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Food Forest Land Restoration

From large scale ag to community-focused food forests

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If you drive through the sprawling desert land of central and southern Oregon you will find a plethora of larger scale farms and ranches consuming most of the land. While homes often have patches of trees or small ponds and streams (for some greenery), the surrounding agriculture land is usually irrigated crops, grazing grounds for livestock, or barren desert shrubs and small trees.

While it is normal to drive long stretches through sagebrush and juniper, it is not often that you see much forested land (outside of Ponderosa Pine and other desert dwelling plants). Taking these things into account we pondered the benefits and drawbacks of high desert agriculture and ranching, and the effects on the community.

Both crop production and cattle ranching are very hard on the land and can cause soil nutrient depletion and soil erosion; because of the soil depletion, farmers have to rotate crops (sometimes) yearly to different fields in order to let the land rest and rejuvenate, this is causing more land to be acquired, depleted, and then abandoned. We need to find a solution to the social, environmental, and global impacts of our agriculture, and its becoming more clear that our current farming methods are not the solution.

We understand that these farms and ranches are many families livelihood and way of life, without dishonoring the work that these individuals do, we would like to develop the vision of a community of sharing, a new approach to agriculture, and a hope of what we could do together. So let us dream for a moment….

Our current system of farming focuses on larger scale farming (by this we just mean sizable farms that supply companies outside the local community) that often sell to large corporations and are shipped across state, country, and even oceans. Our food forest restoration plot is not a new idea, many families are experimenting with the idea of the food forest; a self-sustaining food ecosystem that enhances the environment and provides a family or local community with resources.

Imagine a large section of land, lets say 100 acres; this plot of land is located in the central Oregon desert near Smith Rock, just outside a small rural community. Lets say that for many years this land was used for farming and cattle ranching, the land has now been abandoned by the farmers and is available for sale, along with a modest house and barn. Let us now imagine two scenarios.

In the first scenario a rancher comes from out of town, purchases the land, moves into the house, sets aside 96 acres for his cattle, and 4 acres to plow for crops. After a few years of farming wheat, he notices the soil is being depleted of its nutrients and his crops are not growing as well (he is also having to use more fertilizers and pesticides); he decides to cut out 2 more acres from the cattle to use as rotation fields for his crops. He sells his wheat to a larger company, that in turn sells to an even larger corporation, which ships their goods overseas. As for his cattle, he sells them to a company in another state for a good sized profit. No one in his immediate community benefits from his use of the land, however they might experience the environmental drawbacks (depletion of soil nutrients, top soil loss, water contamination from pesticides).

Lets now imagine a second scenario (this is the one we will focus on); a member of the local community gets the idea to restore the degraded land, they rally a small group of locals to buy the property. Together they transform the house into a community meeting space with a shared kitchen, they also turn the barn into a shared supplies shed. The group begins to talk to the greater community, encouraging their friends with this new vision, and gathering support through community meetings; they pool their personal money plus what they gained through fundraising in order to purchase all the supplies they will need.

The group begins to learn about food forests and the importance of restoring the soils nutrients in order to establish a self-sustaining system, though most of them have day jobs (some are retired), they begin spending most of their free time learning, meeting together, and establishing their vision for the land. After a year, and a lot of hard work and time, the community has figured out a way to restore soil health (using manure, compost, and other methods), create a stream through the property as well as multiple large ponds as natural water sources (verses irrigation), introduce many plant variations, large tree species, and even crops.

Two years in the system is becoming stable and self-sustaining, the trees are growing larger, many birds and insects have returned to the area, as well as small animals (the feces of which help fertilize the ground and bring nutrients to the soil); pollinators are beginning to arrive in this little oasis; the community has grown strong and tight-knit, and the forest is beginning to produce a steadier output of crops (which are distributed among the locals). It has been a long process, but the community has really come together sharing tools and resources, pooling money, donating time, helping to cook meals, and putting in the hard work of transforming the land.

This second scenario is a picture of what could happen if we begin to re-imagine what agriculture looks like, and bring it down from a large-scale, profit, and non-community focused practice to a local, community focused, environmentally friendly practice. While there are many factors that would need to be accounted for, planning, preparation, supplies, time, funding, and most of all a very strong vision and drive toward community thriving, we believe that this type of practice is possible and achievable.

What does agriculture re-imagined look like? What does eating local community raised food look like? What does coming together around a vision of shared living, community health, and hunger alleviation look like? What does it mean to not just use the land, but to restore the land?

There has been a movement towards small-scale local farming, micro farming, organic local produce, and the awareness of the systems we enable through our consumption of food; we would love to see what it would look like for larger areas of land to go through restoration, and bring environmental health, community flourishing, and hunger alleviation to communities.

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