Washington State University

Small Farms Team

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees?

Small-acreage farmers seeking to diversify their product mix and become more profitable – or at least more self-reliant – may want to turn their sights beyond their fields and pastures.

Within the forest, there may well be marketable wild edible or medicinal plants, native plants that are in demand for landscaping, decorative greens, or materials needed by craft makers.

Photo of people identifying plants
Learning to identify forest plants is an important first step. Photo by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Over the past 32 years, Michael Pilarski has developed a substantial body of knowledge about “forest farming,” otherwise known as wildcrafting. Currently living near the town of Twisp in the north central Cascades, Pilarski farms two acres in a multi-story agroforestry system.

On those two acres, he says, are 3,500 trees and shrubs comprising 200 different species, ranging from peppermint and lemon balm to exotic South American plants. He also has spent a substantial amount of time as a wildcrafter, finding and marketing plants that grow in the wild.

Pilarski’s experience has made him an expert in the plant communities of the Northwest bioregion. In his writings, workshops and consultation services, he actively promotes planting tree-based ecosystems that will support people as well as perform ecological functions.

Understanding and practicing sustainability is essential for landowners who want to delve into specialty forest products. Landowners should first inventory all species and their relative amounts, and then determine how much can be harvested while ensuring continued future harvests.

“You need to look at what you have and come up with a management plan,” Pilarski explains. “If you just tear out everything the first year, what will you harvest in coming years?”

Photo of rooted cuttings
Rooted cuttings in shade house. Photo by Doug Maguire, Oregon State University, www.forestryimages.org

Finding seeds and starts for Sundew (Drosera sp.), Beth Root (Trillium sp.), True Unicorn (Aletris farinosa) or Virginina Snakeroot likely will not be as simple as going to the seed catalog for next season.

“Specialty forest products” is an umbrella term for “everything besides timber and fiber”, says Jim Freed, an extension forestry specialist with Washington State University. Freed, who has co-authored several books on the subject, adds that “agroforestry” is another common term for forest-based agricultural systems.

Freed has also worked with indigenous people around the world and notes that wildcrafting and agroforestry have been practiced throughout the history of humankind. He recalls a Menominee tribal member approaching him after a presentation to a group in Minnesota, saying, “You’re the first white man I’ve met who knows about forest farming.”

Photo of Shitake mushroom
Shitake mushroom produced on inoculated bolt. Photo by Robert L. Anderson, USDA Forest Service, www.forestryimages.org

Commercially, products are categorized in six major areas:

  • Mushrooms
  • Medicinal plants
  • Native Plants
  • Floral or western greenery
  • Christmas trees
  • Wild edibles

Freed echoes Pilarski’s recommendations for landowners hoping to explore agroforestry. The first step is learning to identify the plants, then to manage them. Questions to ask: What do these plants need to grow well? What grows well with them?

Once you’ve taken these steps, you’ll be better able to determine if your forest produces enough products to sell, or simply enough to supply your own family’s needs.

Pilarski emphasizes that marketing wild medicinal products requires connections with those who process the herbs into the final product. Government regulations, many of which are intended to protect the consumer from dangerous products, also make it difficult for the small grower to produce their own value-added product.

“I can safely say that the products that resulted from the herbs I harvested last year were worth in the range of $750,000,” Pilarski notes, adding that he received far below that amount.

That’s not to say there’s not money to be made in growing and harvesting medicinal plants. Pilarski says there is definitely room for more organic growers, but that the demand varies widely from one plant to the next. Growers should do their homework carefully.

Photo of a bucket of huckleberries
Bucket of huckleberries. Photo by Chris Schnepf, University of Idaho, www.forestryimages.org

Outside of the medicinal herb market, there is more opportunity for the grower to eliminate the “middleman” from the marketing chain. Freed lists farmers’ markets and fine restaurants as potential markets for the right products, such as the wild edibles and value-added wild edible products, like jams and jellies.

He also notes that craft shows and hobby shows are places to market items such as special pieces of wood or even pine needles for crafters, who use them in certain types of baskets.

There is a lot of interest among those who work with small forest landowners to help them be more economically viable, according to Kirk Hanson, who works with the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Small Forest Landowner Office. If small forest owners can be more financially successful, the likelihood increases that they will be able to afford to keep their land in forest use, rather than consider other higher value uses such as real estate development.

He feels that small forest landowners who seek to branch into agroforestry may be eligible for grants from a number of philanthropic organizations, particularly if their efforts can be shown to cross over into more than one high-need area. For example, if a grower could show he or she is improving the ecological health of the property while creating jobs in rural areas, the appeal to philanthropic organizations could be high.

Hanson also adds that educational opportunities are becoming more plentiful for both grower and wildcrafter or harvester. He notes that Oregon State University has hosted a whole series of workshops on the topic. In addition, DNR is considering offering a series of workshops on the topic, and both Freed and Pilarski also regularly conduct workshops on the topic. WSU King County Extension has a Forest Stewardship Education Program and also offers workshops and a variety of publications. For more information, visit http://king.wsu.edu/Forestry/ or call Extension Educator Amy Grotta at (206) 205-3132.

Photo of Western Yarrow
Western Yarrow – an herb. Photo by J.S. Peterson. USDA NRCS NPDC

The Northwest Natural Resource Group in Port Townsend has offered Non-Timber Harvester Training and Certification Programs and continues to serve as a resource on the topic. For more resources, please see the below.

With agroforestry, Pilarski encourages growers to consider other dimensions of success beyond economics.

“We really should be encouraging people to do this as a means of self-reliance,” he says, pointing out how dependent Americans have become on buying the products they need instead of producing for themselves. “Almost anyone can do this with a little bit of common sense, and have a much better product for a lot less money,” he says.

Puyallup woodworker and forest landowner Bob Arnold agrees, saying, “After all, if you’re not spending money, that’s another way of making it.”

If you want to learn more about agroforestry:

Michael Pilarski’s book, Growing and Wildcrafting Medicinal Plants in the Pacific Northwest is $18 postpaid and can be ordered by writing Pilarski at:
Friends of the Trees
PO Box 253
Twisp, Wa 98856

Photo of a Douglas Fir cone
Cone of a Douglas Fir. Photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University, www.forestryimages.org

Jim Freed
Special Forest Products – Forestry Stewardship
WSU Extension Natural Resources Faculty
PO Box 47037
Olympia WA 98504-7037
Ph: 360-902-1314 Fax: 360-902-1781

Kirk Hanson, Northwest Natural Resource Group
1917 1st Ave, Level A, Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98101

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources Small Forest Landowner website offers a good links page.

The Family Forest Foundation

The Washington Farm Forestry Association

The Northwest Natural Resource Group

The Non-Timber Forest Products website provides information and serves as a national clearing house for NTFP harvesters and growers, marketers, processors, and end-users. Be sure to check out their “links” page.

Institute for Culture and Ecology
The USDA National Agroforestry Center (NAC) in Lincoln, Nebraska , conducts research on how to design and install forested buffers to protect water quality and develops and delivers technology on a broad suite of agroforestry practices to natural resource professionals who directly assist landowners and communities. Their site has a good overview and publications that can be ordered:

What is Agroforestry?

“Forest Farming” publications

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities™ Partnership. A website established by rural leaders, wood products manufacturers and community-based nonprofits to seek market-driven solutions for forest restoration and community vitality.

An article on an Ohio-based wild medicinals grower appeared on NewFarm.org

United Plant Savers provides information on native plants and wildcrafting.
Ph: (740) 662-0041 Fax: (740) 662-0242
Email: info@unitedplantsavers.org

For cultivating mushrooms, check out Fungi Perfecti’s website.

Some WSU Extension web sites provide links to external sites for the convenience of users. These external sites are not managed by WSU Extension. Furthermore, WSU Extension does not review, control or take responsibility for the content of these sites, nor do these sites implicitly or explicitly represent official positions and policies of WSU Extension.
Small Farms Team, 2606 W. Pioneer, Washington State University, Puyallup, WA 98371-4998, Contact Us