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Unit 2: Site Assessment and Non-Timber Forest Crop Selection
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"We are entering a new era in agriculture and resource management, one in which we actively design and create agro-ecosystems, forests, and watersheds, instead of depleting them. In the process of learning how to design, create and manage these new resource systems, we learn more and more about how to work with nature rather than against it." --Wilkinson and Elevitch, 2005

Many non-timber forest crops (NTFC) can be produced by forest farming. Some are more suitable for particular combinations of goals, site conditions, and markets. This Learning Unit will help you decide which crops are suitable for your circumstances. It focuses on opportunities and limitations created by climate, soils, vegetation and other environmental conditions of your property.

This Unit presents a strategy for determining what your environmental conditions are and using that information to select the crops best suited to your site. The strategy is organized around the following three sets of activity that are required in planning an integrated forest farming system:

  1. Site Assessment [2.2. 2.3, 2.4, 2.5]
  2. Crop Selection [2.6]
  3. Design [2.7]

The Sections of this Unit link to worksheets [doc icon] examples [nut icon], and other web resources [www icon].

In addition to the strategy that is presented in this unit for undertaking these overlapping sets of activity, you may wish to consult other valuable resources that deal with designing integrated land use systems. Some that are similar to forest farming include other agroforestry systems, permaculture, residential landscaping, and timber management. See Additional Design Resources, below.


Site assessment is a process of utilizing a set of tools and resources for determining the advantages and limitations of your site. The approach we have developed (HWWFF) is designed to help you make intelligent decisions about what crops you can realistically incorporate into your forest farming site design. It also directs you to tools and resources that will help you collect appropriate information about your site.

Light, water, temperature, nutrients, and biological organisms are the components of the biophysical environment that will determine if any potential NTFC is well adapted to your site. In practical terms, the availability of these resource are determined by

  • Land forms (slope, aspect, erosion, surface drainage)
  • Soils (pH, organic matter, mineral nutrients, subsurface drainage, texture)
  • Macro and micro climate (precipitation, temperature, cloud cover, overstory canopy cover)
  • Existing forest vegetation (complementary and competitive)
  • Pests, pathogens and beneficial organisms (other animals, and microbes)
  • Past land use (associated infrastructure, improvements, contamination and nutrient stress)

The scope of your site assessment depends on whether you intend to grow a single NTFC such as ginseng, or to manage a more complex mixture of forest crops such as fruits, nuts, medicinal herbs, mushrooms, ornamentals, and handicraft material. If you plan to grow only a single crop then “crop selection” is a relatively simple matter of finding out what conditions are required for that crop and determining if it is compatible with your site. You may decide to take advantage of the various environmental niches offered at different parts of your site and at different layers within the forest’s vertical profile (ground, middle understory, canopy) to achieve complementary interactions among different components of a multicrop forest farming system. The process of site assessment obviously becomes more complex if you choose this course, but also more informative and possibly more fun!

HWWFF Resources

The resources in Learning Unit 2: Site Assessment and Non-Timber Forest Crop Selection include the following:

  • Online text and guidelineswww icon
  • Blank Site Assessment Worksheetsdoc icon
  • MNG Case Study Workbooknut icon

It is recommended that you print the Blank Site Assessment Workbook for recording data, an activity that usually takes place in the field. [Printable Blank Site Assessment Workbook].

The online text and guidelines serve as your course text, and instructions for moving through the course material. It provides background information while directing you to the worksheets and steering you through the assessment process.

The linked worksheets are a series of tables serving as your site assessment checklist and record. Printing this document is recommended [Printable Version] for ease of use and future reference.

The MacDaniel’s Nutgrove (MNG) Case Study Site Assessment Workbook and Supplements provide examples of how to complete the assessment worksheets by using information from a forest farming teaching, research and demonstration site at Cornell University, the MacDaniels Nut Grove.

Throughout the online text, workbook [doc icon] & MNG[nut icon] icons link to the respective documents.

Workbook and Map Resources

Additional Design Resources