NTFPs in MN: an overview and first steps

The goal of this post and the associated webinar is to introduce you to the richness of NTFPs. It is intended to serve as a gateway to the universe of NTFPs, not as a final destination. It strives to highlight their value, as well as some challenges, and presents some crucial considerations for landowners and natural resource users interested in reaping the rewards from the many goods in their woods and beyond. NTFPs have the potential to enhance your personal relationship with natural resources. They may also help you to achieve better forest management and a more stable forest livelihood through the development of complementary forest resource management strategies.

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In addition to the text below, this information is available as a web-based seminar (“webinar”) that was  delivered on May 19, 2010.   Click here to watch the recording now. After watching it, please fill out our quick evaluation form.  Learn more about other Minnesota Extension forestry webinars.

Section 1: What is (or isn’t) an NTFP?

Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) are the proverbial elephant in the woods. They are defined subordinately, by what they are not. So really, NTFPs can be described as most everything you find in the woods that is not merchantable timber. Of course not everything that we encounter in the woods has potential direct value to us, but you might be surprised at how many things do! So what exactly qualifies as an NTFP? This question is actually much debated.

Briefly, the NTFP debate is characterized by two prevalent dichotomies: non-wood versus wood products and plants versus animals. Other points of contention relate to product origin (is it actually found “in” the forest) and methods of production, namely is the product harvested from the wild populations, enhanced through plantings, or even cultivated.

For the most part, these discussions are academic and not of great interest to everyday natural resource users. However, they do become increasingly relevant when products are specifically marketed as “non-timber forest products” or as “wild-harvested”. Some illustrative examples include blueberries, ramps (wild leeks), ginseng, and wild rice. For each of these the price for wild-harvested product exceeds the price for cultivated product and it becomes important to know where things come from and how they are produced.

Perhaps a more productive way to think about NTFPs is to consider those resources – both plant and animal, from forest and field – that enhance our everyday lives and livelihoods.

Section 2: Minnesota Lives and Livelihoods

What products are considered to be NTFPs may vary substantially among people and institutions but, more importantly, the term NTFP references the multitude of natural products that enhance or contribute to Minnesota lives and livelihoods. Collecting and using these products is an integral part of our common regional history and economy and often generates or reinforces social and cultural connections.

NTFPs are the various berries, ferns, and mushrooms we pick to eat. They are the wild game whose meat sustains our families. They are gathered medicinal plants, roots and barks collected for basketry and crafts, and the seed cones used to regenerate our forests. NTFPs are the balsam boughs and princess pine that, when worked by careful hands, become the wreaths that decorate homes during the holidays. For some, NTFPs provide affordable outdoor recreation opportunities. For others, they generate a much-needed paycheck. NTFP harvest also strengthens social bonds and reinforces personal and cultural ties to the land.

The truth is that most people are unlikely to get rich just by harvesting NTFPs, and even established enterprises are sometimes hamstrung by uneven supply quality and quantity. Typically, NTFP activities are diffuse and invisible, and hence, undervalued. It would be a mistake, however, to equate lack of attention with lack of importance. More likely, inattention relates to the challenges of understanding a diverse suite of products, for which users, uses, and motivations for use are also diverse. Arguably, this diversity represents the core value of NTFPs.

Learning more about NTFPs has the potential to complement your lifestyle and enhance your livelihood, while connecting you to the region’s diverse cultures and shared history and economy. The first step is recognizing the abundance and diversity of resources out there.

Section 3: Developing Awareness

It is hard to place value on things we don’t see, recognize, or understand. Developing awareness begins with simple steps and the process continues as long as we remain open to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences.

It is notable that NTFP harvest is often invisible and likely to remain so for a variety of reasons. Products can be consumed directly and, therefore, never register as economic activity. Even when products are exchanged or sold, such activities may go unreported. Harvesters who do not own forestland are likely to be harvesting on public land, such as city parks and state and federal forests, and are unlikely to openly discuss activity that occurs on public or private land without permission. On the other hand, harvest on private land, while potentially important in scope, is of limited interest to public land managers.

Make a commitment to learn about some interesting or useful non-timber forest products, whether you own forested land or simply recreate in forested areas. And remember, NTFPs (broadly interpreted) can be found not only “in the forest,” but also at forest margins, in fields, and along roads and trails.

There is a lot you can do yourself, but it is perhaps easier to start with a conversation with your neighbor or some friends in town. Local artisans and crafters as well as colleges, universities, state and federal agencies, private enterprises and the Internet are all potential sources of information and support for NTFP activities and enterprises. Recognize that this diversity of knowledge and sources of information is the very thing that makes NTFPs so interesting and valuable, for those who are willing to jump in.

What to do:

  1. Identify a person in your social network, your community, or a forester who knows about forest resources and make time to have a conversation about non-timber forest products in general or a product of interest to you.
  2. Check out your library or purchase a field guide to wild edibles, natural resource crafts, or the like. Some great examples include The Foragers Harvest, Celebrating Birch, Mushrooms Demystified, and  Plants Used by the Great Lakes Ojibwe.
  3. Make a commitment to personally reconnecting with your forest or nearby natural areas. Start a seasonal journal that includes photos, observations of smells, flowering plants, animal activity, visible fruits, and more. Check the MMW Phenology Report for examples. There is not limit to what you can include and each observation is a potential step toward increased utilization of non-timber resources!

Section 4: Utilization

The task of summarizing NTFPs or characterizing their varied uses and values is made challenging by the sheer diversity of interesting and useful forest plants and animals, as well as the potential for multiple uses of each resource. Additionally, NTFP use is seasonal, and often practiced at smaller scales than other forest uses such as logging. For these reasons, NTFP value is best considered cumulatively – as a suite of products harvested during a single season and throughout an annual cycle composed of seasonal activities.

What to do:

1. Consumption – pick a product of interest to you, learn something about it, and, most importantly, try something new!

  • Tap a maple tree or several and make maple syrup.
  • Find some wild leeks in spring and make a soup.
  • Collect cattail pollen and make pancakes.
  • Pick berries and eat them, or make jam.
  • Cut red osier dogwood shoots in the fall and use the bright red sticks to decorate your home.
  • Collect evergreen boughs and make a holiday wreath or garland.
  • The list is endless!

2. Production – If you have access to substantial non-timber resources and have interest and skills for production, consider an NTFP endeavor that allows you to give housewarming presents or seasonal/holiday gifts. Additionally, you might consider an informal or formal commercial enterprise at a scale appropriate for your natural and other resources, such as time.  There are many guides available to help you consider a natural resource enterprise.

Section 5: Management

Identifying NTFPs of potential personal or commercial value and incorporating them into a management plan will help your landscape and wooded acres to achieve their full potential, through utilization of a broader array of plant and animal resources.

Conversations with your neighbors, friends in town, local artisans and business owners, or anyone knowledgeable about NTFPs may help you identify useful and/or commercially viable resources on your land, and incorporate them into your management objectives. Many publications contain extensive lists of regional products.

Consultation with experienced harvesters and foresters will help to ensure best management practices. In commercial endeavors, speaking with local or regional buyers will ensure that your management and harvest accounts for product standards necessary for established markets.

What to do:

  1. Identify a forester or other qualified natural resource manager to develop a holistic plan for managing your natural resources. One great way to do this is through a forest stewardship plan.

Select contacts at University of Minnesota interested in NTFPs:

  • Dave Wilsey, dwilsey (at) umn.edu – NTFP Livelihoods and Commercialization
  • Julie Miedtke, miedt001 (at) umn.edu – NTFP Lifestyles and Livelihoods
  • Dean Current, curre003 (at) umn.edu – NTFP Commercialization and Community Development
  • Diomy Zamora, zamor015 (at) umn.edu – Agroforestry and NTFPs

Additional online resources:

Dave's work addresses forest livelihoods, focusing on Tribal traditions and uses. He's based in Cloquet, MN.

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