In a spring evening in 2016, over a dozen locals pushed tables together at Luminous Brewhouse (the old location) and sat down to discuss the Food Forest Project. This group of Sheridan residents eventually wants to fill in many of the empty municipal spaces around town with “food forests”.

Carol LeResche, a member of the Food Forest Committee, first found inspiration from the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, WA. Instead of landscaping the public park with traditional ornamental species, the city chose food-producing plants. A food forest is designed to create habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects, in addition to providing free food for people.

“I thought, ‘that’s perfect… Why don’t we do this in Sheridan?’” LeResche explained. “Sheridan residents used to provide a great deal of the produce eaten in the community.”

The area planted at Thorne Rider Park had previously been a BMX course. The “Pilot Food Forest” was approved by the city engineer, Lane Thompson, who described it as an “exciting project.” The city has also agreed to provide the necessary water. The group focused on grant-writing, preparing mulch, and soil testing next.

The Sheridan Food Forest Committee met with the city on May 12th, 2016 at the site to discuss compliance with Corps of Engineer requirements. After that meeting, they were allowed on the land. The group spent two weekends in early June planting fruit trees, berry bushes, grape vines, pumpkins, melons, asparagus ferns, and potatoes at Thorne Rider Park.

A group of young workers from Service Wyoming particularly impressed organizers on Friday, June 10th. They arrived at 8:30 AM and had weeded the entire fence line, moved rocks, dug a trench, planted 20 grape vines and 100 asparagus crowns, and applied compost and water by noon! By August, the city landfill had donated sixteen tons of compost. The goal of making the site a free source of healthy, natural food for local residents was quickly becoming a reality. Zucchini grown at the Food Forest was already being served at the local soup kitchen.

August also saw an important step in establishing the forest’s commitment to pollinator health. Volunteers walked transects, recording individual insects as a baseline for establishing pollinator habitat. In total, 15 native bees and two honey bees were observed, along with nine wasps (which occasionally serve as pollinators by accident). The native bees were comprised of mason bees and leafcutters, though many others were difficult to identify. The protocol calls for four pollinator census counts a year in the future; in the months of May, June, July and August. These censuses should give the project a measure of success in establishing pollinator habitat.

By the end of August an irrigation system was in place, making the job of those who volunteered to water through the heat of the day much easier.

In September, the Sheridan Food Forest was featured in Edible Forests Are Sprouting Up Across America in the Smithsonian Tween Tribune, a resource for many teachers around the nation.

By October, solid deer fencing was put in place thanks to a fencing crew from Bockman Group. All the way up until the end of the month, volunteers were putting in last-minute plantings, including: comfrey rhizomes, garlic, vigorous horseradish roots, perennial “walking” onions, and a stupendous amount of strawberry plants.

Autumn extended long into November in 2016 and the Food Forest devotees found that they had more time to plant than they had thought. They took advantage, planting an additional 30 chokecherry plants, 10 gooseberry bushes, five hazelnut plants and five wild rose bushes; all from John Buyok’s multi-generational family ranch in the Tongue River valley. Sheridan’s well-known gardener, Harold Golden, also donated Jerusalem artichokes.

The first monthly pollinator census took place in spring of 2017. Four counters, Jane Wohl, Edith Heyward, Molly Clark and Harold Golden, counted eight native bees, belonging to at least five different species, and seven honey bees. That early in the season, no wasps or other incidental pollinators were yet observed.

By the peak of the blooming season, the July census enumerated 126 native bees, 83 honey bees, 48 flies, 37 wasps and hornets, and four butterflies and moths. In August, the Food Forest Committee was finally able to compare their progress to one year earlier when the pollinator baseline was established: In August of 2016, there were 26 pollinators counted. By August of 2017, the Food Forest hosted 219 pollinators!

Plans to further develop the pilot forest include constructing a gazebo, a walkway, and an informational kiosk as well. Supporters of the Food Forest Project hope that the creation of the pilot forest will lead to many others. “It’s a demonstration that these things are possible,” LeResche said. “We can fill public space with food.”

If you are interested in volunteering or just have questions, email Carol LeResche at leresche@rangeweb.net.

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