Winslow Food Forest brings agroforestry system to Boring

If you visit the Winslow Food Forest looking for rigid rows of leafy produce, expect a surprise.

Here, sweet strawberries ripen alongside pungent garlic. Thyme and sage sit in the shade of a young pear tree. Even botanicals not destined for anyone’s dinner plate have a patch of dirt, too. Bee-friendly dandelions poke up between plant bed edges, while ornamental sea berry does its part to enrich the soil.

To the average weekend gardener, it may seem like a mess, but to Teague and Melissa Cullen, it’s perfect. The couple hopes it could change the future, too. POST PHOTO: ELIZABETH KELLAR - Teague and Melissa Cullen of Winslow Farm Forest are entering their third growing season in Boring. In short, a food forest aims to mimic a forest ecosystem with edible plants, providing numerous environmental benefits.

“We produce a lot of food here, just like any other farm, but the way we do it is a little different,” Melissa said.

Their food forest exists on about five acres in Boring. They are headed into their third growing season on the property. Prior to moving out to the farm, the couple lived in Portland for about eight years, where they became increasingly interested in gardening. Neither has a formal degree in the subject, although they are now both certified permaculture designers.

As they became more drawn to gardening, one subject that drew their attention was food forestry, an agroforestry system that Teague describes as mimicking a forest ecosystem with edible plants.

“The idea is the plants are happier and need less attention from humans,” he said.

A food forest, like a regular forest, exists in stacked levels. Most food forests have five or seven levels, but can have as many as nine. Fruits, nuts, vegetables, mushrooms and herbs grow at different heights and levels. The advantage to a food forest is that it creates a more diverse crop, and can be more self-sustaining than other types of farming.

For example, leaves that die off or are trimmed from the higher levels filter down into mulch for the lower levels. Shade from the top tiers creates a canopy on scorching summer days. The diversity of a food forest can also be more welcoming to pollinators and other insects, encouraging a balanced environment that doesn’t require chemicals to fend off unwanted pests.

Food forestry supporters believe the approach also combats the dangers of modern agriculture, which can include crop blight and the use of dangerous pesticides. Also, many of the plants that are used in forest farming are perennials or trees, giving them a longer lifespan.

“A food forest will outlive the people who plant it, whereas a corn crop will stop producing when someone stops tending it,” Melissa explained.

Food forestry is not a new concept. The Cullens note that many indigenous cultures raised their edibles in food forests. Japan has a tradition of food forests, and a 2,000-year-old food forest was also uncovered in Morocco.

“This is something people have been doing way before modern agriculture,” Melissa said.

The couple also is committed to bringing uncommon edibles to their farm to encourage crop biodiversity — another way they differ from modern agriculture. In their greenhouse, they are raising different types of Andean tubers and a dozen varieties of tomatoes.

Some of those items can be found by visiting their stand at the Mt. Hood Farmer’s Market from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays at 38600 Proctor Blvd. They also sell at the People’s Farmer’s Market from 2-7 p.m. on Wednesdays at 3029 SE 21st Ave. in Portland.

Winslow Food Forest also supplies nurseries in Portland and has a harvest share program.

The Cullens hope that their burgeoning success will encourage others to think about how their food is raised, and to perhaps even dig into their own food forest.

“We say you can have that beauty, and it can produce something, too,” Melissa said.

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