Monday, December 26, 2011

French Market Gardens - La Culture Maraîchère

The Russian anarchist writer Prince Peter Kropotkin wrote several books outlining the philosophy of anarchism. Among the principles he espoused were local economies and self-determination. In his 1899 book, Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin looked extensively at how local communities could become thriving, self-sufficient communities with no coercive leaders or taxes, with voluntary associations and mutual aid providing the bonds of a functional society.

In that book, Kroptkin takes a close look at agriculture and industry at the end of the nineteenth century with the idea of creating such local communities. In Paris, he was especially impressed with how gardeners were able to produce enough vegetables for Paris in the city itself for much of the year:
The above examples are striking enough, and yet those afforded by the market-gardening culture are still more striking. I mean the culture carried on in the neighbourhood of big cities, and more especially the culture maraichere round Paris. In that culture each plant is treated according to its age. The seeds germinate and the seedlings develop their first four leaflets in especially favourable conditions of soil and temperature ; then the best seedlings are picked out and transplanted into a bed of fine loam, under a frame or in the open air, where they freely develop their rootlets and, gathered on a limited space, receive more than usual care ; and only after that preliminary training are they bedded in the open ground, where they grow till ripe. In such a culture the primitive condition of the soil is of little account, because loam is made out of the old forcing beds. The seeds are carefully tried, the seedlings receive proper attention, and there is no fear of drought, because of the variety of crops, the liberal watering with the help of a steam engine, and the stock of plants always kept ready to replace the weakest individuals. Almost each plant is treated individually.

There prevails, however, with regard to market-gardening, a misunderstanding which it would be well to remove. It is generally supposed that what chiefly attracts market-gardening to the great centres of population is the market. It must have been so ; and so it may be still, but to some extent only. A great number of the Paris maraichers, even of those who have their gardens within the walls of the city and whose main crop consists of vegetables in season, export the whole of their produce to England. What chiefly attracts the gardener to the great cities is stable manure ; and this is not wanted so much for increasing the richness of the soil — one-tenth part of the manure used by the French gardeners would do for that purpose — but for keeping the soil at a certain temperature. Early vegetables pay best, and in order to obtain early produce not only the air but the soil as well must be warmed ; and that is done by putting great quantities of properly mixed manure into the soil ; its fermentation heats it. But it is evident that with the present development of industrial skill, the heating of the soil could be obtained more economically and more easily by hot-water pipes. Consequently, the French gardeners begin more and more to make use of portable pipes, or thermosifhons, provisionally established in the cool frames. This new improvement becomes of general use, and we have the authority of Barral's Dictionnaire d' Agriculture to affirm that it gives excellent results.

As to the different degrees of fertility of the soil — always the stumbling--block of those who write about agriculture — the fact is that in market-gardening the soil is always made, whatever it originally may have been. Consequently — we are told by Prof. Dybowski, in the article " Maraichers " in Barral's Dictionnaire d Agriculture — it is now a usual stipulation of the renting contracts of the Paris maraichers that the gardener may carry away his soil, down to a certain depth, when he quits his tenancy. He himself makes it, and when he moves to another plot he carts his soil away, together with his frames, his water-pipes, and his other belongings.

I could not relate here all the marvels achieved in market-gardening ; so that I must refer the reader to works — most interesting works — especially devoted to the subject, and give only a few illustrations.[1]
La culture maraîchère referred to the intensive methods of gardening developed in the urban areas of Paris from about 1850 to 1900, and often referred to in English as "French intensive gardening." It was a series of techniques developed over the years by experimentation for gardeners to produce large quantities of fresh vegetables for city dwellers. It also dealt with a major urban problem at the time - what to do with all the manure from the horses used for transportation. French intensive gardening was designed to grow the maximum amount of vegetables on the minimum area possible, since urban plots were invariably small and noncontinuous. Techniques of season-extension begun at the royal potager at Versailles under the celebrated head gardener La Quintiie in the 1670s and 80s were extended and enhanced such that urban gardens could provide fresh vegetables for much of the year in Paris.

The average Parisian market garden was between one and two acres in size, with plants grown on eighteen-inch beds of combined straw and horse manure from the stables. Although the plots were relatively small, the techniques used to attend to them were highly detail-oriented and labor intensive. In the words of one grower, "always tend the smallest amount of land possible, but tend it exceptionally well." In order to get the maximum amount of produce from a small area, many techniques were used in concert. Crops were planted so close together that when the plants were mature, their leaves would barely touch. The close spacing provided a mini-climate and a living mulch that reduced weed growth and helped hold moisture in the soil. Companion planting was used - growing certain plants together that enhance each other. For example, strawberries and green beans produce better when grown together; whereas onions stunt the growth of green beans. In addition to companion planting, gardeners developed an elaborate schedule of succession planting to get the most from the land throughout the growing season. Timing was key:
For example, an early spring hotbed would be sown with radish and carrot seed broadcast and then transplanted with lettuces at the same time. The radishes would be harvested first, making more room for the carrots growing between the lettuces. The carrot tops would stick out from around the lettuces until the lettuces were harvested, which gave the carrots enough light and space to complete their growth. But as soon as the lettuces were harvested, young cauliflower transplants would be set out among the carrots. Once the carrots were pulled the cauliflowers had the frame to themselves until they were harvested and the ground was prepared for the next crops. [2]
Gardeners grew up to nine crops each year and could even grow melon plants during the winter.

To extend the growing season as much as possible, glass-covered frames were placed over the plants which acted as mini-greenhouses. Heat for the cold frames was provided by the decomposing manure. Once the manure was thoroughly decomposed and no longer hot, it was shoveled out as compost and used as a soil amendment. Additional protection for cold nights was provided by one-inch thick mats made of rye straw rolled over the glass covers for extra insulation. One distinctive technique was to place bell-shaped jars 16-3/4" in diameter called cloches over the growing plants. Photographs of French urban gardens sometimes show hundreds of these bell-shaped jars. They were used to keep seedlings warm, as well as to protect mature plants like lettuce. On sunny days, a small notched stick was used to vent the cloche. The cloches could also be covered with straw mats during cold conditions. The microclimate of the city also helped protect from harsh weather. Decomposing manure was also used on the paths between the glass-covered hotbeds to help boost the heat. Paths were only ten inches wide to maximize growing space. Because these paths were too narrow for a wheelbarrow, gardeners wore woven willow backpacks called hottes. These were designed as a basket carried on the back with a spigot that extended over the head of the wearer so he or she could lean forward and deposit the merde onto the beds.

Pesticides and chemicals were avoided ("pompously labelled and unworthy drugs" in the words of Kropotkin). Large amounts of compost, crop rotation, diversity, companion planting and plant protection were enough to prevent most diseases and pest outbreaks. It was felt that pests attacked only sick and weak plants; healthy plants in healthy soil would not need extraordinary measures. Again, the fact that the gardens were in a city helped control pests, as well as the fact that small plots with diverse plantings did not allow for pests to multiply the way monocultures do.
Labour-intensive it was, most emphatically; yet it had outstanding merit in in calling for far less capital investment in glasshouses and heating systems, and the high productivity of small plots was barely credible. Delicate green vegetables were grown in winter, including a most successful cabbage lettuce; cauliflowers sewn under frames, and then moved under bell glasses at the end of February, were ready for market in six weeks; mustard and cress (for which there was great demand in London) was grown on bass mats and so cut clean. [3]
French intensive gardening methods was so effective that French master gardeners were able to supply nearly all the vegetable produce required for the city of Paris and its environs, and do it nearly year-round. They were even able to export greens to England even in fall and winter. Britain first began to take notice of the French methods as a way to help unemployed factory workers be more self-supporting on land. Market gardening was introduced to England by C. M. McKay, a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, who led an expedition to Paris to see the techniques in 1905. A number of how-to books were published for English audiences, including a popular one by McKay himself. The techniques became quite popular, although they never quite achieved the level of sophistication seen in Paris. In the 1920s and 1930s, English gardener and dramatist Alan Chadwick experimented extensively with the French intensive techniques, combining them with techniques from Austrian Rudolf Steiner's biodynamic method to form the French Intensive-Biodynamic method of gardening.

Such techniques were not unique to France. Similar techniques existed in Asia. Agronomist F.H. King noted Japanese techniques of growing produce urban areas in his book Farmers of Forty Centuries published in 1909:
How closely the ground itself may be crowded with plants is seen in Fig. 16, where a young peach orchard, whose tree tops were six feet through, planted in rows twenty-two feet apart, had also ten rows of cabbage, two rows of large windsor beans and a row of garden peas. Thirteen rows of vegetables in 22 feet, all luxuriant and strong, and note the judgment shown in placing the tallest plants, needing the most sun, in the center between the trees. But these old people, used to crowding and to being crowded, and long ago capable of making four blades of grass grow where Nature grew but one, have also learned how to double the acreage where a crop needs more elbow than it does standing room, as seen in Fig.17. This man's garden had an area of but 63 by 68 feet and two square rods of this was held sacred to the family grave mound, and yet his statement of yields, number of crops and prices made his earning $100 a year on less than one-tenth of an acre. [3]
After the First World War, la culture maraichere began to wane in France and England. Land values soared, and empty lots were developed or became too valuable for gardens. More importantly, cars replaced horses on city streets, and the straw and manure that had been so important disappeared. In the 1960s, Alan Chadwick brought his techniques to America on a 4-acre organic student garden at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. Starting with a hilly area of poor, clayey soil, Chadwick was able to eventually produce healthy topsoil and yields four times that of conventional agricultural methods. Chadwick grew his crops on rounded raised mounds and used the "double dig" method - removing the top soil layer, exposing the subsoil or hardpan beneath, breaking it up, adding organic matter, and replacing the topsoil that was initially removed. This provided greater drainage and aeration. The techniques were studied by John Jeavons of Ecology Action, who wrote a popular book promoting these methods under the name GROW-BIOINTENSIVE. Jeavons' book, How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine (usually abbreviated to just the first five words), first published in the 1974, helped to revive and extend the French Intensive Methods for a new generation in a new country. Others also wrote about the techniques. Many organic farmers and urban gardeners have been inspired by French Intesive Gardening, and there is hope that the culture of urban gardening which reached such heights at the end of the 1800's can be revived to put people to work and provide fresh local food for hungry cities for much of the year.


Today, history seems to repeat itself. After a manic century of economic growth, once again weed-filled empty lots are now common in urban areas, this time in the United States, and land that was once too valuable to garden now lies empty. Once again, unemployed factory workers are the vanguard of an crisis of unemployed and underutilized labor. Unlike the nineteenth century, however, the supplies of fossil fuels that engendered exponential economic growth and allowed local economies to wither in place of elaborate food supply systems are running out. It is generally recognized that food trucked in from miles away year-round is not only inefficient from a resource standpoint, it is increasingly questionable from a health standpoint, as such food is often grown in poor-quality degraded soils. At the same time, low-capital activities are needed to provide meaningful work for the legions of unemployed that haunt America's cities that the globalized, corporatized economy has abandoned.

This conflagration of circumstances - a surfeit of labor, a need to relocalize economic activity, vacant lots in cities, so-called food 'deserts' in urban areas, increasingly costly fossil fuels, and an awareness of the nutritional value of fresh local food - seem to make French intensive gardening to be an ideal answer to all these problems. The labor-intensive nature of French intensive gardening, a drawback in the corporate model of agriculture, is actually desirable under such circumstances. And, as is often the case in agriculture, labor intensive techniques are sustainable, healthy, and help enhance the environment. It also allows a degree of self-reliance that has been absent from the economy for a long time. Of course, the straw and manure that made French intensive gardening possible in cities are no longer available, horses having long ago been replaced by cars. In place, composting programs that transform agricultural waste into soil may be substituted.

Today, urban gardening is in the midst of a renaissance. The techniques that were so refined at the turn of the twentieth century should be revived and revitalized for the turn of the twenty-first. Increasingly, Pete Kropotkin's ideas of local economies centered around mutual aid is being embraced as a way out of an increasingly dire social and economic situation. French Market Gardening is just one way to help remake a more just and healthy urban economy.

[1] Peter Kropotkin. Fields, Factories and Workshops. p. 61-62
[1] Eliot Coleman. The Winter Harvest Handbook. p. 15.
[2] Joan Thirsk. Alternative Agriculture: A History. .p. 184
[3] F.H. King. Farmers of Forty Centuries.


An excellent article on urban gardening as distinct from agriculture by John Michael Greer:

Two Agricultures, Not One (Reality Sandwich)



AN urban farm off the East River. Artisanal food and crafts sold out of recycled shipping containers at the Dekalb Market. Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea on the Williamsburg waterfront.

Diners flocked to Smorgasburg on the Brooklyn waterfront last summer. It is to return in April.

They all share a hipper-than-thou aesthetic. They also share a pedigree: they were all set up to breathe some life into vacant lots.

In an unlikely convergence of interests, it is the real estate executives who have invited the vendors to set up shop on their stalled construction sites. The owners, after all, get what they want: foot traffic to their neighborhood, which they hope will translate into good business or quicker apartment sales when they finally put a building up on the lot. And the vendors get cheap, sometimes free, space.

Many of these popular spots are remaining open through the winter or are planning to return in the spring and summer. Other undeveloped lots have also been optioned for interim duty as a food-truck lot and a kind of time-share backyard; some will even play host to various art exhibits.

These are happy solutions to an economic problem. The sluggish market has effectively turned off the spigot for construction financing, so there are more than 600 stalled construction sites in New York City, according to a recent count by the city. 

Temporary Tenants Bring Life To Stalled Construction Sites (New York Times)

Across the street I have my strawberry lot. I try to plant by lot. I have a collard green lot, a kale lot, an okra lot, an eggplant lot, green bean lot. I had a corn lot, but it didn't work so well. Right now I have a garlic lot, I had a tomato lot, cucumber lot, squash, cabbage, broccoli, watermelon, cantaloupe. I like flowers, so I planted some of them. I had potatoes, mustard greens, turnip greens.

The New Agtivist: Edith Floyd is making a Detroit urban farm, empty lot by empty lot. (Grist)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Can Trees Save The World?


In the 1920's an agronomist named J. Russell Smith had a revolutionary idea.

He had been to Northern China's wheat producing regions, and in a poor farming village near the Great Wall observed eroded and denuded hillsides bare of trees and fields crossed with gullies. Later, he visited the Mediterranean island of Corsica, and noted that the inhabitants used chestnut trees to provide for most of their needs for food, animal feed, bedding, fiber and wood for hundreds of years if not longer, on an island with very hilly terrain without any of the environmental devastation he had witnessed in China. He considered what he saw in reference to what was happening in his native United States:

"The economic contrast between the Corsican and Appalachian mountaineers is striking. In Corsica the stone house in contrast to the log cabin of Appalachia; in Corsica the good stone road going on a horizontal plane along the mountainside in contrast to the miserable trails running up and down the American mountain; the Corsican mountain covered with majestic trees whose roots hold the soil in place, in contrast to the American mountainside deforested, gashed with gullies, gutted, and soon abandoned. When the Corsican starts a crop, he does it by planting beautiful trees whose crops he and his children and his children's children will later pick up from year to year. When the American mountaineer wants to sow a crop, he must fight for it, a fight without quarter, a fight to the death of the mountain. First he cuts and burns forests,then he must struggle with the roots and stones in the rough ground of a new field. The sprouting shoots of the trees and tree roots must be cut with a hoe. This is the most expensive form of cultivation, but often the steep and stony ground can be tilled in no other way. In a few seasons the mountainside cornfield is gullied to ruin, and the mountaineer — the raper of the mountain — must laboriously make another field. No race of savages, past or present, has been so destructive of soil as have been the farmers of the southeastern part of the United States during the past century."

Smith knew that farming in America was facing a crisis. Rapid loss of topsoil and erosion were extracting a huge toll on America's farmland. Much farmland in America's eastern regions was gullied and denuded, similar to the villages Smith had observed in China. This loss of healthy productive farmland was one of the main factors driving the colonization of the West, as older farm fields in the East were abandoned. Agronomists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were increasingly aware of the problem of poor soil management practices. When the Dust Bowl struck America in the 1930's, the problem became an urgent priority.

Smith noted that the principle export crops of the United States - corn, cotton and tobacco, were unknown in Europe and the Mediterranean, and that all of these were annuals with shallow root systems. He also noted that the heavy downpours from thunderstorms which occurred North America were unknown in those regions. He further noted the tendency for farmers to plant on hilly slopes to increase their yield. All of these these were contributing the the soil erosion crisis. "How does it happen that the hill lands have been so frightfully destroyed by agriculture? The answer is simple. Man has carried to the hills the agriculture of the flat plain. In hilly places man has planted crops that need the plow; and when a plow does its work at an angle instead of on flat lands, we may look for trouble when rain falls."

Thanks to the work of people like soil conservationist Walter C. Lowdermilk, there was an increasing awareness that past civilizations had undermined themsleves by destroying the productive capacity of their land through erosion and soil exhaustion. Smith became concerned that the United States was heading down that same route. "Forest — field — plow — desert — that is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures — a cycle not limited to China. China has a deadly expanse of it, but so have Syria, Greece, Italy, Guatemala, and the United States...If we think of ourselves as a race, a nation, a people that is to occupy its country generation after generation, we must change some of our habits or we shall inevitably experience the steadily diminishing possibility of support for man. "

Smith put forward his answer to the problem in a book entitled "Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture" first published in 1929, and revised in 1952. Russell's proposal was that American agriculture base itself around crops produced by trees rather than just annual cash crops. Smith pointed out that much of U.S. agriculture was devoted to growing forage for animals such as cows and pigs, and that these animals could subsist just as well, if not better, on the produce of trees - fruits, nuts, leaves and bean pods, as they could cereals. "Chestnuts and acorns can, like corn, furnish carbohydrates for men or animals. To many it may seem ridiculous to suggest that we moderns should eat acorns, and I hasten to state that the chief objective of this book is to urge new foods for animals rather than for men. Food for animals is the chief objective of the American farmer." Then there is the obvious value in the wood itself for fuel and fiber. In addition, he proposed a program of intensive plant breeding on a national scale to increase the yields and disease resistance of trees. "These wonders of automatic production are the chance wild trees of nature. They are to be likened to the first wild animal that man domesticated and to the first wild grass whose seed was planted. What might not happen if every wild crop-bearing tree was improved to its maximum efficiency? Burbank and others have given us an inkling of what may result from well-planned selection, crossing, or hybridizing."

Some of his other main points were:

1. Trees produce substantial annual crop yields, which are high in carbohydrates, healthy fats and sugars. "A single oak tree yields acorns (good carbohydrate food) often by the hundred weight, sometimes by the ton. Some hickory and pecan trees give us nuts by the barrel; the walnut tree yields by the ten bushels. There are bean trees producing good food for cattle, which food would probably make more meat or milk per acre than our present forage crops now make."

2. Land which may have good climate or soil, but be steep or rocky, cannot be planted with annual grains. Trees can be planted, however. The root systems of trees actually help stabilize the soil, unlike annual grasses which put down shallow root systems. "All plants require heat, light, moisture, and fertility. Give these things and the tree raises its head triumphantly and grows. But in addition to these requirements the weakling grains must have the plow. A given area may have rich soil and good climatic conditions, but be unsuitable for grain if the land happens to be rocky. Nor are steep lands good farm lands for grains. Trees are the natural crop plants for all such places."

3. Trees are more resistant to variations in rainfall, or to drought. "Trees are much better able than the cereals to use rain when it comes. They can store moisture much better than the annuals can store it because they thrust their roots deep into the earth, seeking moisture far below the surface. They are able to survive drought better than the annual crops that grow beside them...As the deep-rooting, water-holding trees show their superior crop producing power in dry lands, we may expect some of our now arid lands to become planted with crop trees."

4. Tree crops require much less intensive labor than cereal grains, which must be plowed, weeded, and irrigated every year. Plowing and the subsequent bare ground cause soil damage. "As plants the cereals are weaklings. They must be coddled and weeded. For their reception the ground must be plowed and harrowed, and sometimes it must be cultivated after the crop is planted. This must be done for every harvest. When we produce these crops upon hilly land, the necessary breaking up of the soil prepares the land for ruin — first the plow, then rain, then erosion. Finally the desert."

"Therefore, the crop-yielding tree offers the best medium for extending agriculture to hills, to steep places, to rocky places, and to the lands where rainfall is deficient. New trees yielding annual crops need to be created for use on these four types of land... Thus by using the dry land, the steep land, and the rocky land, we may be permitted to increase and possibly double our gross agricultural production and that too without resort to the oriental miseries of intensive hand and hoe labor. Tree crops also have a special advantage in their adaptability to a field reservoir system of irrigation which is at the same time of great promise as a means of flood control."

5. Crops can be grown in between and underneath trees, creating a "two-story" agriculture. "The level plains where rainfall cannot carry soil away may continue to be the empires of the plow, although the development of two-story agriculture (trees above and annual crops below) offers interesting possibilities of a greater yield than can be had from a one-story agriculture. This type of agriculture is actually in practice in many Mediterranean lands...The two-story type of agriculture has another advantage. It divides the seasonal risks which everywhere beset the farmer. If frost kills the almond, it probably will not injure the wheat. If drought injures the wheat, the almond may come through with a bumper crop."

6. Livestock farming can be done with the forage from trees. "When tree agriculture is established, chestnut and acorn orchards may produce great forage crops and other orchards may be yielding persimmons or mulberries, crops which pigs, chickens, and turkeys will harvest by picking up their own food from the ground. Still other trees will be dropping their tons of beans to be made into bran substitute. Walnut, filbert, pecan, and other hickory trees will be giving us nuts for protein and fat food."

7. Trees are well-suited for rapid genetic development because they can be grafted. "For breeding experiments the tree has one great advantage over most of the annuals. We propagate trees by twig or bud, by grafting or budding. Therefore, any wild unstable (though useful) freak, any helpless malformation like the navel orange which cannot reproduce itself, can be made into a million trees by the nurseryman. With corn, oats, or alfalfa the breeder must produce a type true to seed before the farmer can use it."

8. Certain trees can fix nitrogen in the soil, helping crops grow underneath it. "I am sure that many of these pastures would have their productivity as pastures increased if they could be thinly covered with a planting of some leguminous tree whose roots would gather nitrogen from the air and leave it in the earth where the grass roots could share it."

Smith laid out his argument succinctly in the book's first three chapters. In the rest of the book, he went on to describe the uses of specific trees-- The Keawe, The Carob, The Mesquite, The Honey Locust, The Chestnut, The Oak, the Mulberry, the Persimmon, the Walnut, the Pecan and the Hickory. The characteristics and uses of each tree are described in detail along with actual applications - for fruit, for animal feed, for wood, for sweeteners, etc. He describes which trees are suitable for various climate and soil types in the United States. Actual examples are given of orchards used for food, fuel and forage, as well as two-story agriculture from around the world. Some samples:

"Who has not pitied John the Baptist because he had to eat insects (locusts) in the wilderness, and the Prodigal Son because he was brought so low that he was forced to feed upon the husks that the swine did eat? But the locusts that John the Baptist ate were not insects; they were the beans of the carob tree, sometimes still spoken of in the Near East as "locust." The husks eaten by the Prodigal Son were not the dried husks of corn, as the American farmer naturally believes. They too were the pods of the carob bean."

"Like the algaroba and the carob, the beans of the honey locust are greedily devoured by farm animals and sometimes are eaten by the children...Like the carob and the algaroba, it is a legume gathering nitrogen from the air to make its own proteins. This also enables it to fertilize the earth for other plants. It is an open-top tree through which much light can pass to crops below, thereby favoring a two-story agriculture, like the carobs of Algeria. This is especially valuable for pastures. It is possible that in some situations a pasture might be as good with honey locusts as without them."

"The sugar maple is a fine tree. Its spring sap has from 3 to 6 per cent, of sugar. It grows over a wide area of cold, rough, upland country with a poor agricultural surface and in some cases a poorer agricultural climate. Possibly plant breeding could do with the maple wonders similar to those it has already done with the sugar beet — namely raise its sugar content several fold in a century and a quarter. But why wait? Behold the honey locust! ...There is a wild tree, native, hardy, prolific, and yielding beans more than a foot long. The beans from some of these unimproved and unappreciated wildlings carry 29 per cent, of sugar. This is equal to the best sugar beets and more than the yield of the richest crops of sugar cane. This, too, after man has been struggling with the sugar cane for centuries."

"The mulberry is excellent food for pigs. To harvest mulberries costs nothing because the pigs gladly pick up the fruit themselves. Therefore, mulberries fit especially well into American farm economics because labor cost is high...It should be a nice element of farm management to let the pigs that picked up their own living on mulberries in June and July continue the process with persimmons from September until Christmas or snowfall."

"Mesquite beans are especially valuable because they ripen in August at the very time when drought may be expected to reach its worst. The beans are greedily eaten by cattle, horse, and goats. As a rancher put it, "I have mesquite in my pasture and value a crop of beans very highly. I let the stock eat the beans on the trees and a good bean crop means fat stock."

"It is said that the carob makes excellent cereal, candy, and syrup" — a pound of syrup from a pound of beans — a fact that is almost staggering. The candy, which seemed also to have coconut in it, as well as the easily recognized carob flavor, was an instant success in my family; and we all liked the flavor of syrup made from carob."

"In some sections of Spain and Portugal the young ilex trees are allowed to grow where they have by chance sprung up in the fields. Around and under the trees the machineless cultivation of wheat and beans, barley and hay, goes on just the same. This combination of trees and crops gives a beautiful parklike landscape. The cultivation helps the oaks to make acorns, and after the grain and other crops are harvested, the hogs are turned in to gather the mast crop."

"If any one knows of better nuts than some of the shagbark hickories of the northeastern United States, I beg him to write me at once and send me a few, for I wish to know this superior thing. The hickories were food-producers of importance to the American Indian and are of great economic promise for scientific agriculture in the future."

Although Smith's main focus is the growing of tree crops for the continental United States, he takes a brief look at tropical applications as well:

"Rubber is the perfect example of the wild trees whose uses were quickly demonstrated, after which the technical processes were worked out with great rapidity, and manufacturing and agricultural industries created with almost magic speed...Now I cite another industrial commodity, a paint oil, which we might make from the kukui or candlenut tree, whose oleaginous seeds make a brilliant flame that lighted Polynesia for an unknown period of time before the Standard Oil can brought a cheaper illuminant."

"The foliage of the date, being feathery at the top, permits sunlight to come through and fall upon an under-orchard of olives, apricots, and figs, and beneath these beans and other leguminous crops will grow — literally a three-story type of agriculture so rich in yield that only a portion of the date oases need be worked so diligently."

"The ancient and well-known coconut with its rich oil and myriad uses need not be here expanded except to point out one fact that may revolutionize the economics of almost any kind of vegetable oil. Chemical researches have recently turned the strong liquid coconut oil into a sweet-flavored tallow-like substance which now graces millions of European and some American tables in place of the more expensive butter."

"The soil destruction in India and Central America described by the papers just referred to shows that the tropic denizens are destroying their lands almost as rapidly with cereals as we are destroying ours in the southern part of the United States with corn, cotton, tobacco, and gullies, and like ourselves they are in need of development of tree-crop agriculture if the lands are to continue to serve the race."

The final chapters of the book deal with the economic and farm management issues, with a final plea for an Institute of Mountain Agriculture for tree breeding and propagation and to encourage the use of tree crops by America's farmers. Smith believed that at tree-based agriculture, combined with intelligent breeding, could dramatically increase American agricultural yields while actually preserving, even enhancing the environment, and preserving America's precious topsoil that had been so badly degraded by the growing of corn, cotton and tobacco:

"I see a million hills green with crop-yielding trees and a million neat farm homes snuggled in the hills. These beautiful tree farms hold the hills from Boston to Austin, from Atlanta to Des Moines. The hills of my vision have farming that fits them and replaces the poor pasture, the gullies, and the abandoned lands that characterize today so large a part of these hills."

"These ideal farms have their level and gently sloping land protected by mangum terraces and are intensively cultivated — rich in yields of alfalfa, corn, clover, legumes, wheat, and garden produce. This plow land is the valley bottoms, level hill tops, the gentle slopes, and flattened terraces on the hillsides. The unplowed lands are partly shaded by cropping trees — mulberries, persimmons, honey locust, grafted black walnut, grafted heart nut, grafted hickory, grafted oak, and other harvest-yielding trees. There is better grass beneath these trees than covers the hills today. The crops are worked out into series of crops to make good farm economy."

"It will take time to bring this miracle to pass. It will take time to work it out. First of all a new point of view is needed, i.e., that farming should fit the land. The presence on the land of the land owner is also needed. This is not a job for tenants. Let the tenant go down to the level land which carelessness cannot ruin so quickly. Not his the beautiful home in the beautiful hills."

"Even this partial list of native tree products shows nearly all of the elements necessary to man's nutrition, and that without introducing a single new species from foreign countries where dozens of new crop trees are waiting for the time to come when they can be made useful in American agriculture."

"This permanent agriculture is much more productive than mere pasture, or mere forest, the only present safe uses for the hill fields. Therefore, tree crops should work their way into the rolling and sloping lands of all sections. New crop trees need to be created. Extensive scientific work in the plant kingdom should begin at once."

Despite its age, the book is easy and enjoyable reading, even for the layman. In its time, J. Russell Smith's book never received the attention it deserved. But there are signs that may be changing.


Today, movements such as agroforestry and food forests are becoming more widespread. Agroforestry is a collective name for land use systems and practices in which woody perennials are deliberately integrated with crops and/or animals on the same land management unit, either in a spatial mixture or in a temporal sequence, according to the World Agroforestry Centre. Food forests, also called forest gardens, are intentional systems designed to mimic the relationships found in natural woodlands to produce, in the words of one designer, "food, fuel, fodder, fiber, and fun." Permaculture, a method sustainable design for human habitats which has become very popular, incorporates many of the same ideas. In fact, J. Russell Smith's subtitle - "A Permanent Agriculture" is seen as a precursor to many of the ideas of Permaculture which were developed in Australia in the 1970's.

The New York Times recently featured an article entitled A quiet push to grow crops under the cover of trees. The article describes a small experimental forest garden planted on the property of a couple in Montana:

On a forested hill in the mountains north of Montana’s capital, beneath a canopy of pine and spruce, Marc and Gloria Flora have planted more than 300 smaller trees, from apple and pear to black walnut and chestnut. Beneath the trees are layers of crops: shrubs like buffalo berries and raspberries, edible flowers like day lilies, vines like grapes and hops, and medicinal plants, including yarrow and arnica. Turkeys and chickens wander the two-acre plot, gobbling hackberries and bird cherries that have fallen from trees planted in their pen, and leaving manure to nourish the plants.

The article goes on the describe the benefits of agroforestry, and the newfound interest in incorporating it into agriculture in the United States:

The idea is to harness the ecological services that trees provide. “Agroforestry is not converting farms to forest,” said Andy Mason, director of the Forest Service’s National Agroforestry Center. “It’s the right tree in the right place for the right reason.” The Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency, began an initiative this year to encourage agroforestry.

Depending on the species, trees make all sorts of contributions to agriculture, experts say. Trees in a shelter belt reduce wind and water erosion. Some trees serve as fertilizers — they take in nitrogen from the atmosphere, or pump it from deep underground and, when they drop their leaves, make it available upon decomposition. Trees planted along streams can take up and scrub out polluted farm runoff. They increase species diversity by providing habitat, and some of those species are friendly to farmers — bees and butterflies that help pollinate crops, for example. (One study showed that 66 species of birds benefit from windbreaks on farms.) Trees can keep a field cooler and more moist.Some research also shows that cattle farmers can improve their income by introducing trees, both by selling timber and by cooling cows in the shade. And trees in general help the environment by absorbing greenhouse gases and by cleaning up polluted water — countering some of the effects of large-scale agriculture.

“The biggest problem with food production is environmental degradation,” said Gene Garrett, an emeritus professor of forestry and former director of the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri. Properly placed belts of trees and other vegetation along streams can filter out 95 percent of the soil sediment that washes off farm fields, studies show, and up to 80 percent of phosphate and nitrogen that runs off.

The garden of Marc and Gloria Flora seems to be exactly what Smith envisioned so many years ago. Although the article mentions that the ideas are not new, it unfortunately does not mention Smith's work.The article goes on to describe many of the efforts to encourage agroforestry in the United States.


Tree crops are also important for agriculture in the developing world. In Africa, because they are hardier, trees can provide food in times of famine or failure of conventional annual crops. Integrating trees with cash crops actually increases the crop yield! They can also prevent desertification, build soil, provide fuel, sequester carbon, and preserve biodiversity. One of the major stumbling blocks to integrating trees in African agriculture is land ownership. Many African farmers are tenant farmers and must make enough money each season to cover their expenses. Without long-term ownership of land they farm, there is no incentive to plant slow-growing trees. This problem was identified by Smith as well. Nevertheless, tree crops are increasingly seen as essential to food security:

Food insecurity is a routine fact of life for many of the world's poorest people, Miranda Spitteler, chief executive of Tree Aid told BBC News.

She said the West needed to recognise the important role trees could play in reducing the need for conventional aid. She also called for support for a local tree-based solution to food shortages.

In an article for the BBC News website's Green Room column, she added: "'Conventional' crops are often not native and require expensive inputs, significant irrigation and land preparation in order to produce a successful harvest. Trees, on the other hand, often survive when other crops fail. Trees provide fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, sepals, even sap, which can be used as food."

"The leaves of Moringa oleifera, which is cultivated across Africa, India and South America, for example, have more beta-carotene than carrots, more vitamin C than oranges and more calcium than milk," the head of Tree Aid wrote.

She said the fight against hunger, especially in drought-hit times, must target those at the epicentre of of world poverty - smallholder farmers in rural Africa. "They need support to adopt agro-forestry techniques, which boost soil fertility and provide tree food crops to supplement nutrition."

Ms Spitteler added: "This approach can increase self-sufficiency for both rural communities and national economies. It can increase environmental security, diversify livelihood options and reduce the vulnerability of poor households to climate change and external shocks."

A paper in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability showed how in Africa planting trees can improve the soil and boost crop yields. These systems are referred to as Tree Fertilizer Systems, and are seen as ways to reduce the necessity of artificial fertilizers for African farmers who often cannot afford them. Certain types of trees fix nitrogen in the soil to boost fertility, much as Smith suggested. The pigeon pea is one tree that is commonly used for this purpose in Africa, for example. The study looked at various types, and came up with other species which were able to play this role. They found that in some instances where rows of trees were planted between rows of crops, the trees were in competition with the crops. To address this, they cut back the trees very low to the ground to keep sunlight falling on the crops:

"We developed a new management system where the trees were cut very low to the ground at the time you are planting the crop so then there was no light competition. The trees go into a dormant state when you cut them like this, so the root system is not competing straight away for the nutrients, so the maize is free to become established. The trees only really start to come out out of the dormant phase when the maize is already tall."

Trees also help "climate proof" arable land. As Smith pointed out, the roots of trees can reach much deeper to find water, and can survive dry period that crops cannot:

One example, Dr Place said, was the use of Faidherbia albida (common names include winter thorn and apple-ring acacia) in West African arable landscapes. "It has a deep penetrating tap root, and it can secure a good water supply even in dry years," he explained. "Generally speaking, tree roots do go much deeper than crop roots, so it is recycling nutrients and water from deeper reaches.There are also studies showing that these roots act as conduits and bring up water to surface root systems (such as those belonging to crops)."

And trees can provide much more than just food. Smith pointed out the destructive nature of cotton on America's landscape. Cotton is a crop which requires a great deal of fresh water which will be in short supply in the coming years. But cloth can also be made from trees:

Cotton is a great fiber to make clothes with, but unfortunately, growing it causes huge environmental problems. It's a crop that uses a lot of water, and most large cotton monocultures are doused in large quantities of pesticides. On top of that, growing cotton requires arable land, so it competes with food crops.

But as the human population of the planet goes up and as hundreds of millions of people get out of abject poverty, they'll require more food and clothes. This leaves us with a big dilemma, unless we can find another source of fibers that doesn't suffer from the downsides associated with cotton...

Ah! But how about cellulose from trees? With it we can make rayon, the modern version of which is pretty much a direct substitute for cotton, except that it is even better adapted to the climate of most developing countries than cotton because it breathes better and it's more absorbant.

And the benefits don't stop there: Cellulose from trees doesn't compete with food crops for arable land. They don't require pesticides, and if the forest is managed with the best sustainable practices, a lot of fiber can be had without damaging the local ecosystem too much.

Even better: The cellulose is just one of the components of wood. You can use the lignin to run a biomass cogeneration power plant that powers the cellulose plant (known more technically as a dissolving pulp plant) and even sell excess power back to the grid, and other sugars from the wood can be turned into all kinds of other useful things in a biorefinery. If done well, it's possible to squeeze a lot of utility out of each tree, which would be a big improvement over most of what we currently do with trees.

It is possible we are on the verge of a new agricultural revolution. Already, there are more and more tree crop products available such as walnut oil, almond flour and hazelnut milk. Increasing use of tree crops promises increased resilience, greater crop yields, more diverse agricultures, greater resilience, and more autonomy for farmers while at the same time helping to repair an atmosphere damaged by excess carbon and preventing erosion and soil depletion. The British Agricultural writer Colin Tudge writes:

"The ancient arts of “agroforestry” are also finding new life—one of the most encouraging of all developments of the modern world. Many kinds of crops and livestock are raised among trees, both in wild forest, and in plantations. In Kerala, South India, cardamoms, related to turmeric and ginger, are traditionally grown as undergrowth in virtually wild forest. On the grander scale, coffee and tea grow best in shade. Throughout the traditional tropics, sheep and cattle which northerners think of as grass-eaters are often raised almost entirely on browse—leaves and branches of trees. The stocking rate can be enormous: up to two cows per hectare among the ubiquitous oil-palm plantations of SE Asia. Cattle are basically woodland animals. Dr Muhammad Ibrahim and his colleagues in Costa Rica have now shown that dairy cows given shade yield up to 30 per cent more than when left to languish in the sun—trees boost yield far more effectively than injections of hormones. But there is more money in hormones. Or at least: the money derived from hormones goes to the shareholders of big companies, while the money from agroforestry should be spread among millions of farmers. No contest. The world's most powerful governments have made themselves answerable to the big companies—and they take pride in this. They call it “realism”. The world's best-paid scientists work for the big companies too. The agrarian, tree-based systems that truly could keep the world habitable have to fight for survival against the massed ranks of the powers-that-be. How ludicrous."

"So although the things that need doing seem obvious, and good people are working on them, the powers-that-be—governments and the corporates whose interest they serve, and the experts including commercial scientists who advise them—have a quite different agenda. If we, humanity, want life to be agreeable or indeed to continue at all we just have to ignore the pressures from our ostensible leaders, and get on and do things the way they should be done. In short, only popular movements can do what's needed: neither reform (attempting to change the minds of the powers that be), nor revolution (head on collision, which seems bound to lose) but renaissance: building new ways of life in situ, whatever the pressures from on high."

J. Russel Smith would certainly agree:

"Perhaps you think that the creation of a tree-crop agriculture should be the work of state agricultural experiment stations and the United States Department of Agriculture. Theoretically that is true. It is also true that they cannot do it. They cannot get the money for such work. This is a democracy. We are governed by politicians. A politician is a vote getter and not often also a man of vision. Look around you and see if this is not true."

"State experimental stations have, here and there, men who would like to do this kind of work; but the stations are dependent for the money they get on state legislatures, and it should not be forgotten that the first necessity of the legislator is to get elected, and his second concern is to get reelected. In view of these two urgent and even pressing necessities we can see that it is a rare accident when money is to be had for the prolonged task of developing tree crops. Neither by theory nor by practice are we justified in expecting democratic legislation to look far forward in its appropriations save for education and military defense."

"For America tree crops are a new thing, a new idea. No elected legislature can possibly be expected to appropriate regularly for such creative work. Was there a state appropriation or congressional appropriation back of Morse when he created the telegraph, or Edison working wonders with electricity, or Langley working out the theory of flying, or of Orville Wright, the first to make successful flight, or of Lindbergh when he flew from continental mainland to continental mainland? No These things were done with private money urged by an idea. By this means also must come most of the creative work in making a tree-crop agriculture."

NOTE: J. Russell Smith's "Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture" is available on line for free here:

Thanks go out to my Permaculture teacher Mark Shepard for making me aware of the book. His farm is a great example of agroforestry in action.