Farming the Forest and Finding a Sustainable Balance
From maple tappers and mushroom grubbers to ginseng diggers and blueberry pickers, the people of the Catskills have long relied on the exploration and often the stewardship of the forest for sustenance. The relationship hasn’t always been mutually beneficial, however. In fact, human appetite has been the driving force behind the demise, or at least near demise, of some of the edible species we crave, like the passenger pigeon and Hudson River shad. Happily, the tides are beginning to turn in the Catskills, where a new kind of farming is keeping up the tradition of foraging and the region’s ecological integrity, too. Blending the worlds of agriculture and wild edibles, this new brand of forest farming takes diners deeper into what it really means to eat locally, while uniting two of the Catskills’ best assets: food and nature.
Although the region has been a getaway for painters, adventurers, botanists, birders and every other stripe of reveler-in-nature for the better part of three centuries, settlement in the Catskills never flourished the way it did in the Hudson Valley. The region’s beauty and proximity to well-established towns like the former state capital, Kingston, made it a favorable place for early European colonists, but Mother Nature had something different in mind: mountains and rocky soil, steep grades and unpredictable frosts thwarted traditional farming handily. In the Catskills, as the old saying goes, there’s “two stones for every dirt.” Walk the region’s countless abandoned pastures and reams of rock wall will testify to this bit of farmy wisdom. Out in the wilds, however, waits a veritable smorgasbord of wild foods: eel and trout spawn in pristine streams, deer and bear are overabundant, and the patchwork of varied habitat provides a rich and opulent source of edible plant life.
Working in harmony with the region’s environmental peculiarities, and responsibly utilizing what nature already offered, settlers discovered the path of least resistance when it came to food production— and it turned out it was quite delicious, too.
DESTRUCTION AND RENEWAL
To tell it true, however, the story of forest farming predates European settlers by hundreds of years: foraging for and cultivating wild foods was hardly a colonial innovation. It was actually the region’s native tribes—the Leni Lenape, Munsee and Mahicans— that first manipulated the forest for the sake of food. What were they after? Nuts. Chestnuts, that is, and acorns and hickories, too.
Traverse the lofty peaks of the Catskills forest preserve—the chunk of land containing the oldest tracts of the region’s forest—and, for the most part, you won’t find any of these trees. Hulking basswood, yellow birch and maple—denizens of the firstgrowth forest—have populated the preserve’s lands for thousands of years. Up until the early 19th century, the Catskills were thick with hemlock trees, but it was soon discovered that the naturally occurring tannins in the bark of the hemlock were a great boon to the tanning industry upriver, which resulted in a massive hemlock deforestation, and subsequent environmental degradation, throughout the region.
Oaks, hickories and chestnuts are uncommon in this protected landscape primarily because they require some sort of disturbance— usually a forest fire—to enable their establishment. All three genera have numerous physical and physiological traits that render them able to withstand fire, allowing them to thrive where other trees cannot. For the local tribes, fire was multifarious in its uses; it flushed game from the forest, prevented attacks from hostile neighbors and cleared the land. It also happened to eliminate plants that weren’t evolved to withstand its crackling flames—an outcome that favored their nut trees. Once the Native Americans figured this bit of botanical wisdom out, they used it to their stomach’s advantage: burning large tracts of forest, they gradually rid their land of unfavorable species, selecting only those that bore an edible offering. Therefore, when an oak emerges in the middle of the Catskills, its presence does not go unnoticed by those in the know. It has an important story to tell.
Forest historian and author of The Catskills Forest: A History Mike Kudish tracks the chestnut, oak and hickory to unravel that story and learn where Native Americans lived and farmed. Plumbing the depths of the Catskills’ typical beech-birch-maple forest, Mike snaps to attention when the black-lined fissures of red oak bark or the saw-toothed leaves of chestnut appear; “three words describe what happened here,” he says, clasping his hands in funereal seriousness: “burn, burn, burn.”
The sylvan valley of Dry Brook in Delaware County is the poster child of this story: its laurels, oaks and fire-loving heaths grow in patches along the valley’s sinuous folds and attest to the Native Americans’ long presence and predilection for the place. The acorns, chestnuts and hickories harvested from these forest farms were an important staple for Native Americans and were ground, mashed or eaten whole after the bitter tannins, in the case of acorns, were boiled off. Although these trees could take more than a decade to reach fruit production maturity, the nut orchards were self-sustaining and gradually spread outward along the tribes’ chosen settlement corridors. Tread the trails that wind through these ancient orchards, and the whole vegetative landscape is different—all in the name of good food.
The forests were set ablaze for another decidedly local and native food, too: the blueberry. At home in the acidic woodlands of the Catskills, several species of Vaccinium (the genus of shrubs that produces blueberries, lingonberries and cranberries) naturally occur on the thin, exposed soils on ridges or along open cliff faces. However, a portion of the land now enclosed within the Catskill Forest Preserve was once intentionally cultivated for blueberry and wintergreen—the smaller, minty cousin of blueberry. Accelerating the naturally occurring fire cycles of the oak-hickory-pine woods where members of the blueberry family are generally present, early fruit farmers (Europeans, Leni Lenape, Munsee and Mahicans alike) torched the understory, restoring fertility to the soil and eradicating the blueberry’s fire-intolerant competition. In doing so, they also happened to encourage more of the nut-producing threesome they esteemed so highly.
Just like the fires that encouraged nut trees, the first blueberry burns were lit years before Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would become his namesake. However, it wasn’t until European settlers started replicating the practice—despite greater population numbers in the immediate area—that the fires became infamous. Today, farms cultivating blueberries grow the high-bush variety, which does not require periodic burning. The endless acres of blueberries found in Maine (the kind you have to bend down and scoop up with a rake) are still managed with regular fires—particularly if the operation is pesticide-free. To see evidence of old burns, visit High Point Mountain in West Shokan, the site of perhaps the most frequent burning in all of the Catskills. On the trail that snakes up to the peak’s expansive viewpoint, shrubby laurels, thick oaks and dark streaks of charcoal blazoned on rocks reflect an old and storied history of hard usage. Other mountains such as Tobias, Overlook, Plattekill, Tremper, Samuel’s Point and Mombaccus bear similar signs.
Eventually New York State cracked down on the fruit-picking arsonists—many of whom were regular summertime visitors—and began to erect those iconic fire towers to maintain a more eagleeyed watch for potential flare-ups, whether manmade or naturally occurring. Rangers stationed at the towers would monitor for signs of dangerous blazes throughout the dry summer season. Although the last permanent fire observer ended his vigil in 1989, five towers still straddle the tops of some of the Catskills’ best-known mountains, where volunteers keep them open and operating. As for the blueberries, they continue to be a draw for visitors—particularly to the Shawangunks, where the state park advertises and encourages a pastime that’s been gobbled down each August for hundreds of years. Fortunately, modern-day pickers leave their matches at home.
Today, the cultivation and harvesting of wild foods is more about judicious wild lands management than slash-and-burn depredation. Although early foragers were not numerous, the fires they set were haphazard, and some were dangerous. Moreover, a single fire is all it takes to change vegetative communities and the whole host of organisms that rely on those plants: without a doubt these fires changed the face of the forests, forever. Nowadays, laws protect the flora and fauna found on state lands. Anyone removing living things from the forest must have a permit, and for good reason: pickers tend to get greedy and overreaching. In other states, like Tennessee, the wild ramps and ginseng that are so abundant in the Catskills have dwindled to record low numbers due to a glut of foragers who don’t pay mind to stewardship and are foraging these bits of flora into oblivion. The same is true in some places for the popular, asparaguslike fiddleheads. Burgeoning demand for wild edibles, and medicinals like goldenseal and ginseng, is not only creating controversy and competition among consumers and collectors but is driving the extirpation of these species, too. Although shopping for wild edibles is exciting, only patronize businesses that get their products from legally sourced locations. An easy way to check is to ask if harvests are taking place on private land. Although this may not mean their harvesting practices are sustainable, at least no conservation laws are being broken.
The best and brightest of foragers have a passion for food mingled with healthy respect for the lands that sustain their bounty. Foragers of this ilk will jump through whatever permitting hoops are required of them, and grow their own wild edibles to boot. The Catskills’ own Robert Beyfuss is one such person. Beyfuss spent years traveling the country acquiring specimens of American ginseng for a special collection grown for study at Cornell. He is considered a master of ginseng cultivation, as well as a leader in the field of agroforestry, and currently spends his time scouting and managing hundreds of acres of wildgrown ginseng. Sown in forest plots, the deliberately cultivated “king of herbs” (as ginseng is called) has a lengthy maturation period, but the practice ensures native populations are left untouched. And the region’s wild ginseng is known far and wide as the cream of the woodland crop. Although studies have failed to find a difference in potency between undomesticated versus cultivated ginseng, the market will pay up to $15,000 per pound of the gnarled and stunted wildgrown root. Not so for its domesticated counterpart.
As Beyfuss contends, “There’s something about wildgrown ginseng. It’s good for everything that ails you.”
Technically speaking, ginseng is medicinal in nature; it’s not a companion to the knife, fork and plate. However, the forest farm ethics and techniques Beyfuss uses on ginseng can, and are, applied to a number of other appetizing and edible wild crops—from the aromatic May apple to the elusive morel to the popular ramp. Rick Bishop’s (of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe) approach to ramp farming means never harvesting from the same patch of the slow-growing plants more than once every five years. In this way, foragers like Beyfuss and Bishop are bringing wild edibles into the realm of ethical eating, bridging the gap between enjoyment of foraged foods and sustainability with careful stewardship.
The recipe for forest farming success is in fact quite simple: Fell a couple of shade-producing trees, grub up any large shrubs, loosen the soil a little and voilà! Your own forest farm. To be safe, pick 10% or less of what’s available in a particular stand or patch. Of course, each species has different site requirements (i.e., ginseng likes rich, moist circumneutral forest soils), but in its bare essentials the strategy is straightforward and ethical, too. May apples in particular are an easy edible for small-scale gardeners to grow in this way. The plant’s umbrella-shaped leaf shelters a single fruit that, after months of ripening, yellows and dimples until it is redolent and sweet. It’s well worth the wait—if it can be grabbed before other forest creatures snap it up, that is. Although ginseng can’t be spotted through the leafy firmament of trees, acres upon acres of the crop are grown in woodlands throughout the Catskills, from Roxbury to Prattsville to Windham. Wing Hop Fung, a Chinese medicinal company based in Los Angeles, grows and sources its product here and is the best way to experience some seriously good, just-try-and-beat-it Catskills ginseng.
Many mushroom growers replicate the delicate art of forest food augmentation, too. Marilyn Wyman, a staff member of Greene County’s Agroforestry Resource Center, which is part of Cornell Cooperative Extension located just below Windham Peak, is a passionate proponent of forest conservation. She’s an advocate of productive—but careful—use of the region’s woodland resources, too. Growing her own shiitakes on large inoculated bolts of wood cut from her own lot, Marilyn also forages for oyster mushrooms, which can be grown using the same method. Affordable, and low maintenance, mushroom farming at home produces an earthy, meaty and far less expensive crop than what’s on sale at stores. It also means that wild stock isn’t overpicked, which has become a complex issue in fungi hotspots throughout the country. Wyman’s harvests are so good they’re apparently worth risking life and limb: During 2011’s Hurricane Irene, she recalls wading out to her flooded yard, storm bruising the sky above, all to save her bolts from the rising water.
Equipped with a connoisseur’s needle-sharp intuition, both Beyfuss and Wyman always have their eyes peeled for other forest fungi while out hiking. Occasional picking favorites include the shaggy mane, puffball, maitake and, the Eldorado of the mushroom world, the golden chanterelle. True to the age-old adage that the heart wants most that which it cannot have, the un-growable, all-too-ephemeral golden chanterelle is perhaps the most sought-after mushroom of all, selling for upward of $36 per pound. It just so happens to love the same oak forests that both the blueberry, and many generations of Catskill inhabitants have demonstrated a soft spot for as well.
Lots of restaurants in New York City flaunt wildforaged mushrooms and other forest sundries (Aska uses lichen, Momofuku black trumpets). Sustainably harvested or not, there’s an undeniable je ne sais quoi about eating wild foods—a rogueness perhaps, a closeness to the land that’s even closer than the farm can get you. Peruse the menus of some of these places (you can see a short list on grubstreet.com, for example), and more often than not species like miner’s lettuce and chickweed will pop up. Although jam-packed with antioxidants and zingy flavor, neither of these species is rare. Nor are they even native to our region. In fact, they’re common roadside weeds. The heavily targeted native species to cast an appraising eye over as they beckon from the shop-front shelves are ramps, ginseng and fiddleheads. Mushrooms are a little bit different: The part that you eat is actually just the fruit of an expansive subterranean fungus. Still, it’s always good to ask a couple of pointed questions. For a sampling of responsibly harvested and wild-grown mushrooms and some other interesting forest fare, visit Bees Knees Café at Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow. For a full viewing of licensed foragers—’shroomers, sangers or ramp pickers— go to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s webpage.
In these mountains, farming for food with reverence for the forest extends beyond the realm of wild food. In the pristine valleys and high meadows of the Catskills, farmers have flexed the principals of conservation to fit the more conventional agricultural industries of the region, too. The Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC), based in Delaware County, offers a program designed to give incentives to farmers who embrace conservation practices on their land. Farmers get help buying new equipment if they protect streamside land or manage manure to optimize the water quality of nearby tributaries and rivers.
Martin Bernstein owns a small organic farm in Neversink— within the watershed that WAC operates—and says the incentives make perfect sense. “If I care about the sustainability of my product,” he says. “I’ll make sure my stream banks are healthy and not eroding. I depend on the quality of my land as an ecosystem to make my farm healthier.”
The Department of Environmental Conservation has some perks of its own to dole out, too: If forest owners enroll their woods in a forest management plan, the state offers hefty tax cuts. Lowimpact food-producing industries such as maple tapping or mushroom and ginseng growing are not only allowed, but they might win farmers an additional tax cut from the county, for an agricultural exemption, too. The outcome of all this incentivizing is an admission of something foragers and die-hard wild-foodies have instinctively known all along: nature and nourishment are a winning combination. In fact, the two might be inseparable. From our forests to our fork, the environment, and good stewards of that environment, have a role to play in food production. Here in the Catskills, the future of wild eating looks bright.
A SAMPLING OF FOREST FARE
FROM THE CATSKILS
Mushrooms*: golden chanterelle,
maitake (hen-of-the-woods), oyster,
puffball, shaggy mane, shiitake
*Wild mushrooms can be highly poisonous. Seek the advice of a trained forager or expert before selecting and sampling.