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  • Writer's pictureEllen

Farming the Forest

When we think of a farm, we usually think of open fields, rows of crops, greenhouses, barns, and other "productive" parts where most of our time and energy is focused. These are the things we see from the road, the places our boots tread every day, the features that any child would draw when asked to picture a farm.

But this is only part of the picture. Our farm also includes ponds, rivers, woods, and swamps. Of the farm's 200 acres, roughly half is taken up by fields and buildings. The other 100 acres is a beautiful forest, filled with maple trees, cherry trees, hemlocks, beech trees, and birches. These acres are not wasted space. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they are an important part of the farm's ecosystem, and maintaining a healthy forest is an integral part of managing the farm as a whole.

We like to think of maple syrup as our first "crop" of the year. Although it doesn't come from a greenhouse or a row planted in a field, maple syrup is harvested from our land just like any other crop. And like all plants, maple trees need a few basic things to thrive: water, light, nutrients, and healthy soil. One of Curt's first tasks of the new year is thinning the sugar bush. Cutting small, scrawny trees out of the sugar bush opens up the canopy and allows more sunlight to reach our larger, more productive maple trees. Soon those maples will grow and spread to fill the gaps in the canopy, freed from competition with their crowded neighbors. Larger trees with bigger crowns produce more sap, which means more delicious maple syrup!

Trees that are cut down are not wasted. These smaller trees are perfect for growing shiitake mushrooms on logs. While oak is often touted as the best wood for shiitakes, they do just fine on sugar maple! The logs are cut into 3 foot long bolts, which will be inoculated with shiitake mushroom spawn later in the spring. After the bolts are inoculated, we stack them in a shady hemlock grove in a different part of the forest. The hemlocks keep the logs cool and protect them from drying out. Every part of the forest has its own unique role to play.

Larger trees will be sawed into boards, giving shape to the house, barn, farm stand, and other buildings around the farm. Branches are cut into firewood, to help boil sap in the evaporator or heat the house through the long, cold northern winter. The smallest branches and tree tops are left in the forest. These brush piles are important habitat for native species like grouse, rabbits, and voles. As they decompose they will become cool, damp spots for salamanders and wood frogs to hide.

Perhaps more important than what we cut down is what we leave standing. Although sugar maples and red maples are the only trees that produce maple syrup, we like to have a mix of other tree species in our sugar bush. Species diversity is important for maintaining a healthy ecosystem on the farm, and the forest is no different. Large wild cherry trees and beech are scattered among the maples, helping to maintain soil microbial diversity and reduce maple tree pests. We even leave a few old, dead snags standing. These hollow trees make great homes for downy woodpeckers, screech owls, and other native birds. Last year, a barred owl raised her three babies in the woods near our sugar shack.

We love our woods, and it is one of our favorite places on the farm. Not only does it provide delicious maple syrup and mushrooms, but it's a beautiful, shady place to walk on a hot summer day. It's filled with birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and plants that bring diversity and resilience to our farm's ecosystem. It's a living, breathing thing, and an integral part of Little Salmon Farm.

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