Fruit Picture from Harvest: Food Forest Ketelbroek, Groesbeek NL

Initiative for more sustainable agriculture in the border region

Climate change is making conventional agriculture increasingly difficult. Alternative approaches are needed which withstand extreme weather conditions. So-called food forests, a marginal phenomenon so far, offer potential here. Over the past six months, the Institute of Geography at Osnabrück University has been working with the Huize Aarde Foundation in Enschede, the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Kleve and the Voedselbosbouw Nederland Foundation in Lelystad to investigate the potential for food forests in the German-Dutch border region. The “Regenerative Agriculture” research project was co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the Germany-Netherlands Interreg VIA program.

In order to bring the food forest approach out of its niche, concepts for the promotion and professionalization of food forestry are to be developed. The aim is to develop food forests on a number of German and Dutch demonstration areas, where work will then be carried out with farmers to professionalize the food forest approach. “One of the objectives is to test how robotics can be used to simplify harvesting, which has been very time-consuming up to now,” explains Alfons Uijtewaal from the Huize Aarde Foundation. The consortium achieved to identify twelve farmers which want to participate with their land. Also companies interested in commercialize the products of the food forests have been identified during this project.

Food forests are multifunctional systems that combine agriculture, horticulture and forestry on the same land. This type of food production does not use manure, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. “The food forest mimics the structure of natural forests and has a variety of plant species that correspond to the natural forest floors,” explains Prof. Dr. Martin Franz from the Institute of Geography at the University of Osnabrück. Tall chestnut or walnut trees are combined with lower apple, cherry and pear trees. Hazelnut bushes and various types of berries are then planted under these.

“After a growth period of 10 to 15 years, these forests can produce up to 10,000 kilos of food and other products per hectare per year,” reports Nicolaas Geijer from the Voedselbosbouw Nederland Foundation on experiences from the Netherlands. Several food forests have already been planted in the Netherlands over the last 20 years. “We can now learn from the experience gained there in order to professionalize the approach,” adds Geijer. To this end, the project team is now planning a follow-up project with more partners from the region.

If nature is allowed to take its course in the food forest, this can lead not only to improved soil fertility but also to improved pollination and the prevention of disease outbreaks in plants. “In addition to the yields from wood and fruit or nuts, farms also benefit from an improved microclimate, a healthy environment, greater carbon sequestration and better water quality and storage in the food forest. The food forest also serves as an ecologically valuable habitat for various animal and plant species,” adds Prof. Dr. Tobias Wünscher from the Faculty of Life Sciences at Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences.

Nij Boelens Nahrungswald, Boelenslaan, Friesland, NL 
© Marianne Hazeleger - van der Linde