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Tree Crops

Chestnut bud in spring day


For thousands of years, farmers have generally differentiated forestry and agriculture. Forests were either left alone or planted and maintained as a source of fuel and building material. In the best of cases, certain trees also offered forage for livestock and other farm animals. The farm fields were generally kept clear of any trees because farming was relegated to nothing more than the planting and harvesting of annual (mostly grain) crops.

The only trees acceptable to farming were fruit bearing trees, and these were usually planted on areas of the farm where the terrain was too steep or otherwise unfit for the tillage needed for annual grain crops. With the ever more obvious problems related to the annual tillage of the soil and annual agriculture in general, many people have begun to consider the possibility of growing trees as crops.


The idea of growing trees as crops is not a new one. Indigenous cultures around the world have been growing and managing diversified, edible forest ecosystems (food forests, in permaculture jargon) for thousands of years. From the multi-story tropical food forests of Mesoamerica to growing evidence that large swaths of the Amazon Jungle were actually human-controlled environments, indigenous peoples around the world have long understood the benefits of tree crops and perennial agriculture systems.

From the western perspective, however, it was J. Russell Smith in the 1920´s who first began considering the idea of trees as crops. Smith´s seminal work was published under the title of “Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture” in 1929. In this book, he looked at several farming cultures around the world that, instead of relying on the annual tillage of the soil for grain crops, actually depended on carefully managed forest ecosystems that provided an abundance of edible foodstuffs.

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