Showcasing the future of sustainability with the world’s largest permaculture food forest
The human race faces a daunting challenge over the next century. With the world population projected to increase over 40% by the year 2100, successive generations will face the monumental task of feeding some 10 billion people on an estimated 8 billion acres of arable land. This obligates us, here today, to develop food systems that not only protect the existing productive capacity of the land, but increase it for the future.
Modern agricultural systems yield a truly stunning abundance of food. That abundance, however, rests on a foundation fraught with long-term structural problems: overwhelming reliance on non-renewable sources of water, energy, and fertility; ongoing deterioration of soil and water quality; sharp reductions in food-species diversity that harms human health and makes global harvests increasingly vulnerable to pests and disease; deforestation and massive disruptions of native ecosystems that wreaks havoc on local environments, resulting in global consequences. All of this is done in the interest of a commodity-oriented food system – overwhelmingly centralized, globalized, and vertically-integrated – that leaves one in nine people in the world chronically undernourished.
Sustainability in the coming decades is not simply a matter of environmental stewardship for its own sake, or moralizing social justice on behalf of wealthy nations. It is, critically, a linchpin of both national and global security, as soaring populations in the developing world promise unprecedented socio-political upheaval if we, in possession of the resources to do so, fail to make those populations freely and independently food-secure.
This is not a prediction of imminent doom; only an honest assessment of the consequences of a failure to act. And act we shall, heartened by two pieces of critically good news. First: the Earth’s roughly 7.5 billion acres of arable land can plausibly produce food for over 50 billion people. In order for that land to remain arable, however, it must be cultivated in a way that minimizes ecological disturbances and inputs (including and especially water). This is where the other piece of news comes in: the Permaculture movement is pioneering (and in many ways, revisiting) a method of ecologically-oriented agriculture that does just that.
The Accokeek Foundation now embarks on a journey to meet the sustainability challenge head-on. Drawing on both ancestral knowledge and modern innovation, and bringing together the minds of all those with a passion for a sustainable future, the National Food Forest and Center for Global Sustainability seek to lay the foundation of a food production and distribution system that will meet the ecological, social, and economic needs of the world throughout the coming century.
Defining a Global Sustainable Food System
All parties, even those at the large agricultural aggregators, desire a food system that is high-yielding, high-quality, resilient, adaptive, equitable, and permanent: thus, “sustainable.” The passage of time and a thorough success of the green revolution, however, have left us with a model centered on a handful of engineered and heavily hybridized staple species – both plant and animal – whose production threatens the land base upon which it is produced and whose market-driven and commodity-centric distribution leads to stunning disparities in food security. The consolidation of seed/breed technology and the reduction in the genetic diversity of plants and livestock furthermore leave the global food supply increasingly vulnerable to natural and man-made problems – from climate change and superbugs, to corporate excess and political upheaval, to the potential failure of technological innovation to deliver on its promise. From both a social and environmental standpoint, this system is unsustainable over the long term and is in dire need of disruption.
The Accokeek Foundation is determined to find a true path to sustainability centered on patterns of nature that have proven successful over the long term (diversity, distribution, redundancy, and adaptation), rather than industrial patterns that have proven destructive over the long long-term (uniformity, centralization, singularity, and rigidity):
|The Industrial Way||The Natural Way|
|High-Yields are obtained through genetic engineering, hybridization, chemicals, and synthetic fertility.||High-Yields are obtained through multi-story production, layering, locally optimized breeding, and natural fertility|
|High-Quality is barely addressed in industrial agriculture; in fact, this is an area where progress is being lost as nutritional quality suffers from the never-ending quest to improve shelf-life.||High-Quality is achieved through species diversity in the diet, plant-centricity, seasonality, and hyper-local production which allows people to consume food near the source and at the height of its nutrition|
|Resilience and Adaptivity rely almost exclusively on technological innovation in the short and shortening list of global staple crops; anything that threatens one part of the system is a threat to the entire system.||Resilience and Adaptivity stem from a distributed, “federalized” network of self-contained, locally-adapted food production centers. Diversity in the system makes it much less vulnerable to attack.|
|Equity is never truly achieved here, as corporate interests actively seek to addict populations in the developing world to proprietary technologies. There is a demonstrated interest here in producing customers, not equity.||Equity is addressed through hyper-localization of the food supply, with high-yielding and high-quality food production centers tailored to local biomes, cultures, and markets.|
|Permanence, like other aspects of the industrial approach to sustainability, relies heavily on technology and human intervention to survive social, political, and environmental disruptions – a condition that has hastened the downfall of several civilizations.||Permanence is achieved through the creation of high-yielding natural landscapes based on perennial and locally-adapted species. These systems are better positioned to survive neglect and abuse caused by potential social, political, or environmental destruction because they already exist in a semi-natural state.|
We envision a future foodscape with the following attributes:
- Integrated Foodscapes: fewer delineations between food production spaces and living spaces. Farms, large and small, are integrated into urban areas, suburbs, exurbs, the countryside, and even the rivers and oceans – each filling a niche in the food supply as required for any given locale.
- Ecologically-oriented production: farms produce according to the demands of the local biome rather than the demands of global markets. Farms exist within a landscape and are not imposed upon them.
- Community-oriented distribution: food produced in a community is by and large destined for that community, with every community having access to eco-oriented food production
Vision for the National Food Forest
At over 200 acres, the National Food Forest is the most ambitious permaculture project ever undertaken in the United States. In the tradition of Piscataway Park’s original and enduring inhabitants, our goal is to revert these many acres of choked, invasive-prone woodlands back into an Edenic forest of food that produces, on average, over 5 million calories per acre – roughly the amount of calories directed toward the human diet from an acre of engineered corn. The result is a living case study in a working farmscape applying our sustainability principles to plausibly feed a local population.
The NFF has a thirteen-year time horizon (2030) to meet its overarching calorie-per-acre metric. In the intervening years, local/regional/national communities take part in hands-on learning to create and manage permaculture landscapes as each new sector of the park is converted to food forest. Unique elements of the NFF include:
- Agricultural systems built into the existing forest; an edible landscape centered on oak guilds and native perennials.
- Heritage livestock and plants bred to excel with minimal intervention in the native ecosystem.
- Extensive use of silvopasture and on-farm milling for production of staples
- A park-like landscape that serves as a recreational, leisure, educational, and conservation asset in addition to a working farm
Beyond providing a viable business and production model for farmers, NFF serves as a blueprint for incorporating foodscapes into non-traditional spaces. This is targeted toward oft-overlooked partners in agricultural sustainability: real estate developers, schools and universities, community organizations, conservationists, city planners, and park services, among others.
The park’s landscape will be divided into three management areas: 1.) The National Colonial Farm, 2.) Food Forest West, and 3.) Food Forest East. Work will begin simultaneously at the National Colonial Farm and Food Forest East, in the location of the current Ecosystem Farm. From here, the food forests will be designed and developed incrementally, spreading west across NFF east for 2 – 3 years at which point Food Forest West is initiated from the Arboretum outward, first to the north and west, then to the south.
2017 – 2018
NATIONAL COLONIAL FARM
- Accelerated development of the livestock programs, initially centered around heritage breed hogs and other proven lines with a demonstrated market, creates an animal resource base for the food forests and both short and long term sources of revenue.
- National Colonial Farm shifts programmatic focus away from Euro-colonial historic interpretation, and toward an approach that showcases the influence of ancestral Piscataway, African, and European agricultural techniques influence the permaculture concepts being implemented in the surrounding food forests.
FOOD FOREST EAST
- Sector analysis of the hayfields south of the current Ecosystem Farm yields our first permaculture design implemented on a roughly 5-acre suntrap. Assets at the existing Ecosystem Farm are repurposed toward propagating native perennials that will ultimately be planted across the food forests and NCF, or sold to external markets.
- The fields of the Ecosystem Farm, once used for intensive traditional organic agriculture, are planted in cover crops, willow, upland rice, and other broad plantings that do well in a typically-wet environment.
- CGS publishes the ongoing feedback loop between the National Colonial Farm and the budding food forest, and the work of AgLab in developing the forest.
2019 – 2023
FOOD FOREST EAST
- Revenues from the nursery and livestock breeding operation should flow well, if not yet at a net gain. CGS records and publishes the underlying financial and market information from the livestock operation for the benefit of other farmers.
- Food Forest design expands from its current location, moving north to connect with the Ecosystem Farm and west into the woods, where livestock are applied to deal with invasive plants and create an open tree stand composed of healthy, mature trees. (also studiously recorded by CGS, preferably with institutional partnership). Riparian buffers to the wetlands are strictly enforced; open woodland understory encourages wildlife and surface patterns that keep future invasives at bay.
- Marketable crops emerge from nascent forests: pork, goat, eggs, mushrooms, paw paw, sunchoke, various popular annuals from hugels; dwarf trees begin producing near the end of this phase.
NATIONAL COLONIAL FARM
The areas surrounding the education center, visitor center, and pier are tuned as foodscapes, demonstrating integration of food-production into non-traditional spaces.
2024 – 2030
NATIONAL COLONIAL FARM
Livestock operations are at full capacity, producing for both the needs of the food forests and healthy sales of both stock and yield. Colonial Farm physical assets are frequently the backdrop for seminars, conferences, symposiums, walking tours, technical tours, and other events surrounding the work at the park.
FOOD FOREST WEST
- Work begins on the western food forest in 2024; at this point about a third of the park’s overall land is under permacultural management as food forest. Developments in the eastern food forest provide a working model and lessons learned that will allow us to convert the western forest at a brisk clip – a research project that should garner a lot of attention.
- Livestock are applied in force in wooded areas, following the pattern used in reclaiming the woodlands in the eastern food forest.
- Entire western food forest is under permaculture design and management by the end of 2030.
FOOD FOREST EAST
- Several areas of the eastern food forest are reaching productive maturity, allowing us to collect metrics and validate production performance against goals. Productive areas should produce healthy revenues with a positive net; the overall landscape begins to take on the look of its mature form.
- Margins of the eastern food forest not yet under management are brought into the fold, completing development of Food Forest East in the first year or two of this phase.
This project is expected to have national, and possibly global, implications for the future direction of sustainability. In addition to developing the food forest, we will be involved heavily in the following activities through the project:
- Engaging the surrounding community in designing, building, and reaping the yield of the food forest
- Ongoing publication of our research/experimentation, as well as thought and opinion pieces, related to sustainable agriculture
- Serving in an advisory capacity for other organizations wishing to create holistically-managed foodscapes
- Training future farmers and permaculturalists through the ACC
- Active encouragement of revitalization of sustainable agriculture in southern Maryland; making our region the break basket of the nation’s capital
- Sponsoring technical innovation in local agriculture, particularly as regards distribution methods to urban populations and institutional clients like schools, hospitals, and the military.
The possibilities for positive impact from the National Food Forest and the activities surrounding it are boundless.