A Food forestry case in NRW
by Robin Kampert
A story about opportunities and struggles
This story is about the numerous paths I tried to take to establish a food forest on public land in NRW, a federal state in Western Germany. The garden has not been established (yet). Major barriers have been bureaucratic hurdles and rigid personalities that maintain the status quo across the German landscape of forest and agriculture management, policies and research. I lacked patience and persistence which made me quit for now, however, I remain optimistic about the positive development in the space. I have met and spoken to many people in charge, be it at governmental institutions, NGO´s or research facilities, that are truly motivated to integrate agricultural- and silvicultural- practices in Germany. Also, in regard to reconnecting humans to nature through education and nature experiences there are some promising developments in NRW. In contrast, when it comes to integrating a variety of functions beyond „just“ agriculture and silviculture (e.g., housing, nature and business) on a terrain, bureaucratic hurdles quickly shut down most opportunities and even the most optimistic and opportunistic do not seldomly dare to engage with such an endeavor.
In this blogpost, I will share about the following topics:
1.) A short background about myself and my motivation to create forest gardens
2.) The search for land;
– Experiences with a municipality in NRW
– Encounters with the church, NRW ministries, Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) and a governmental forestry agency
3.) Germany: a typical land sparer
4) Advancements and successes in the Netherlands
5) Tips for setting up a food forest with (public) institutions
1.) About myself
I am Robin Kampert, a MSc graduate in Forest and Nature conservation at Wageningen University. I was born and raised in a small village called Elten in Germany, close to the Dutch border. After and during my studies I got involved in some forest garden projects in the Netherlands and in Belgium. My idea was to establish a forest garden in my hometown in Germany. I saw this progressive, rediscovered way of bridging nature and our food system as a valuable gift to my Heimat, my home. I commenced with the naive thought that it can´t be too hard to start a forest garden on public land. After all, forest gardens are benefiting all living beings including humans, right?
I don´t want to focus on why forest gardens might benefit our current agricultural ,silvicultural, social, economic- and ecological systems in ´the West´. There is already great literature to be found on that. I´d rather like to share from my experiences with the public, i.e., NGO´s, governmental organizations, the church and research institutes. My experience hopefully gives insights into where opportunities exist to establish forest gardens on public land, as well as the potential setbacks that might occur.
2.) The search for land
Naturally, the first step towards building a food forest is the search for suitable land. After consulting many landowners in the region, I can conclude that the overall reaction of private landowners to the idea of setting up a food forest was fear of economic loss. They feared that when a food forest is established, the municipal zoning plan might change from agricultural land (cropland or grazing land) to natural land, and thereby losing most of its value as agricultural productive land.
I thought that it must be possible to be freed from this hindering policy when explaining my case. So, I decided to call the agricultural ministry of NRW and elaborate on what a food forest entails: That it is basically a system that uses multiple strata (layers) and vegetation types (woody, annuals, perennials) together and thereby enhances biomass production, biodiversity and soil protection. The response, however, was that the ministry would strictly not support such visions of food forestry. Quote: „The region Niederrhein cannot afford any longer to lose agricultural land to forestry agencies or nature conservationists. The land currently used for agriculture is protected in order to remain the function of agriculture. Unfortunately, food forests do not currently nor in the future qualify as agriculture. NRW is following the EU. The EU is supporting via its subsidies an intensive agriculture, for good reasons. This guarantees food safety and is to the benefit of threatened species like the skylark.“
After having encountered such rough resistance and tiring arguments right at the start, I thought that establishing a forest garden on public land with the help of local authorities might be a better choice. My approach was to look for open discussions and reasonable decisions. In hindsight, sharpening my language here and focusing on the production function of food forest would have been important. Food forests are a type of agroforestry system which is recognized as an agricultural system by both the EU and Germany, although implementation rates are low and experience by local administrations is lacking.
Public municipal land
To start with, I called the Municipality of Emmerich and got connected to someone that is responsible for sustainable development of the town. There was certainly lots of enthusiasm about forest gardens by some agents, although they found it hard to grasp from a short phone call what forest gardening really was about. Consequently, I was invited to talk in front of the three people from the municipality; one person dedicated to improving the towns sustainability, a person that keeps oversight over financial expenditures of the town and someone that is holding a coordinative task in managing the towns´ green spaces.
The presentation was a success. There was great interest and even a budget for realizing a forest garden project. The only problem – there was no budget for acquiring of or compensating for land. The following weeks would reveal that the search for land remained challenging. The municipality had no spare land, so I asked around: farmers, the church (a good-humored local priest), private land owners, the deike association (Deichverband) and some research facilities in the region. Land was nowhere to be found. Among the more or less 15 landowners that I was in contact with, typical reactions were ´´the land is leased for x years to someone I trust´´ or ´´what if I change my mind after 5 years and cut all the trees?’’ and ‘’Who compensates for the lost value of my land?´´.
The church, one of the largest landowners in the region, showed serious interest in developing forest gardens for educational purpose. I called the diocese Münster and talked to people about the potential of food forestry for bringing people from different backgrounds together, thereby combating loneliness and strengthen nature education. However, the initial enthusiasm was, as always, dampened by all kinds of hurdles. The diocese itself is a bureaucratic jungle and finding a person in charge for these kind of projects was challenging. In the end, my emails were either not answered anymore, or people responded saying that the church was already busy with their own nature education programs or that there was simply no spare land that can be used for forest gardens. When asking the good-humored local priest of Elten, he said that all lands are occupied by long term leasing contracts with trustworthy farmers. However, while asking further, I rather got the feeling that the church was simply afraid of missing out on some of its large profits. However, there is room for change, as the initially positive conversation with the diocese has shown. reminded of a usual modern-day multinational which is merely profit oriented.
Converting orchard, agriculture and forest land with different actors
NABU – The Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union
Before coming into contact with the Nabu and Wald und Holz, I went to the local newspaper, Rheinische Post. I explained my idea to the journalists and we agreed to publish a page informing about forest gardens . I received several reactions on that newspaper article which connected me with some interesting people. At the same time, the municipality came up with a possibly suitable land, an old orchard of one hectare, on the hill Eltenberg. I immediately reached out to the people that were managing the orchard. I found out that it had been managed by multiple entities over the course of many years, with the most recent one being the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).
When I called the NABU with enthusiasm about the potential of the orchard as a forest garden, the person in charge for the project became angry. ´´The orchard is designated to become half heathland and half old-growth orchard with the aim to protect the little owl. We are already making the soil poorer with sheep grazing. This poor, sandy soil is designated to become heathland. We seriously warn you to not cross our plans. We are working on this project for 20 years. The municipality fails to recognize that the NABU is managing this field, which is a shame. And no, the NABU is not interested in developing forest gardens, not a single person in the organisation. We are a nature conservation agency.“
After the talk, it came to my mind that the conservation agency is doing patch work. It is creating a highly isolated, miniscule heathland ecosystem in the middle of the forest. Every ecologist knows that with increasing distance to the next bigger heathland, which is 3km away and cut off by a highway, the patch of heathland must be significantly bigger to inhabit a viable population size of any endangered species. Either there are channels through which migration takes place (which are absent), or all efforts will fail. This very established theory is is called the island theory.
My second thought was: Why fencing off an area in the center of tourism on Eltenberg for owls and lizards? It can be a showcase for permacultures´ abilities to improve soil health and letting an old orchard flourish with different vegetation layers, unprecedented water holding capacities, deep organic and living soils etc. The area has the potential to produce fresh, local fruits for people that visit the Eltenberg on a daily basis, such as hikers, cyclists and campers. Furthermore local people could participate in establishing such a system, which strengthens the viability of such a project in the long-term. And don´t understand me wrong, I do support efforts to protect certain species, especially endangered ones. However, I am pledging for a more holistic approach towards nature conservation. I elaborate more on this in the section below about land sparing.
Wald und Holz – The Regional Forestry Agency
The newspaper article in the Rheinische post had drawn the attention of Wald und Holz NRW. The director of the regional forestry agency Wald und Holz in Wesel, Julian Mauerhof, contacted me via email to invite me for a presentation about forest gardens. The agency would show „great interest“ in the topic and would potentially have agricultural land available for showcasing a forest garden. Meanwhile, I also got in contact with Prof. Florian Wichern of University „Rhein Waal“ in Kleve and Christopher Henrichs from the permaculture association Niederrhein. They accompanied me to the meeting with Wald und Holz. Also present at the meeting was a highly motivated representative of the Ministry of Environment NRW.
My presentation focused on: 1) Definition and principals of a forest garden; 2) Examples from the neighboring country Netherlands; 3) Recognizing a forest garden as a forest AND as an agricultural system 4) Envisioning a policy paper „Greendeal Forest Garden“ in Germany. Here is the first presentation from March 2021 (adapted, reduced background imagery to reduce size) :
People in the room were immediately proposing to establish two forest gardens, one on agricultural land and one on forested land. To my disappointment, it became obvious from the discussions that the government officials tended to remain conservative on how these forest gardens should be implemented. I was advocating a disruptive approach in which we dare to actually really change something fundamentally. A real integration of food and forest: Food from a forest as well as i.e. construction material from farming land. I think the way we currently deal with problems is not leading to enough change to tackle the current ecological breakdown appropriately. For Wald und Holz and the agricultural ministry, a more realist approach was chosen: „A forest garden on forested land can only be developed without exotic species or cultivars. Furthermore, the main function of forestry, wood production, should be maintained and/or enhanced. Edible species should, at least, fulfil a complementary function to the benefit of wood producing species.” On agricultural land, alley planting would be most appropriate, as it allows ´agriculture as usual´ between the alleys of trees.
The meeting was a success and a failure at the same time. On the one hand, an opportunity was in reach to experiment on a piece of land. At the same time the way these experiments were about to be designed were anything but „disruptive“, in the sense that they would not challenge current beliefs and practices. We agreed on a second meeting with more concrete plans for the two forest gardens. My presentation for this meeting in May 2021 is also available below. Unfortunately, Florian Wichern, which was advocating for a leap forward when it comes to integrating natural and agricultural systems in the form of permaculture, could not take part in that meeting. The presentation was foremost about concrete steps that each stakeholder/project partner could contribute to the project.
For the meeting I translated the „Greendeal Forest Gardens“, a valuable policy document from the Netherlands which was compiled and signed by more than 30 organizations. A German translation of the document can be found on the blog. It is an agreement between different governmental and non-governmental organizations to work together towards establishing more forest gardens in the near future and to recognize forest gardens as agricultural systems. I translated the document to mark an important goal on the horizon for our efforts in Germany:, mainstream adoption. That goal can be achieved following the Dutch example by integrating “food forests” as a type of land use code in administrative contexts and setting up and monitoring trial sites.
Quickly It became clear that the meeting was rather a step back from where the first meeting had ended. Representatives of Wald und Holz were calling the forest garden movement rather an ideological, playful way to show to people how one can produce a few fruits in the forest. They openly disclosed that their goal for our collaboration was rather to have a nice image-improving strategy for their forestry office. Furthermore, the organization could not support with any labor, financing, marketing or any other efforts.
Bringing organizations closer together in order to formulate a „greendeal“ policy paper which underlines „good intentions“, the representative of the ministry was indecisive: „It might be too hard to achieve in Germany, as the country´s bureaucracy makes such an endeavor much more challenging.“
A few weeks after the meeting, when my mails were not answered anymore by Wald und Holz, I heard from one of their employees, that the organization had decided against this collaboration. Forest gardens were too progressive and they didn´t want to burn their hands on this topic. I felt anger about their inappropriate behavior ignoring my emails and avoiding response, and more so, blindly continuing their paradox path. Foresters are challenged as never before when it comes to (re)planting forests. There is literally no timber species that is not threatened by pests and diseases, extreme weather events or the discourse about whether a species is exotic or not. And still, it seems that the sector is as firmly holding on to their policies, beliefs and values as if they were not facing a dead-end street.
3.) Germany as a typical land sparer vs. sharer
Ultimately what I experienced in Germany as well as other western countries is this: Specialization has led to separation of production and nature (land sparing) instead of integration (land sharing) of the two. We intensify nature in order to set aside room for undisturbed nature. The goal of such land sparing is to intensify each land use type to a maximum extent. What these intensifications brought into the living world is becoming more obvious by the day (i.e., nitrogen crisis, pests threatening forests, biodiversity loss). Similarly obvious are the ways in which our mental and physical health is compromised by distancing ourselves from nature and our food systems. Are we willing to continue on this path or is it time to finally change course towards a multi-functional and integrative perspective on land use? That ultimately depends on whether we can change our outdated policies and notions about the role of humans on this planet.
During my studies, I came across many incidents in which culturally managed land, often in the form of extensively managed agroforestry systems, inhabits a significantly larger amount of biodiversity than undisturbed nature. Interestingly and against the common sense for many, the absence of human impacts often decreases biodiversity. The explanation behind this phenomenon is thought to be the presence of more edge habitat through human interventions. That means that there is more transitions space from open habitats to closed forests, which in turn leads to a large variation in various types of conditions and as a consequence to a multitude of inhabitable niches for species. In nature conservation, we prevent human disturbance of nature by keeping them out with the aim to favor biodiversity. Recent scientific results indicate that human disturbance is to a certain degree favoring biodiversity. It is a matter of time until we integrate these findings into our agricultural and natural systems and think about smart ways of land sharing.
To illustrate the matter, we can look at the approach of NABU to fence off an old 1 ha large orchard and divide it into two parts, one determined for a rare owl and the other for a rare lizard. The approach is obviously not system based and thus, the result ultimately depends on the efforts of NABU to continue managing the orchard intensively. While the actions of this NGO are accountable and legitimate, they are isolated from the broader socio-economic and ecological context and thus lack sustainability. With a food forest approach, the management of the orchard could have been given into the hands of an ecologist, that is profiting economically from the restoration of nature, while involving the participation of the local communities; A much more resilient result.
4) Advancements and successes in the Netherlands
Growing up close to the German/Dutch border showed me on a regular basis how different these two countries are. The difference that strikes me most is the Dutch speed, easiness and dynamics with which progressive development is taking place. People that know the Netherlands will probably experience that there are „intelligent“ traffic lights, trains arrive on time and railway crossings are never closed for more than a few seconds, appointments with the municipality are without waiting time and they book immediate results, tax proclamation is done in a few clicks online, etc. I could go on for a while.
Well, it seems when it comes to food forest there is no difference. Policy-wise, Germany lacks years behind and misses out on some major opportunities. A policy paper and public-private partnership agreement like the Dutch Green Deal seems far away in Germany. Also far away in Germany is a situation in which dozens of municipalities establish forest gardens for their citizens and where dozens of meetings, symposia, courses and school programs are launched each year to manage them well. The astonishing thing is that most people in Germany that I know seem to be very much committed to changing the status quo for the better. Unfortunately, nobody feels her/himself empowered to do so. The country is bureaucratically locked and people in charge feel blocked by the interests of strong lobby groups. However, talking to Dutch people one quickly gets the impression that these problems appear in the Netherlands as well. From that I can conclude that it is not about the lobbyists or the bureaucracy, but about the willingness to change things for the better and being optimistic, opportunistic and flexible.
Policies in both countries are not ready for dealing with contemporary challenges appropriately. Naturally, this occurs, as policies were made to defend the status quo against the „tragedy of the commons“ – overuse of public resources – and too much flexibilities could jeopardize nature and agriculture alike. In the Netherlands, however, when there is uncertainty about progressive policy changes, multi-disciplinary working groups come together which come forward with advise. These can be implemented, in my impression, quicker into policies than in Germany. That is how food forestry and agroforestry as a whole have come so far since the „Forest Strategy 2030“ for the Netherlands aims at 30.000 ha of agroforestry, including food forestry, to be established by 2030. Furthermore, it considers that agroforestry (and food forestry) can count as forested land in the future. That is a promising start of integrational thinking if you ask me!
5.) Tips for setting up a food forest
While the benefits of agroforestry and food forestry seem obvious to ecologists, people with other expertise and background might not accredit as much benefits to the establishment of those integrative systems. There maybe is also a general reluctance to change, especially progressive change which often comes with many unknown components and unforeseeable risks. Furthermore, people tend to lack the ecological literacy to grasp what is at stake when we maintain the status quo. I should have reminded myself more thoroughly that I have studied in one of the most progressive universities in a very progressive country, and therefore clash considerably when formulating these ideas to people working for rather conservative organizations.
Nonetheless, I have seen some opportunities that I want to summarize in order to increase future food forest entrepreneurs´ chances of succeeding in realizing such a project.
1.) Municipalities are eager to have a food forest. It is a rather easy and cheap approach for obtaining a green image. In times when food forests are still scarce, everyone wants to be pioneering the space. On the other hand, they will most likely not admit that they have land available for such a project due to large opportunity costs (e.g., income from land development). Furthermore, on public there tends to be a higher interest in public food forests for education and recreation rather than entrepreneurial food production. And be aware of high time resources needed with them as partners, they make rules, they need to check on all of them, and changing them is very time-consuming. Make sure you have resources (e.g., finances to sustain yourself) and stamina.
2.) Institutions are defending themselves with the back against the wall. If you can show them that there is no zero-sum game but rather a win-win situation they might engage more easily with a project. To name an example: If one is planning food forests on an agricultural land that is intended for compensation, one could underline that with a food forest, no agricultural land is „lost“ to the foresters. That might sound ridiculous, but that is the frame in which those institutions think.
3.) Realize that many people are fighting for the same result but seldom agree on the path that should be taken to achieve that result. This became obvious with the NABU. Their fragmented heathland/orchard plans were meant to benefit biodiversity, likewise were my food forestry plans. One could rather focus on complementary benefits, which is of course easier said than done when there is a mismatch on many levels. Communication skills are key here.
This point also ties into the potential of working closely with the church. Food forests benefit social cohesion and could be on the agenda of religious institutions.
4.) Stick to your plan, be aware of your boundaries and values, and don´t let yourself be used. I felt used by Wald und Holz as they wanted to enhance their public image without doing any effort for the good cause. Of course, making compromises is still appropriate to a certain degree.
5.) Organize co-workers that are good at things that you are unexperienced in. For me it was very difficult to manage to find funding, while someone else could book significant results in a few hours. Team-up with like-minded people that are skilled.
Although all these tips are easier said than done, I hope this story as a whole has shed some light on what to expect when planning to establish a food forest. If there are any more questions or requests, please don´t hesitate to contact me (+49 1578 3846501).
With kind regards and best of luck with your project,