As a pattern of permaculture, food forests represent a sustainable system of farming and gardening that cooperates with nature to improve both the environment and people’s lives.
Eastern Cape organic farmer Bakhusele Mathupha says food forest are similar to a natural, wild forest. Mathupha explains that these forests are vibrant, green, and full of life.
“The food forest is something to behold,” he says. “From canopy to ground, there are many, complex layers of plants and wildlife that live harmoniously with little disturbance from humans.”
Mathupha is the founder of Phawu Likum AgriPak (PLA), an organisation based in kuGatyane.
He says that these large ditches are dug two feet deep along the curve of a slope, and used to catch excess water. It then drains away or slowly seeps back into the land. According to him, this is a simple but very effective way to retain water and prevent soil erosion.
How a food forest can improve livelihood?
Mathupha says that food forests manage and sustain the land and provide an abundance of native foods with great biodiversity. These products provide farmers and their families with a nutritious, balanced diet that supports their health and well-being.
“From the fruit-laden trees to the roaming livestock, and the rich, fertile soil below, everything is teeming with life.”
Food forests allow nature to take the lead. The beauty of the swales and the lush greenery have attracted the interest of people from all walks of life, Mathupha says.
“Everything serves a purpose – a pattern of crops throughout the farm, vegetable gardens and fields are planted in thoughtful combinations; corn grows alongside mixed beans, and squash nestles under corn.”
This diversity is important to restore soil fertility and encourage the return of native wildlife and insects.
The environmental benefits of food forests
In a perfect world food forests can be established by planting trees and shrubs in very strategic ways, explains Abalimi bezekhaya co-founder, Rob Small.
Small believes that permaculture is a way of life that uses improved ancient agro-cultural systems to build new sustainable communities that lead to improved lifestyles in rural, sustainably supplied, off-grid villages, towns and entire cities. By combining forest, mountains, land, water, air, sun, plants, animals and human wisdom, a self-regenerative community of love and harmony is created.
Permaculture also includes building design and modern technology where appropriate. It includes old and new, but builds up instead of destroying, which is what the modern, chemical-poisoned monoculture and urban planning system does, according to Small.
Starting a food forest
In a food forest, it is advisable to create and maintain an ecosystem of plants that mimics the conditions of a forest. Permaculturalists start with a bare field, a barren landscape, and the overall plan can feel a bit overwhelming: removing unwanted vegetation, choosing what to leave, and what you think will be useful, explains Mathupha.
“While creating my own food forest, I broke down the plan into smaller, manageable steps.”
Some important points to consider when setting up your food forest, according to Mathupha are: If your goal is to generate income from your food forest, you should focus on figuring out which tree crops sell well locally, and then consider how to grow them most efficiently.
If, on the other hand, you simply want to be more independent, you should think about how you can grow a diverse food forest with as many fruits, nuts, and herbs as possible to meet your needs and stop depending on the grocery shop.
“Don’t overdo the thinking; just be clear what you want from the beginning.”
Mathupha explains that the idea behind food forests is simple, but the project takes time and patience, a luxury that many local growers cannot afford. The model also requires a certain amount of experimentation – another cost that many find too risky.
“However, as confidence in the theory and proven success in practice grows, more farmers are joining the movement. Peer learning and collaboration are critical, and master farmers guide farmer interactions.”