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Local Food Frontier

Follow the growing local movement in central Illinois from field to fork

Food Forest in Normal, Illinois Park Is an Illinois First

The food forest has taken root in Normal, the first of its kind in a municipal park in Illinois. A team of more than 75 volunteers, ranging from preschoolers to great-grandparents, planted 2,500 fruit trees, shrubs, cane fruits, perennial vegetables, herbs, and native prairie plants. A heavy mid-day rain sent a team of approximately 40 volunteers running for shelter before lunch; however, 25 volunteers returned to complete the planting in the afternoon sun.

University of Illinois Extension Educator, Bill Davison notes that the food forest – called The Refuge in honor of the property's orphanage history – is part of a growing urban agriculture movement that is producing significant quantities of food around the world. An estimated 15-20% of the food produced in the world comes from urban agriculture. "The food forest is designed to build community and help people re-connect with the source of their food," Davison said. Once established, the food produced by this planting will be free and available for anyone to come and harvest.

All of the food produced at the site in Normal will be organic. The current planting includes:

Apples (standard and semi-dwarf)
Blackberries (thornless)
Chives (two varieties)
Currants (multiple varieties of red and black, white)
Chicago Hardy Figs
Grapes (six seedless varieties)
Lavender (two varieties)
Paw Paw
Peaches (multiple varieties)
Pears (Asian and European)
Raspberries (black, red, yellow)

The Refuge Food Forest is an urban demonstration site for the already-established Woody Perennial Polyculture (WPP) research being conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A WPP is an assemblage of plant species that mimics the structure and function of natural ecosystems in order to sustainably produce an agricultural yield, while simultaneously restoring an ecosystem. This concept has evolved out of fields such as agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture, silvopasture, carbon farming, and ecological restoration; but the application of this paradigm to large-scale industrial agriculture is a relatively new idea.

The University of Illinois WPP site that The Refuge Food Forest is based upon is the first large-scale, university-backed research site studying a savanna-based agro-ecosystem. The site hopes to lay the foundation for a scientific understanding of the potential agricultural and ecological benefits of woody polyculture systems. In addition, the WPP sites are an example of systems that have the potential to become an economically viable alternative to the corn-soybean rotation that currently dominates agriculture in the Midwestern U.S.

Woody polyculture cropping systems offer a sustainable solution because of their unique advantages over conventional annual crop systems:

(1) perennial growth habit allows for carbon storage and efficient utilization of resources;

(2) integration of tree crops supports vertical layering of production; and

(3) a diversity of fruit and nut species increases financial resilience.

The USDA recognizes the potential of such operations. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack noted that agroforestry practices "reap great rewards, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions and more resilient agricultural lands. However, much work remains to promote and sustain agroforestry practices, which have great potential to promote economic growth and job creation in rural communities."

For more information contact Bill Davison, Extension Unit Educator, Local Foods and Small Farms-Livingston, McLean and Woodford Unit at (309) 663-8306 or

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