Harvesting wooded lands for food

By Sheilla Jones

Manitoba’s wooded lands have the potential for a bountiful harvest—not just of wood—but of food, and that’s what WAM’s Woodland Farm Food Project is studying.

The new project, with funding from the Growing Visions program of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (MAFRD), will examine the viability of growing and harvesting wild foods across the southern part of the province.

“When we think of wild foods in wooded lands,” said Mike James, who is leading the study, “people usually think of birch or maple syrup, wild mushrooms and chokecherries. But there is so much more.

James, who is a certified trainer in non-timber forest products (NTFPs), has been teaching workshops in Manitoba on how to utilize resources on wooded lands, including consumables.

He said the Woodland Farm Food Project builds on previous work done in the province by the Manitoba Model Forest and the Northern Development Centre, which focussed mainly on forested areas in the North and on First Nations lands. The difference with the WAM project is that the focus has shifted to wooded lands in Manitoba’s agricultural zone.

“It’s not just what people can harvest from woodlots,” said James, “but about enhancing what they have by adding their own plantings, and by growing wild foods in gardens and greenhouses. There are plants such as stinging nettles, new-growth spruce buds and dandelion leaves that are very nutritional and can be substituted for salad greens and vegetables. We can even cultivate ‘weeds’ like pigweed and sheep sorrel for their high nutritional value.”

The challenge in getting such foods to market, he notes, appears to be the lack of a strategy that can allow landowners to move beyond a few, scattered niche markets.

“There seems to be quite a bit of interest in harvesting wild foods,” said James. “What people seem to be looking for is guidance, and marketing ideas such as the development of a co-operative.”

James said the examination of the successes and challenges of wild food production in Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia is underway. He is working with arborist Ken Fosty, who is also certified in NTFPs.

James and Fosty will also be assessing the “inventory” of existing wild food production in Manitoba, and the potential for enhanced use of wooded farm lands to grow wild foods. Fosty has considerable knowledge of the make-up of wooded lands in the province. As the former woodlot management plan officer for the Manitoba Forestry Association, he has conducted over a thousand woodland assessments.

James and Fosty expect to complete their study on the viability of harvesting and marketing wild foods in Manitoba and report on their findings in May 2015.

The Growing Visions program is part of a federal and provincial government initiative, which has invested $176-million in strategic initiatives in Manitoba in its current five-year plan.

This program boosts industry capacity by assisting organizations such as WAM to help develop and implement strategic plans that position the organization to lead the sector forward.

Find out more about the Growing Visions program at MAFRD.

The Manitoba Woodlot, Issue 106, September/October