The term "food forest" is a concept I encountered working on small organic permaculture farms in the Pacific Northwest. The idea is to create a fully integrated farm that utilizes different tiers of plant species and root depths to develop a naturally regenerative forest comprised mostly of edible species. By creating "guilds" of plants that work in tandem with each other to either provide shade, fix nitrogen, provide a cover crop for the ground, and generally promote mycological and microbacterial life, the ecosystem can thrive without constant human intervention. Thus, this naturally cultivated forest will create rich soil, fertile land, and highly nutritious foods. In the tropics, this type of agriculture will also provide an invaluable natural habitat for animals such as birds, monkeys, and pollinators.
This natural method of farming, while new to many permaculture and sustainable farming enthusiasts in the US and Europe, is really quite an old practice. Traditional cultures in the Amazon jungle establish a "food forest" in a slightly different manner. Firstly, the knowledge and understanding of the already existing plants in the dense jungle mean that the local inhabitants use thousands of wild fruits, herbs, tubers, and other plants as food and medicine providing a rich and varied diet. A common technique I encountered among the Shapibo tribe in the Central Peruvian Amazon is to partly clear a small plot of land by cutting down a few large "upper canopy" trees in a small section of forest. The wood is harvested and used for building houses, boats and for cooking. When an opening has been cleared, the resulting sunlight is utilized to intensively cultivate plants such as yuca, peppers, cotton, bananas, medicinal herbs, and many more. After a few seasons of cultivation, neighboring trees drop their seeds, or seedlings are transplanted in the opening. Once again these upper canopy trees such as mahogany and cedar stretch skywards and allow for a tiered jungle environment to flourish. The tribe then moves on to another small plot of land and allows the jungle to naturally regenerate. After thousands upon thousands of years, plants living in this diverse ecoysystem adapt to the shaded "understory" of the jungle, developing unique flavors, medicinal compounds, and their own specific "niche" in the forest ecosystem. A little known fact is that both coffee and cacao developed in the shaded "understory" of the jungle. The cacao tree is native to the Amazon Jungle in Peru, Venezuela and Colombia, while coffee is originally native to the jungle highlands of Ethiopia and East Africa.
Small-scale farmers who wish to generate the greatest economic return from their land may be tempted to plant strictly high-yielding cash crops for an already established market. This often leads to depleted soil quality, erosion, decreased diversity of plant and animal species, and potentially a dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. By establishing a food forest and embracing the diversity of plant species, however, farmers can market a range of goods from their land. This helps both farmers and consumers in many ways. The farmer becomes less dependent on the fluctuating price of one commodity in the market. Often being at the whim of international supply and demand means a similar harvest from year to year will deliver a vastly different return for the farmer. For example, when the price of coffee collapsed in the early 2000's many coffee farmers couldn't cover the cost of production and abandoned their farms. Another advantage is that the farmer can produce and market a more diverse range of crops and take advantage of the increasing market for naturally farmed and organic foods. The consumer benefits by having access to the highest quality clean foods cultivated by small farmers.
The farms I work with are all ecologically integrated fully functioning "food forests". It is not uncommon to find more than 10 different fruits growing on the same terrain. Different sized fruit trees are mixed together as the massive mango, avocado, and pacay trees offer shade to the cacao trees that thrive in partial shade. Banana, papaya, and citrus trees grow in between the giant fruit trees and offer supportive branches for passionfruit vines to grow. All these trees supply partial shade for the coffee plants. Below are the ginger and turmeric spices amongst other edible tubers like yuca and taro root. While both coffee and cacao can be intensively cultivated in a monoculture setting, they can also be a part of a healthful reforestation and ecologically friendly food production system. As evidence of a balanced ecosystem with mycological (mushroom) growth, one can see hundreds of different mushrooms growing on the decaying wood and leaves that lie on the forest floor. I like nothing more than waking up early and walking around the forest harvesting fruits for the morning juice and wild plants and spices for an afternoon soup!