The Future of Community-Scale Food Production
By Tayler Jenkins
Imagine a forest full of delicious edible fruits and vegetables just steps away from your neighborhood. Rather than buying produce from the store, you could simply walk to the end of your street and forage for the ripest pickings fresh from the plant.
The concept of a food forest is rooted in permaculture, intending to imitate natural woodland ecosystems. Food forests differ from the traditional garden—they tend to utilize perennials rather than annuals, and change takes place slowly as opposed to the quick turnover of annuals. This means that the trees you plant today produce food for years to come. Food forests don’t need to be replanted every season—instead, they are largely low-maintenance and self-sustaining due to their nature-inspired design. In this multi-layer, interconnected food system, food forests feature taller trees that provide a “canopy” (large fruit and nut trees), dwarf trees, shrubs, root crops, ground plants (like strawberries and herbs), climbers/vines, etc. Much of it is edible, but not all—here, food plants work together with plants that have other uses, such as nitrogen fixers. The diversity creates for a healthy ecosystem, higher yields, and helps to create a system which is nearly self-maintaining—like a real forest, but designed to maximize productivity.
Not only do food forests provide fresh, healthy food for the community, but they also promote biodiversity by creating habitats for wildlife such as insects and birds, provide food for pollinators such as bees, create an aesthetic environment that people want to be around, and provide shade on hot days.
A beautiful example of this concept is the Beacon Food Forest: a seven-acre community-driven food forest near downtown Seattle with the aim of increasing local food security, reducing climate impact, revitalizing the local ecosystem, educating the public, and fostering a sense of community and environmental stewardship among local residents. This video, created a few years ago as the Beacon Food Forest was in its genesis, highlights the vast benefits a food forest can provide to the community:
Initiatives like this us to ponder: why do we demolish forests to make way for (often) pesticide-ridden monoculture fields that are not only less productive than a forest ecosystem but also incredibly damaging to the land over time? By implementing food forests, we can simultaneously nurture the land, increase food security for communities and foster healthy connections between people and their environment.
Tayler is an Arizona native living in Portland, OR. A self-proclaimed “real foodie,” has done extensive research on food systems and took a leading role in activism on her college campus to spread education and awareness about healthy, ethical food. In 2013, she spent a few months living on a permaculture farm in Nepal conducting research on conservation farming and local food system governance. Tayler received a BS in Sustainability from Arizona State University in 2015 and is the operations manager for Urban Farm U and editor of two newsletters: Urban Farm Lifestyle and The Permaculture Life. She intends to use these as a medium for sharing knowledge and generating interest in urban farming and sustainability. Tayler can be reached at Tayler@urbanfarm.org.