New Initiative Connects the Northeast’s Forest Farmers

The Forest School at the Yale School of the Environment has helped establish the Northeast Forest Farmers Coalition, an education and outreach program designed to help the region’s forest landowners build forest farming operations.

When defining forest farming, the phrase “seeing the forest for the trees” has never felt more apt.

“To me, it’s such an obvious but underappreciated type of forestry work,” says Karam Sheban ’20 MF. “The understory is often largely ignored, even though that is where most of the forest’s biodiversity is.”

Sheban,  a former postgraduate researcher with The Forest School at the Yale School of the Environment and now the Director of Sustainable Forestry for the nonprofit Rural Action in Ohio, is leading the Northeast Forest Farmers Coalition, a new initiative that aims to establish a community of forest farmers across the northeast U.S. The coalition will bring together universities, nonprofits, businesses, and other organizations to conduct research and provide education and outreach to landowners to grow forest farming operations in the region.

Anna Plattner, the manager of the ginseng farm where Karam Sheban completed his master's research, tends to a plot of ginseng. (Photo courtesy of Karam Sheban)

The NFFC was made possible by a $250,000 grant from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, earmarked for forest farming research and landowner education. Sheban and the NFFC will work closely with The Forest School, particularly YSE faculty members Marlyse Duguid ’10 MF, 16 PhD, director of research at Yale Forests, and Joe Orefice ’09 MF, director of forest and agricultural operations at Yale Forests. Three YSE students are also working with the NFFC, one of whom will stay in a postgraduate research position into 2023.

Work began in fall 2021 to establish research plots in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut, where the NFFC can invite potential forest farmers for demonstrations on growing five understory herbs: American ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh, bloodroot, and ramps. 

This spring, NFFC has begun hosting a series of educational workshops, online events, and other hands-on learning opportunities. Sheban says the NFFC is also continuing to conduct research on the plots, while also identifying additional opportunities for agroforestry research and fieldwork to create a strong network of landowners to share information and resources.

Sheban first got involved with forest farming after his undergraduate studies at Ohio State University, volunteering as an AmeriCorps member with Rural Action in southeast Ohio. The experience opened his eyes to potential of non-timber forest products and inspired him to attend YSE, where he worked closely with Duguid on forest farming research, conducting his master’s research on a 1,000-acre ginseng farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains. .

The idea for the NFFC, Sheban says, came from his time with Rural Action. He worked closely with the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmers Coalition, spearheaded by Virginia Tech University, which brought various groups together to share resources and create a network of forest farmers.

“It was such an effective model, to move these stakeholders out of their siloes and realize their shared identity,” Sheban says. 

In addition to the NFFC, The Forest School has also recently introduced the Maple Education and Extension program, an initiative that will provide resources for aspiring sugar producers across southern new England. The two programs have the shared goal of promoting the adoption of temperate agroforestry systems throughout the northeast U.S.

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