minimal maintenance once established.

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Mulberries: hardy to a fault and with multiple yields, starting with protein-dense leaves that make great feed for livestock (crude protein 25%). While your small flock of forage-to-protein convertors (sheep or cows) are chomping down on the leaves, there’s also the mulberries to consider, which are both abundant and delicious. The berries are also excellent for fattening pigs.

Of course, if you’re intending to set up a homestead block or small farm using permaculture principles and design, the foraging aspects of your potential site, and the wider environment, will be something to consider in your design.

But no matter where you live right now, it’s worth remembering that the ability to engage with foraged harvests is all around us and should be part of how we approach the landscapes we live in.

Foraging is a great way to get to know what grows where and why, to live lightly and well, and to build a lasting relationship with the particular piece of earth that you call home.

>> More posts about small farm permacultures

We run Permaculture Design Courses that teach best practice whole-systems design, so that students can learn how to design and create resilient systems for abundant living, wherever they may put down roots… 

14 Comments

  1. nancy
    Posted July 5, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink | Reply

    Wildberry jam, chantrelle mushroom pie,salmon,oysters and clams and salad of dandelion greens,miners lettuce,chickweed and fern fiddleheads made up many a meal when I lived in North America. That kind of menu in a gourmet restaurant would bring customers by the droves and we had it for the picking.

  2. Posted July 5, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Kirsten, the first plant photo is Catsear, Hypochoeris radicata which originates from Europe.
    From Wikipedia comes the following information:

    All parts of the catsear plant are edible; however, the leaves and roots are those most often harvested. The leaves are bland in taste but can be eaten raw in salads, steamed, or used in stir-fries. Older leaves can become tough and fibrous, but younger leaves are suitable for consumption. In contrast to the edible leaves of dandelion, catsear leaves only rarely have some bitterness. In Crete, Greece, the leaves of a variety called pachies (παχιές) or agrioradika (αγριοράδικα) are eaten boiled or cooked in steam by the locals.[4]

    The root can be roasted and ground to form a coffee substitute

    • Posted July 5, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

      gah cats EAR not cats paw. Sorry it was late when i wrote that – well spotted :)

  3. Posted July 5, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Very interesting. We are foraging for wilds here in create Jimmyc . The best time is winter where according to a local book almost all plants, trees have a use.

  4. Posted July 6, 2013 at 12:05 am | Permalink | Reply

    Cobblers pegs! We have that here in NC Florida in abundance (Bidens alba) but call it Spanish Needles. Some of the local botanists estimate that 50% of the honey in Florida is actually from Bidens nectar- that’s how common it is. I don’t like the flavor of the greens but the rabbits sure do!

  5. Posted July 6, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I hope one day to have a farm and live a sustainable life! I want to incorporate tourism so people can experience living on the land- this blog really inspires me!

  6. Posted July 6, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I’d like to forage more both for food and for dyeing wool. Lack of health is the main thing getting in our way.
    The other problem is never knowing what National Parks sprays about. I know there were notices that you shouldn’t eat the local blackberries outside gardens as they were spraying them. We usually have an abundance of fruit in summer as the cherry plums are everywhere in Hill End. There are feral apple trees left over from when the village was much, much bigger too although most of the ones down in Irish town died out in the big drought and National Parks was said to be injecting a lot of the ones they could get to to stop them fruiting to try and get on top of fruit fly.

    Really wasn’t a good year for fruit here this year though. Not enough water and too much heat so the cherry plums turned to prunes before they were ripe and storms knocked off most of the apple, pear and quince blossom.

  7. Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Kirsten. Interesting post, as were the comments that you linked to from an earlier post on your blog. We need much more discussion in permaculture around the place for and uses of weeds. And much clearer guidelines embedded in permaculture theory about weeds. I won’t get into that discussion here, but for me the biggest issues are around weeds that are allowed to escape into areas not managed on permaculture principles, and what happens to the weed population if the current permaculture owner’s property is taken over by a new, non-permaculture owner.

    But what I do want to ask you about is layering in the permaculture “climax” food forest. You mentioned understoreys of herbs etc. But it is the etc. that I’m needing advice on. In a layered forest pretty much everything other than the canopy trees are living in varying amounts of shade, and there doesn’t seem to be much advice around on what food plants tolerate the increasingly dense shade as we go from middle layer down to ground cover. Do you have any advice to offer on the basis of your experience at Milkwood?

  8. Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Yeah! Great article Kirsten… Not surprised that Cobbler’s Pegs are a major (i.e. main) constituent of bees’ diet though. They are just so prolific wherever they occur, and ours are buzzing CONSTANTLY, and earsplittingly! I always like to see people’s reaction when I proudly point out the scary-big patches in our urban food-forest. =)

  9. Si
    Posted July 10, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Me and the wifey made delicious (and simple!) blackberry country wine this past summer…

  10. Posted July 13, 2013 at 4:47 am | Permalink | Reply

    Learn about the benefits of red fruits (blackberry, cherry, strawberry and raspberry). Besides delicious they can prevent cancer and depression.

  11. Posted July 13, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Your pic of Cars ear had me googling the difference between Cats ear and Dandelion. Seems I’ve been foraging and eating Cats ear from our farm – thinking it was Dandelion. I hadn’t realised there was something so similar and didn’t feel the need to check. Thankfully Cats ear is edible too ;-). Nice reminder for me to double check everything. Thanks :-)

  12. Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Kirsten. It strikes me that when you set off down a path of permaculture as opposed to ‘conventional’ farming, you automatically embrace a continuum that has foraging as a fundamental part. You let self-seeders and spreaders like amaranth, nasturtium, mint, etc, etc have a little free rein and you are both a grower and a forager. I’d suggest that any permaculturalist who isn’t in part a forager is actually just a gardener.

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