Posted June 23, 2023 at 09:19am by Kelly Dolan
The Intervale Center: Enhancing foraging, food-forward conservation, and a budding community food forest
By Sydney Blume
Photos by Michael Z. Weiss
Each month, Farm to Plate will be featuring stories of Vermont farmers using agroforestry related practices. These stories and related mapping project were created by recent UVM Food System's graduate Sydney Blume in collaboration with Farm to Plate's Agroforestry Priority Strategy Team. To see other featured stories, visit the Vermont Agroforestry Storytelling Map.
The miles of meandering trails in the 360 acres managed by the Intervale Center pass by a handful of working farms and community gardens, through old-growth silver maple forests, and along the Winooski River, but there’s even more here than meets the eye. The farms are on affordable leased land and share equipment, a helpful leg-up for beginning farmers. The People’s Farm grows food for low-income community members with volunteer assistance. The Conservation Nursery grows native trees and shrubs for restoration projects across the state. And tucked into the forest, alongside the river, around forest edges, and in soggy fields that farms have fled, young, edible fruit and nut trees and shrubs are growing.
This steady integration of more food-producing perennial plants into the Intervale’s diverse landscape is an ongoing project that only recently has been understood as agroforestry. One key figure in the agroforestry development at the Intervale has been Duncan Murdoch, the Natural Areas Stewardship Coordinator. On a bright winter day in the cozy historic farmhouse office, Duncan shared his agroforestry story over cups of tea.
Duncan was born in Burlington and started out in the local food system young, with his first job at Shelburne Orchards selling apples. After an arts degree and a career in acting in New York, he returned to his home state of Vermont to “be in nature and to take care of nature in community” because he found that was what felt best. Aligned with that compass, Duncan became a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide and also started working at the Intervale Conservation Nursery, growing and planting native trees and shrubs in riparian buffers all over the state. From there, he moved on to a career in the Intervale’s Land Stewardship Department where he cares for and manages the forests on the Intervale’s land base. It was in this work of planting trees, managing for invasive species, and stewarding the forest that Duncan’s work first began solidly growing connections to forests and food and fortifying this existing relationship through intentional agroforestry.
Duncan cites the origin of his agroforestry focus as when he first began stewarding the land for foraging, especially in seeing the depletion of Ostrich Ferns in the Ostrich Fern Silver Maple River and Floodplain Forest, likely due to the overharvesting of fiddleheads . It was then, he says, that he “started to see this connection between food access and ecosystem function” and considered the relevance of forest restoration efforts to food sovereignty. Many people were harvesting edible plants from the Intervale’s forests, especially the delectable young sprouts of Ostrich Ferns which are known as fiddleheads, a delectable seasonally-limited forest forage, but an overharvesting of fiddleheads in a limited landscape meant that ferns were dying and populations were getting drastically low.
Rather than prohibit harvesting, the Intervale’s approach was to spread awareness of an Ethical Foraging Guide , written with community partners and drawing from inspiration like Robin Wall Kimmer’s Honorable Harvest. They also started to include the community in the intentionally planting of hundreds of Ostrich Ferns in the forest as a restoration effort. It was key to acknowledge the forest as an important food source and to tailor conservation efforts to steward forest food plants to both care for the health of the forests and the health of the community. As Duncan said, it was a transition to see the forested area as “a breadbasket for people to be nourished, not only through traditional agricultural systems and practices, but also in the ‘wild spaces,’ so [we wanted] to make sure that there are still plants here that people can forage, and then also look at intentionally planting perennial plants for people to access food.”
On another side of the same overharvesting coin, Duncan’s work integrating food sovereignty and conservation work also came into play as he monitored and managed invasive species. “I was like, hey,” Duncan said, “let's think about these plants in a different way; let's not frame it as a war. Think about these plants as an ally and a collaborator, and even a resource for medicine, and food.” Knotweed, which grows abundantly and invasively along Vermont’s waterways, is a tasty asparagus-like green and can be used as medicine for Lyme’s disease. Garlic mustard makes delicious pesto. On the flipside of stewarding to prevent overharvesting, Duncan’s approach to stewarding the forest includes over-harvesting the invasive species, supporting the health of the forest's native species while also contributing to “food and wellness sovereignty.” As Duncan puts it, this work with invasives and fiddleheads started to make the connection between “standard conservation” and agroforestry, a link he says he didn’t see at the time, but now actively amplifies and focuses on.
Agroforestry is loosely defined as the intentional integration of trees and agriculture. Currently, while foraging is not a recognized practice of agroforestry, it does exist in a gray area and generally fits the definition if the forest is managed to enhance forage. As Duncan explains, currently “foraging in the ‘wild’ doesn’t constitute agroforestry, but forest farming [which is generally understood as cultivating high-value plants under forest cover] is starting to go in that direction.” But a key difference that he notes is that “forest farming is [conceived as] for markets, but this is a different model where it's for free community access.” For example, soon, Duncan will be spreading mushroom logs around the trails, “the idea is to distribute these logs all throughout the trails, so you can come upon these mushrooms growing and then you can harvest them.”
Now, Duncan’s work stewarding land at the Intervale is taking a decidedly agroforestry-influenced approach. Part of this is shifting the approach of the Intervale Conservation Nursery. While, true to their name, the Conservation Nursery is focused on conservation, they do already grow a number of native edible perennials like elderberry and hickory for riparian buffers or other conservation zones. Duncan says that he’s “trying to just amplify those [edible] species a little bit more and consider them for agroforestry buffer installations, so it could be like a conservation strip and then an intentional row of elderberries.” Importantly for Duncan, these edible plants don’t necessarily need a market outlet. He says, it “doesn't even have to be for market, but it could just be for the farm and their family and their neighbors to come over and harvest elderberries.” This impact addresses a key underlying goal of Duncan’s work: to help people connect to the land and become more deeply rooted to nature.
In Duncan’s work as Intervale Land Steward and also as a Forest Bathing Facilitator, he supports activities that help people connect to nature. As he says, “forest bathing is connecting through mindfulness and opening up your senses to nature, and then here [at the Intervale], it's about connecting to nature through stewardship and through eating.” Eating from the land creates a more tangible connection as well because, Duncan says, “as we consume food, we become more one with where that food has sourced from. It's a direct connection to the land and to the beings there. You are becoming one with nature.” With the Intervale as the largest agricultural and forested area in the heart of Burlington, this space is especially vital to facilitating that connection, both through the food that is grown and the food that is foraged. Duncan’s work in agroforestry coalesces around this goal.
“My main goal is more like, I want people to come down to the Intervale and just be like, in awe of all that's delicious and free -- like food grows on trees, and I just think that's so cool. And we can intentionally create this environment over time.”
The Intervale’s agroforestry work extends beyond conservation and forest management and into agroforestry projects that are exploring viability for farms that might be more restrained in their experimentation. Duncan shared that the Intervale has been working closely with Meghan Giroux, the North East’s resident expert on agroforestry and founder of Interlace Commons. With Meghan, they are expanding an agroforestry riparian buffer alongside the Calkins Trail and the Winooski River.
Additionally, the Intervale is expanding a test plot of elderberry and aronia berries, also known as chokeberries. Neither elderberries nor chokeberries are known for being palatable to eat fresh – raw elderberries have some mild toxicity and chokeberries are quite astringent – so Duncan and the Intervale team are aiming to demonstrate the market feasibility of value-added products such as syrups and distributing them in their existing food access networks. “We will be exploring the market viability of certain plants – though we'll be giving [the products] away – but we'll be tracking it and demonstrating the feasibility and what it takes to do that for farms.” This project is following up on a 2016 project with UVM Extension that planted 100 aronia and elderberry plants in a plot at the Intervale, but has since been somewhat dormant. Now, Duncan and the team are bringing the space back to life and adding even more agroforestry species, like pears, peaches, apples, juneberries, and currants, which were donated to the Intervale through a generous grant from North Star Leasing via Branch Out Burlington in Burlington. Both the riparian buffer, aronia and elderberry syrups, and integration of more agroforestry tree species is part of a larger effort to experiment, and model agroforestry for other farms.
“We as the Intervale Center need to get a hang of what it takes to make it before we encourage farmers to try it. So the center of our approach will be experimenting. We will be doing these kind of separate projects to show and to illustrate to these farms that, ‘Look: this is something you can do. And it makes sense.’ Because we can't ask farms to try something new that they can't afford.”
While this effort to experiment and demonstrate serves to address some of the existing barriers to adopting agroforestry like questions around market feasibility or a lack of visibility of existing models, Duncan highlights another barrier that is especially relevant for farms in the Intervale, but also nationwide: leasing farmland. While some of the farms on leased land have stable long-term leases, the perennial plants in agroforestry systems are inherently long-term investments. While fast-growing trees planted for timber and certain fruiting shrubs may have a harvestable turnaround in less than five years, some fruit and nut trees may not produce a sizeable harvest for at least ten years after planting. For farms that typically see returns on their investments within a year, that can be a tough decision to make, and even more so if their land tenure is not stable, which is the case for many US farms because currently 54% of US cropland is rented.
One way Duncan is working through the challenges of leased-land farmers is by proposing agroforestry in the non-farm areas of the Intervale, but this provides its own challenges. “If we're not going to involve farms, what areas can we do that in? And how can we make sure we have the capacity to manage?” Drawing inspiration from the over 80 community food forests around the country, the management of these agroforestry spaces may come from community volunteers. With the renaissance of the aronia and elderberry plot, the Intervale People’s Orchard has been born, ready to be tended to by the Intervale Agroforestry Team . Community efforts kicked off during Earth Week with a community tree planting work day.
Duncan’s approach to agroforestry through conservation and land stewardship, he hopes, will shift the conversation on what is possible in conservation work. “Conservation isn't just protecting an area by not touching it. I mean, there's a time and place for that. But conservation involves stewardship.” Here, Duncan draws attention back to the Abenaki as the original stewards and inhabitants of the land the Intervale resides on. He adds that part of this stewardship is finding more sustainable ways to produce food.
Agroforestry, in all its various applications, serves this goal. Duncan says that agroforestry “is a more sustainable way to cultivate food, I think. [Since] you're putting in perennials, you don't have to replant annually, so it saves a lot of energy that way. And also, a lot of them are going to be trees, so they’re sequestering carbon.” Overall, he says, “I think it's a different model of farming that, if integrated, will improve our climate. And it's also not new. It's based on practices that were going on before colonization and the monocrop system. It's going back to a more sustainable way of growing and interacting and being with nature and in relationship to nature and your food.” At the end of the day, finding this approach that integrates conservation and food production has allowed Duncan to integrate many dimensions of his passions and aspects of his work. “The Intervale here is really all about food access, and when I first came in here, I was like, ‘what does my job have to do with this at all? Planting trees and shrubs?’ Now, it's all come together.”
If you are interested in getting involved in the Intervale’s agroforestry work, you are welcome to add your email to this list to stay updated about volunteer days and joining an Agroforestry Team, and are welcome to ethically forage in the Intervale.