UPDATE: Sharing Successes in Forest Farming across Central Appalachia

A project of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN) 

In May 2020, LiKEN initiated a project to develop educational materials about agroforestry in Central Appalachia. With funding from the National Agroforestry Center of the US Forest Service, this project will not only identify and encourage successful practitioners in our region, but help develop connections between communities, landholders and service providers to help guide new agroforesters, whether that be through linking practitioners with apprentices, identifying land access opportunities, or through the development of compelling narratives of success. Our new LiKENeer, Chris Burney, directs this project, which is part of our emerging Appalachian Mother Forest project.

What exactly is agroforestry? 

Agroforestry is generally described as ecologically sustainable land-use practices that incorporate tree crops with agricultural crops and/or livestock. The USDA defines agroforestry in terms of its five practices and the four I’s. The five main practices of agroforestry are:

  • Forest farming – growing food, herbal, botanical, or decorative crops under a forest canopy;
  • Alley cropping – crops between rows of trees to provide income while the trees mature; 
  • Silvopasture – combining trees and livestock on one piece of land;
  • Riparian buffers – natural or re-established areas along rivers and streams made up of trees, shrubs, and grasses;
  • Windbreaks that shelter crops, animals, buildings, wildlife, and soil from wind, snow, dust, and odors.

These practices can be found in many ancient, traditional, and Indigenous systems which have provided human sustenance for millenia while stewarding land, trees, and biodiversity. So, in some ways, scientific agroforestry is just catching up with past wisdom. Contemporary research shows that the above practices can increase long-term production, while benefiting local ecologies. When looking for agroforestry practices, though they may not be termed as such in everyday language, we look for what are called the ‘four I’s’ of agroforestry; practices that are intentional, intensive, integrated and interactive. 

Case studies and videos for farmers 

To reach diverse audiences, we will produce materials in diverse formats:

  • To inspire farmers who are considering transitioning to agroforestry, this project will produce six case studies of highly successful agroforestry ventures from across Appalachian Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio. Each case study will describe challenges, costs, and rewards experienced by individuals over the years involved in their transition into forest farming and economic growth.
  • We will also develop videos that can be shared over diverse platforms to attract new farmers, especially youth. Short educational videos will focus on topics that producers identify as most useful for beginners in agroforestry, from land access to planting and sales. 
  • Testimonial videos will document traditional Appalachian practices that reflect rich knowledge about the remarkable biodiversity of this ancient temperate rainforest.  How are growers and producers engaging and fostering non-timber forest products, including understory botanicals, mushrooms, fruit, nut, and syrup producing trees?  What forms of traditional knowledge, tools, and management may be used to encourage pollinators, and harness aspects of distinctively Central Appalachian forest habitats, including streams, soils, and characteristic features such as coves, hollows, and bottomland for the production of crops and game animals?

This project will also reach out to service providers (extension agents, non-profits, etc.) as they help landowners make decisions about the sustainable management of their forests, opportunities for income generation and sustainable livelihoods. We will develop briefing papers about scenarios for multistory forest farming adapted to two economic, ecological, and physiographic subregions that reflect current farming communities across Central Appalachia. 

  • Some scenarios will focus on mid-size farms in highly rural, primarily agricultural communities with stressed, overused soil and watersheds. 
  • Other scenarios will focus on Appalachian cove forests and small landholders in historically coal-dependent areas with pockets of less disturbed land with high biodiversity arising from microclimate, rich cove soil, and abundant waters.
All photos by Chris Burney

Project collaborators  

The project is directed by LiKENeer Chris Burney (who is also completing a PhD in Plant and Soil Sciences at West Virginia University) in collaboration with Dr. Tom Hammett (Sustainable Biomaterials, Virginia Tech), Dr. Mary Hufford (LiKEN Associate Director and visiting professor in Folklore, Ohio State University),  Dr. Betsy Taylor (LiKEN Executive Director), and Dr. James Thompson (Plant and Soil Sciences, West Virginia University).   Ruby Daniels (LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator), retired school teacher Wilma Steele, retired coal miner Terry Steele, Sprouting Farms, Yew Mountain Center, and Future Generations University are playing key roles in outreach and gathering of feedback from diverse stakeholders and networks.

Contact for more information…

We welcome your suggestions and hope that if you are interested in learning more about this project you may contact Chris Burney, cburney@likenknowledge.org or visit the LiKEN website www.likenknowledge.org   If you are a farmer, you may assist this research by agreeing to an interview and a walking tour of your agroforestry plots  with one of our researchers, or by making and sharing your own photographs and video recordings.

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