top of page

The Return To Agro-Forestry

As Forests burn globally Native American ancient knowledge finds a foothold in the post climate changed mind.

Indigenous Americans practiced agroforestry, or the management of trees, crops, and animals together in a way that benefits all three. Silviculture, the regenerative management of tree growth and forest composition, was practiced in the prehistoric Eastern Woodlands and to foster wildlife populations and improve hunting. During this era, Native Americans cleared land by girdling (cutting away a ring of bark from trees to stop growth) or setting fire to a group of trees and used cultivating tools to assist in the planting of crops in the fertilized ash. The Adena Natives grew crops of squash, pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers and maize. The primary agricultural product of the Ohio Indians, was maize. When European settlers first came to the Ohio country, the state was predominantly forested. Some have estimated the forest cover was as much as 95 percent. With the dawn of the 19th century, mining, settlement, land theft and westward expansion spawned almost 125 years of forest removal.

Historically, the way American Indians in this region grew their crops, was they would make little mounds in their gardens, about a foot or so high, 2 or 3 feet around, and at the top center of the mound they would plant the corn. And, once the corn sprouted, they would plant the beans. They would grow up together, and the corn stalk provides a trellis for the beans. Around the base were added squash or pumpkins; their large leaves helped retain moisture and control weeds. Because these plants all worked so well together, they were called “the three sisters.” When the center pole shadow announced harvest time, the crops were collected. The corn especially was set aside for winter: It stores well. They would dig subterranean storage pits about three feet deep, line them with grasses or bark to insulate them, and in the fall at the harvest, they’d bring all their corn and put it in the pits, and that’d get them through the next year.

Dried corn from the storage pits was ground in mortars to make corn bread, or added to soups or stews. Many Natives did not plow their fields. In order to discourage the transit of pests from one plant to another, Natives 'segregated' like vegetable species. Because Natives did not use plows, their soils were healthier, and more biologically diverse. (Plowing causes soil degradation).Some Native American farming practices, however, would be considered controversial by today’s standards. For instance, the Creek Indians, who occupied what is now present-day New York, were known to fertilize crops with diluted urine.

Believe it or not, urine contains a host of minerals essential to plant-growth. A recent experiment using urine fertilizer produced 6’ tall tomato plants, 4’ collards and broccoli, and pumpkin and squash-vines that grew at a rate of 12 to 14 inches a day! This practice allowed the Muscogee and Creek to survive in the Oklahoma territories when they were forced there by the US Army on the trail of tears who expected them to starve to death because of the poor quality of the land! Modern agriculture has been a boon in many ways, but has also scarred the environment, depleted nonrenewable resources, and spawned new and debilitating diseases. The time has come to look to the past, to the gentle and intuitive farming methods of the Native Americans, to a way of living that sustained and nourished them for over seven millennia.

Agroforestry has its roots in tropical food production systems. In regions with more temperate climates, agroforestry is separated into five distinct but related practices. Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits. The five practices are windbreaks, riparian forest buffers, alley cropping, silvopasture and forest farming. But it all starts with seeds.

In societies all over the world, growers thrashed and winnowed these tiny kernels from their protective envelopes and placed them in the earth, anxiously awaiting for sun-seeking shoots to poke through the soil. The plants that emerged usually thrived in specific conditions or geographic locations, and farmers chose to keep the seeds that gave them the most return on their investment, in the forms of plant hardiness, size, or flavor. Meskwaki growers, for instance, harvest seeds from the plants with the longest ears of corn, the plumpest kernels, or the most vibrant shades of yellow, red, or purple.

Up until the past two centuries or so, seed saving was the norm in Native American communities, and many had dedicated members tasked with passing seeds from one generation to the next. Those seeds, in essence, represent the intellectual property of tribes that grew and cultivated them. With the passing of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, however, the U.S. government began forcing tens of thousands of Native Americans off their lands. Many elders didn’t survive the mandated migrations, and older seed keepers often died before passing down their knowledge.

In 1845, the Meskwaki were forced to move hundreds of miles southwest to Kansas. In this new land, the tribe had to adjust their agricultural practices since their traditional crop varieties weren’t adapted to the local soils and climate. Though they continued to keep seeds, fewer people were planting them. The Meskwaki returned to Iowa in 1857—marking the first time a Native American tribe purchased land since the Indian Removal Act. The land in Iowa, however, was primarily forest, leaving little land for planting. Some Meskwaki worked on nearby white-owned farms, and others grew crops wherever white settlers allowed it. The community continued to cultivate small plots of corn, beans, and squash in the spring and summer, but overall, the Meskwaki were farming less than they had prior to displacement.

Growing farmer profitability is an added bonus to Agro forestry practices. In addition to enhancing land productivity, practicing agroforestry diversifies revenue streams for farmers. Trees are permanent crops that produce high-margin fruits, nuts, timber, and biomass - generating up to eight times more profit than a traditional row crop operation.Growers are also able to reduce or eliminate the application of costly pesticides and insecticides because the increased amount of living organisms (insects and birds) act as a natural pest management system. And as carbon markets become commercially viable, agroforestry will become a tool that helps monetize land conservation efforts by offering farmers additional profit for storing CO2 in their soil and biomass.

Regenerative agroforestry has the potential to increase farmer profitability while improving biodiversity and soil quality.Agroforestry comes with an initial learning curve. Fusing crops with trees can be difficult without prior knowledge of tree genetics or how certain plants interact with shade. For example, trees planted too close together can shadow crops that are not tolerant to shade. In this scenario, agroforestry systems can negatively impact plant growth. In the race to reforest America’s farmland, we should not narrowly focus on the sheer number of trees planted. Instead, we must think about using trees or shrubs to better balance agro-ecosystems and generate income for rural communities.

most American food is grown by a handful of multinational corporations with the consent of our government's regulatory agencies that allow them to give us foods with very little nutritional value. The modern US food supply has been seized by large producers that put profit ahead of public health, animal welfare, the livelihood of small farmers, and the environment.

bottom of page