Sumptuous feast from the forest
Brandon Tennis' vision is as novel as it is delectable. It involves walking through Lancaster County woods and filling his dinner plate.
From the dark, springy soil, he'd pull heaps of groundnuts, a wild tuber that's tastier than sweet potatoes and packs three times the protein.
Next, he'd dig up ramps, or wild leeks, flavorful as spring onions but with a pleasant garlicky twist.
Venturing into the shadows, Tennis would pluck shiitake, maitake and oyster mushrooms as well as the satisfying, pumpkin-colored fungus known as chicken of the woods.
From fruit trees, Tennis would pick mulberries, serviceberries, paw paws, persimmons, plums, pears, apples and cherries. Nuts would come from other trees: heartnuts, walnuts, filberts, hazelnuts and pecans.
And from the understory of his dream forest Tennis would harvest raspberries, blackberries, currants, jostaberries and gooseberries. "The flavor would be exploding," he says.
Is your mouth watering yet?
Coming upon such abundance in the woods wouldn't be a surprise, but a consequence of creative cultivation. Tennis would know where to find savory bounty in every rise and hollow of his dream forest because he would have designed it, planted it and watched it blossom.
He would have nurtured the native plants already present and introduced many others to contribute to his feast, either directly as food or indirectly as soil replenishers and homes to beneficial insects.
Tennis' vision is about creating Lancaster County's first food forest.
Food forest? It's an idea as old as indigenous peoples who managed forests to increase food yields from native plants. And it's an idea as new as a bushy, seven-acre tract in the middle of Seattle that enthusiasts last year began reworking into an eco-friendly source of native fruits, berries, nuts and salad greens.
A social worker-turned-permaculturalist, Tennis, 30, feels called to agriculture that honors the land and water. And while food forests can't feed a hungry planet, he thinks they can be part of the solution.
If done well, a food forest is not only a source of healthful, self-renewing sustenance, but it also promotes biodiversity, reduces runoff, absorbs carbon dioxide and fosters a yummy way for people to connect with nature.
Tennis' agricultural vision of working with nature rather than uprooting it has intrigued the Lancaster County Conservancy because it fits with its mission of saving our vanishing wildernesses, said Mike Burcin, the Conservancy's education director.
Tennis has teamed with the Conservancy and others to teach a permaculture design certification course this summer that will focus on growing food in natural ecosystems.
If the course leads to interest in starting a food forest here, the Conservancy is open to a pilot project at its recently acquired 115-acre preserve at the former Camp Snyder in Martic Township, Burcin said. For the Garden Spot, a whole new adventure in farming would begin.
(For more about the course, go to www.susquehannafarmschool.org.)
Tennis knows his message of earth-healing food production often falls on infertile soil. "To revert to a more wild state is blasphemy for commercial farmers," he said.
And in finding fault with how we've carved much of Lancaster County into monocultures of lawns and cornfields, Tennis is aware he gives some indigestion.
On the other hand, Tennis welcomes opportunities to talk to farmers and suburbanites. He'd love to show skeptics how they can turn hedgerows into profitable berry crops and backyards into lush organic food gardens.
"The purpose of this class is to help change the dialogue in our area," Tennis said, "to get people talking seriously about how we grow food and how we manage and preserve land."
I bet a spread of forest-grown delectables would be just the thing to invite conversation.