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This second installment in the series "The Business of Agroforestry" (see January, 2004 Temperate Agroforester) will explore the potential opportunities for third-party certification of nontimber products in forests and agroforests.

Nontimber forest products (NTFP) can be a significant source of income in all agroforestry practices, not just forest farming, and can supplement or even replace income from wood products depending o­n landowner objectives, available markets and choice of species. NTFP include edible, medicinal, floral, decorative and craft products, and are considered specialty or niche crops (Teel and Buck, 2002).

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is o­ne of o­nly a few nontimber forest products for which methods of intensive cultivation in a forest environment have been devised. (Photo courtesy UMCA)     American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is o­ne of o­nly a few nontimber forest products for which methods of intensive cultivation in a forest environment have been devised. (Photo courtesy UMCA)

Most NTFP traded locally or internationally are gathered ("wildcrafted") from native or planted forests where they grow naturally as understory plants. o­nly a relative few, high value NTFP are intensively cultivated as crops in forest farming or alley cropping agroforests in North America, e.g. American ginseng.

Managers of agroforests face the same challenges as any farm or forest operator: how to find consistent markets and the best prices for the various products they sell. Can third-party certification be used as a means to differentiate NTFP grown in agroforests, and thereby gain access to markets which generate higher returns?

Benefits and Uncertainties

From the standpoint of the producer, certification holds the promise of economic, managerial and environmental benefits. Adoption of "best management" practices which underlie certification can help producers improve both the efficiency of their operations and their environmental stewardship of the land. Access to special markets and possible price premiums for certified products give growers an economic incentive for certification. Developing a diversified product base that can be sold in different markets will also give producers economic flexibility and stability (Shanley et al., 2002).

However, certification provides no guarantee that a landowner will in fact be able to sell their products in special markets or receive higher prices. Demand for specialty products can be swayed by fads and is unpredictable over time. Consumers in local markets may be less willing to seek out and perhaps pay more for certified products than in larger-scale markets. Certification may prove suitable o­nly for a limited number of NTFP that are traded internationally to motivated consumers who are receptive to eco-labels (Shanley et al., 2002).

Two Approaches to Certification

While certification of wood products is still relatively new, NTFP certification seems to be at an even earlier stage of development. This may be because concern among consumers about the threats to the long-term sustainability of some wild populations of NTFP plants from over-harvesting has been less widespread compared to forest trees. That is rapidly changing, however, as more consumers demand products grown and processed with environmental awareness (Shanley et al., 2002).

Regarding NTFP certification, there are two basic approaches: (1) certification of the land o­n which they are grown, and (2) certification of the product itself. As examined below, some NTFP may be more suitable to o­ne approach than the other.

Adherence to established standards of sustainable forest management by the managers of a geographically-defined tract of land is the measure by which forests can be certified under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) guidelines. o­nce certified by an FSC-accredited certifying agency, e.g. Smartwood, then all products grown in a particular forest can be marketed using the agency's label for certified products. Chain of custody (COC) certification is then used to verify that finished consumer goods do indeed originate from certified forests.

On the other hand, USDA's National Organic Program and other agencies set standards by which accredited certifying agencies can approve individual products that are grown using prescribed methods of production. Even though the land must be managed according to organic principles, it is the individual product rather than the land itself which can be certified. For example, o­ne farm may grow both conventional and organic products for different markets.

FSC Guidelines for NTFP

Although NTFP are mentioned in the general FSC Principles, o­nly two of nine regions in the US defined by FSC have adopted standards that specifically address NTFP certification: Appalachian (PDF 151KB; see p.42-43) and Pacific Coast (PDF 198KB; see p. 46). These standards are written to address issues regarding the ecological, economic and social sustainability of commercial or subsistence gathering of wild plants from natural forest o­n public and private land.

However, those standards may not be appropriate to the cultivation of NTFP in an agroforest. In fact, FSC considers agroforestry and silvopastures as farming practices that are generally excluded from forest certification, although the standards allow for evaluation of agroforests o­n a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, forest farming within a native or planted forest could possibly be accepted as part of an overall forest management plan.

If FSC certification of a forest has been obtained, based o­n the sustainable production of timber, then it is relatively easy and cost-effective to include NTFP in the forest management plan. The costs of certification to the landowner are more likely to be recovered through timber harvest than through NTFP harvest alone, so certification solely for NTFP may not be economically justifiable (Mallet, 2002). However, group certification would reduce the cost to each individual landowner.

Compared to the number of certified wood products available in the marketplace, few NTFP have been certified under FSC principles. In all cases, certified NTFP are produced from forests or woodlands that have also been certified for timber production. o­ne example is certified maple syrup produced by Merck Forest in Vermont which also produces a variety of certified wood products.

Maple syrup is o­ne NTFP that can be packaged and sold under a identifiable brand name. Other NTFP for floral or decorative uses, e.g. boughs, Christmas trees, florist greenery, cones, etc. are typically not branded in the retail marketplace. Although certified floral and decorative NTFP could be produced from a certified forest, would there be consumer demand for such products? Answering this basic question will require careful market research prior to the landowner investing their time and money in NTFP certification.

Organic Products

Consumer acceptance of and demand for organically grown products is increasing, particularly in North America and Europe. This means more certainty for growers who invest in organic certification that they will in fact be able to enter specialty markets and receive a price premium compared to "conventional" products.

Following the standards for production, handling and processing established by the USDA National Organic ProgramIFOAMand other agencies, it is possible to obtain organic certification for both cultivated and "wild-harvested" plants. NTFP used for edible or medicinal products would be the most likely candidates for organic labeling, both for products that are consumed directly like mushrooms and culinary herbs, and as ingredients in organic products like cosmetics and dietary supplements. Careful market analysis would still be important before investing in organic certification, but it appears more likely that sales revenue will exceed the costs involved than with NTFP certification based o­n sustainable forest management (Mallet, 2002).

Conclusions

Could certification be worthwhile economically or in other ways for landowners wanting to harvest NTFP from agroforests? For NTFP used in edible or medicinal products, the answer is probably yes, using organic certification. For plants harvested and sold as commodities for floral or decorative uses, the economic value of certification is less certain. In any event, o­nly a relative few, high-value NTFP are likely to benefit from certification.

Certification is just part of the marketing equation for NTFP. Attention to quality and consistency is important due to the high expectations of wholesale buyers and consumers. Certification by itself is not a guarantee of product quality, o­nly that certain practices were followed in its growing and processing.

Future development of new markets for certified NTFP will be an opportunity for innovative agroforesters and entrepreneurs.

References

Shanley, P., Pierce, A., Laird, S. and Guillen, A., eds., 2002, Tapping the green market: certification and management of non-timber forest products, Earthscan Publications, London, 456 p.
Mallet, P., 2002, Certification of nontimber forest products, in Jones, et. al., eds, Nontimber Forest Products in the United States, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, pp. 189-198.
Teel, W. and Buck, L., 2002, Between wildcrafting and monocultures: agroforestry options, in Ibid., pp. 199-222.

For More Information

"Organic certification available for many agroforestry products," Temperate Agroforester, January, 2003 (PDF 251KB) 
Guidelines to FSC-accredited certification bodies for the assessment of NTFP (PDF 51KB) 
Institute for Culture and Ecology
Nontimber Forest Products (Virginia Tech)
Smartwood NTFP Certification Addendum (PDF 238KB)

By Miles Merwin

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