Semi-Strategic Thinking on NTFP’s

Picking up on the topic of non-timber forest (AKA wildcrafting) products, here are what I think are some starting points for understanding their place in the larger healing-the-planet story.

1. NTFP’s are currently economically marginal, and only harvested and used by a tiny minority of people in North America.  This makes sense, since even the most commercialized NTFP’s (maple syrup and ginseng) make up less than half of one percent of total US crop production in terms of dollars sold.  (Guesstimated based on this, this, and this.)

2. But, they matter a great deal at those margins in terms of food, medicine, and financial security, since most people who actively harvest, use, and sell wildcrafting products live in financially poor rural communities, and therefore have fewer margins in general for hard times.

3. And, wildcrafting products have mattered much more in the past for food security and local economies than they do currently.  Whole complex societies (i.e. indigenous people) throughout the world have made their entire livelihood from their surrounding landscape, with NTFP’s making up a significant portion (or all, in the absence of domesticated crops) of their plant-based diets, for the entirety of human history.  This isn’t a foodie fad – it’s the oldest form of interaction between people and plants on the planet.  And it’s not limited to native people – non-indigenous rural cultures around North America made significant use of wild plants for centuries as well.  (This is one reason why the functional extinction of the American chestnut had such a significant impact on Appalachia.)  In a post-fossil-peak economy these local resources are likely to matter much more again and be more valued again as a result.

4. Also, and importantly, NTFP’s have multiple high-value present-day ecological and cultural yields beyond just calories, nutrients, and active constituents.  In particular, local plants are still central to the food, medicine, material, and ceremonial culture of native people around the planet (the Northern Maine NTFP report I linked to earlier gives great examples of this for the St. John River watershed and by extension much of the Northeast).  Since (in my opinion) the ecological and cultural sovereignty of native people is one of the Very Important Things in the world right now, access to land and harvesting permission for native people around traditional wildcrafting products is a major, important area of work and attention in every bioregion.

And wildcrafting directly involves people, whether they’re indigenous-heritage or not, in their local ecosystem in a very intimate and unique way.  My experience mentoring students in wildcrafting is that it parts the “wall of green” (i.e., all of the natural world looks the same) for good, and opens up a major new world of learning and interaction with the landscape.  I think more people involved in cycles of harvesting and caretaking their local plant populations is a good, good thing for people’s health and happiness, for preserving and increasing heritage biodiversity, for regrowing local ecological knowledge, for monitoring changes in ecosystems as larger changes in the planet’s systems take place, and for community resilience and well-being through who-knows-what in the future.  And it’s such a specialized realm of knowledge that I think mentoring, and facilitating powerful learning and connection experiences, is the major leverage point for regenerating wildcrafters and the use of NTFP’s.

That said, there’s certainly reason for concern (and lots of historical precedent) around overharvesting, and one reason why American ginseng is so financially valuable is that it’s practically extinct in much of its former range.  So another area of attention is in the kind of knowledge that gets passed to the next generation, and the culture of ethics and practices by NTFP harvesters.  In other words, if there are 20 people in a given region who are causing the local populations of ethnobotanical plants to increase, rather than decrease, that’s a recipe for more people experiencing more land connection, and a more viable long-term cultural relationship with those plants in that place.  And for the above-mentioned benefits of those relationships to come to greater fruition.

A final topic I’ll mention is creating polyculture cropping systems for growing NTFP’s in more pseudo-commercial enterprises without sacrificing ecosystem services or biodiversity.  For example, many old sugar maples stands have the right soil chemistry to grow ginseng and/or goldenseal well.  The work cycles and ecological niches of the maples and the herbs are non-overlapping in time and space, and there’s no practical reason why medicinals can’t be added to the sugarbush except pre-existing limitations around investments, markets, etc.  In fact, the nutrient cycling benefits of those spring ephemerals could benefit the sugar maples on the margins even as the maples provide the microclimate for the herbs.  I think one hopeful strategy could be to target overharvested NTFP’s in a given bioregion and develop polyculture enterprise plans for meeting the local demand for them without depleting the local wild stands.

This last bit is pretty speculative, and as such it’s ripe for some “think and do tank” work as well as all the untapped learning that’s out there for us about regenerative harvesting of wild stands and managing for high-yielding landscapes.

And on and on.  And good gracious this has been wordy.  Can you tell I’m in graduate school now??

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3 Responses to Semi-Strategic Thinking on NTFP’s

  1. Love it, thanks Connor.

  2. Ben Kessler says:

    – Some of the conceptual-emotional disconnect between the land-goods and their people may stem from, or at least be exacerbated, by the language used to describe them. Except where a double-entendre is present, acronyms are onomatopoetically barren, connotatively meaningless utterances or inscriptions. No wonder people have crummy or confusing relationships with basket willows, gooseberries, and salmon when they talk about these creatures as NTFP’s. While it is certainly the scientific standard to reduce the unquantifiable connotative meaning in language to its bare, denotative minimum, those of us playing in those fields need not allow this most impoverished form of language to parch our own native eloquence.

    I do not fear for your own capacity to blow and have your mind blown by the glorious encompassing green wild, but for the rising generations who hear the acronym or isolate term first, and must integrate the numinous qualities unaided by the common tongue. The Maidu, and many other peoples, were wise to recognize a common name for every organism describing its practical characteristics (i.e. hisdom chu’pi, “bundles of middle-length sticks for the supportive walls of a basket”, a.k.a. ‘grey willow’) and a secret name, given by the organism itself and spoken only in a ritual context. There’s a great future to be found in binomial nomenclature…

    Anyway, my point (I’ve got one, I swear!) is that one cannot be one of those good NTFP caretakers who cause their local forest-home to burgeon with good medicine plants if one thinks and speaks of those plants as “NTFP’s”. Language is one of those invisible structures, and a mighty powerful and pervasive one. To walk the walk, you’ve got to talk the talk.

    But most importantly: Yes! Let’s go into the woods to gather, to eat, to build, to tend, to celebrate! Maples and ginseng- it’s a match made in Eden.

    Hi-ho Academia, away!

  3. As a producer, from the US with access to technology the stereotypical, rural poor harvesting for home use and selling a little on the side- does not fit. I don’t know where you got your profiles – perhaps in other nations. I might suggest, that in terms of 4 staple industrial,of course – the special market does not weigh in. However, given the rise in local food movements and wild food’s gourmet markets, ntfps might represent a more than subssistance life style, especially when products carry certifications. In many circumstances special forest products can represent an extremely high value per acre in common agricultural yields. Exploring the concept of production values with SFPs should be considered in terms of high end market and simple value added processing.
    As in this time, it is forward thinking to make as many species as possible opportunities for man-kind, I would urge you to rethink in different terms.

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