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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Under the trees

Mushrooms on the side July 27, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

NPR had a story last week on folks who grow crops under the cover of forests in Missouri. (Right now our cantelopes wish they had tree cover.) And the story was so fascinating that we had to see if it was happening in Arkansas. Turns out it is.

Here's how the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines "forest farming" (and we aren't talking about selling timber):

"Forest farming is the cultivation of high-value crops under the protection of a managed tree canopy. This approach to crop production intentionally uses both vertical space and the interactions of the plants and microclimate."

When most folks picture a farmer, they probably imagine someone standing in a field of soybeans or corn. But some farmers with forested land plant something under the trees instead of plowing and clearing them. And what's typically grown this way are specialty crops like mushrooms, ginseng, and other plants that thrive in the shade.

Nate Bell is a former lawmaker with about 225 acres of timberland near Lincoln. He's got plans to use some of that land for forest farming.

"This place was pretty untouched old-growth timber," he says.

He told us he's not interested in making major changes that would significantly alter the landscape. But he enjoys farming and has been doing it for most of his adult life, at least part-time, in various forms.

When he was looking at farming options, Mr. Bell said he recalled harvesting wild ginseng as a kid, and enjoyed picking edible mushrooms. The timberland he's got has a good population of morel mushrooms and some wild ginseng already growing.

"My expectation is it will take a few years of experimentation to be consistent and successful," he said.

Mr. Bell said it can take seven years before ginseng is ready to harvest, so it's nothing from which to expect fast cash.

When you get to the origin of his interest in forest farming, Mr. Bell said he's getting to retirement age (but not there yet!) and is interested in crops that'll keep him busy, provide exercise, and enjoy nature without requiring quite as much input or having a significant impact on the property.

He said ginseng has a number of buyers nationally and internationally. It's relatively easy to market, and it's stable. Once the drying process is done, it ships easily. And ginseng sells for a pretty penny. The USDA says a dry pound of wild-harvested roots can bring in hundreds of dollars.

Mushrooms? They're the exact opposite. They're very perishable and time-sensitive.

So for those he'll try to find local chefs that'd be interested so he can create as much of a local market as possible.

He said the state has rich soil, water access and a good workforce. Plus with growing interest in working from home, more folks might look at forest farming as a secondary source of income, as well as other unusual and more sustainable methods of farming.

As for finding some of these forest farmers, that might be a challenge. Unlike those who raise poultry or grow soybeans, it's difficult to identify people engaging in forest farming, which makes sense since it's done under trees typically on private land.

But there's definitely interest in this type of farming across the Ozarks.

The former lawmaker said a number of plants Americans used for decades as food, plants that grow in the shade, have been lost to more common large-scale agriculture that currently helps feed the country. Mechanized farming can't be done easily in the forest.

But among the folks who are currently forest farming, Mr. Bell said almost nobody is doing it for full-time income. It's more of a side gig. Lots of farmers grow berries, nuts, or other crops to supplement their incomes. He recalled making $3,000 or $4,000 as a kid selling ginseng. Even then it was $100 a pound.

That sure beats mowing lawns for hours at a time in the summer heat.

Wonder if this type of agriculture will continue to grow in popularity across the Natural State? We talked to John McMinn at the Arkansas Farm Bureau. He's director of commodity activities and economics.

Mr. McMinn said specialty crops are a sector of agriculture seeing a lot of growth, especially with increasing demand for local foods, farm-to-table options, etc.

The number of mushroom farmers in Arkansas has grown quite a bit, he said. There are a handful of folks doing it to sell locally to restaurants and grocers. Just five to 10 years ago, there weren't many mushrooms farmers in the state, the director said.

And even now Arkansas barely has enough specialty crop farmers for the USDA to measure it, according to Mr. McMinn. There might be a few thousand Arkansans growing specialty crops. It's getting to the point where farmers are trying to develop relationships with local stores and restaurants.

And forest farmers growing mushrooms and ginseng are doing the exact same thing, he said.

Hypothetically, someone might have 30 or 40 acres of forested ground and want to make money from it.

"I can see where this is a pretty good idea for a secondary income," Mr. McMinn said. "I wouldn't be surprised if this specific thing did grow."

Covid-19 has skyrocketed the demand for local food and specialty crops. People are more concerned about where their food comes from and who is growing it.

Forest farmers are going to be in that market, growing whatever they want and selling it in the community. And they'll do it in the shade. Look at the forecast this week. They may be on to something.

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