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Last updated October 14, 2005

The concept of Woody Agriculture

Use of the phrase "Woody Agriculture" is very recent, and unfamiliar to most. The capsule description given above is succinct, but may leave the reader with some questions. Is it really possible to grow staple food commodities on woody plants? Could woody plants be as productive as annuals? If so, why isn't it done now?

Woody plants: Overlooked potential

Woody plants are seldom considered for intensive development as producers of staple foodstuffs. Historically, the only trees that have contributed in a major fashion to world food supplies have been the date, oil, and coconut palms, and possibly the olive. Most trees are commonly perceived as rather unproductive, slow growing, or unreliable, and seem unattractive for serious food production.

On examination of the dynamics of these plants, however, it appears likely that trees and other woody plants have been greatly underestimated in regard to their potential for true domestication.

Incorrect assumptions about woody plants as staple food producers

There appear to be several unstated and unexamined assumptions agricultural researchers commonly make about woody plants, which may in fact not hold true.

Incorrect assumption 1: Woody plants produce seed crops too erratically to be relied on for basic food production.

This assumption has the invulnerability of the half-truth: wild trees commonly produce seed crops erratically. However, the evidence is very clear that this is not because consistent production is impossible, but because it is ecologically the better course for a wild tree. Experience with many fruit trees shows that consistent bearing has a large genetic component. Chestnut, in particular, belies this assumption, in that even wild stands produce good seed crops with relatively minor fluctuations.

Incorrect assumption 2: It is not possible to produce wood and food (seed) simultaneously.

This assumption is again based primarily on wild or semi-domesticated trees. Research on Short Rotation Intensive Cropping (SRIC), however, has demonstrated that strains of woody plants specifically selected for maximum fiber production achieve an annual carbon fixation rate approximately 3 times that of one-crop maize. This means there is 3 times as much energy flowing through the plant. There is no barrier to allocating this energy differently through breeding or cultural technique, so that, for example, 1/3 goes to harvestable seed, 1/3 to wood, and 1/3 to energy storage for the next season. Again, chestnuts provide a crop pre-adapted to these requirements: wild chestnuts produce nut crops annually, and also produce wood 30-50% faster than oaks growing in the same area.

Incorrect assumption 3: Woody plants take too long to breed.

Badgersett Research Farm has bred 2 different lines of hybrid chestnuts which produce flowers within 2 months of seedling germination. This is possible with other species as well.

Read more

Part 3: Market potential for two woody plant crops
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