Regenerative agroforestry, a food forest

Agroforestry is intentionally putting plants, and sometimes animals, together and managing them to enhance productivity, improve soils, sequester carbon, as well as enhance biodiversity. 

We essentially have a small mono crop, coffee, which has been here for almost 100 years. And we have nematodes, coffee berry borer beetle, coffee leaf rust, particular to coffee. One of the strategies for dealing with those problems is to annually stump 1/3 of our trees, which then produce no coffee fruit that year.

We do have other plants and trees in the coffee land: banana, papaya, macadamia nut trees, lychee, mango, avocado, varieties of citrus, breadfruit, cinnamon, rollinia, cherimoya, and ornamentals. Diversity means there’s variety both above- and under-ground, different bugs, birds, pollinators attracted and repelled, etc.

With the problems we’re having with coffee, increasing the cost and work of growing coffee, where do we go from here?

I have been fascinated by the idea of agroforestry for years. I mentioned it in this blog post in 2019 and then later in 2021, when I wrote about taro.

In our Agroforestry presentation for Master Gardeners, by none other than Craig Elevitch, he did point out that commercial farmers often want to plant mono crops. Breadfruit is good. So then some plant a farm full of rows of breadfruit. That’s not a food forest.

The latest buzzword is regenerative, as opposed to sustainable, which maintains a certain state. Regenerative agriculture tries to improve the status, including replenishing what has been exploited and repairing what has been damaged. A regenerative agroforest is a diverse, self-sufficient (no input/fertilizer) food forest that emulates natural forest ecosystems.

The five goals of regeneration are:

  1. Build soil fertility and health
  2. Optimize water percolation and retention
  3. Enhance and conserve biodiversity
  4. Support ecosystem self-renewal and resiliency
  5. Sequester carbon

There should be integration of a variety of plant species, lifespans, vertical height (multistory, taller trees shading those below), dense plantings, and the soil should be covered. There are volumes to learn about agroforestry, but I’ll let you research that on your own if you’re interested. has a wealth of free information. We have a fuzzy vision of how we’d like to build on what we have.

The part of Elevitch’s recent talk that struck me was the reality check. After he had “sold” us on agroforestry, he showed some photos of someone who had a future food forest plan, and who had cleared acres, and planted some trees and a variety of plants. He said that with that particular implementation, the person was looking at 10 years of drudgery, mowing, weed eating to get to his vision. I felt empathetically defeated. He had made the investment, but wouldn’t get any return for a long time. He would likely be a slave to his sense of what it should be, and he’d probably give up. Elevitch’s point was that this individual wasn’t letting Nature do its thing in the interim. This particular example didn’t have a plan for the short-term. You have to have a plan for short-term (up to 2 years), medium-term (plants that produce and/or live up to 4 years), and long-term (4+ years). How will you keep the soil covered to keep out undesired weeds? What can you harvest in the short term? He said you have to fill the space at all times.

The other concept that reached my attention were diagrams of what is happening below ground in a diverse food forest. I had always been focused on above ground. Agroforestry gives me a lot to think about.

There is a software tool available, agroforestryx, for free throughout 2023 to design food forests. It lets you visualize plants at different growth rates and heights as years go by. We plan to try it out with a certain area of the farm in mind. We’ll try designing, but that doesn’t mean we’re ready to implement any design. Baby steps.

Before implementing anything, we have to protect the area from these guys. An adult or two have been triggering our cameras almost nightly. We’ve recently put a lot of things in the ground, many without protection. So far (a week now), so good. Sometimes we see a video clip of a train of piglets scampering up or down the hill. One little guy was found dead in the coffee land in the far downhill corner. We aren’t sure how that happened. Maybe it was shot by a bow somewhere else, but collapsed on our land?

Anyhow, some ideas for short-term crops are purple sweet potato, kabocha, taro, and papaya. I’ve read more about joining our neighbor, the Hawai’i ‘Ulu Co’operative. We don’t have what they want yet. But I think we can improve our land using some agroforestry principles. We can plant things around the coffee we have, a medium-term crop, and we can add cacao, another medium-term crop. Add some ‘ulu and some tall native trees. And ground level crops. It’s a learning process every step of the way.

One more food item story: soursop. It’s a member of the annona genus of flowering plants in the pawpaw/sugar apple family, annonaceae. We had considered possibly planting it, to help with our cherimoya, atemoya, and rollinia, also in the same genus. We found the taste nice, tart and sweet, full of flavor, but the texture is oddly spongy. And the fruit can be huge, and a tree can produce way more than we’d be interested in. So we abandoned that thought.

I had tried some dehydrated soursop once, and it was delicious. I saw fresh soursop at the farmers market last week and asked the vendor if they had experience dehydrating them. No. So, on a whim, I decided to try it. I bought the fruit while it was hard and waited three days until it was soft, but not utterly squishy. The fresh fruit tasted good, not great, but I thought dehydrating it would sweeten it. It was very juicy, so I put parchment paper on a tray at the bottom of the dehydrator in case the higher trays dripped. I made thin wedges to enable removing the many seeds. Dehydrating went smoothly, and took only 5-7 hours. But the end product wasn’t satisfying. It seemed to get more tart. Maybe I’ll try waiting till the fruit is softer, puree the fruit, add sugar, and make a fruit leather.

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