There are pressing reasons for developing a better understanding of net primary production (NPP) in the world’s forests. These ecosystems play a large role in the world’s carbon budget, and their dynamics, which are likely to be responding to global changes in climate and atmospheric composition, have major economic implications and impacts on global biodiversity. Although there is a long history of forest NPP studies in the ecological literature, current understanding of ecosystem-level production remains limited. Forest NPP cannot be directly measured; it must be approached by indirect methods. To date, field measurements have been largely restricted to a few aspects of NPP; methods are still lacking for field assessment of others, and past studies have involved confusion about the types of measurements needed. As a result, existing field-based estimates of forest NPP are likely to be significant underestimates. In this paper we provide a conceptual framework to guide efforts toward improved estimates of forest NPP. We define the quantity NPP* as the summed classes of organic material that should be measured or estimated in field studies for an estimate of total NPP. We discuss the aboveand belowground components of NPP* and the available methods for measuring them in the field. We then assess the implications of the limitations of past studies for current understanding of NPP in forest ecosystems, discuss how field NPP* measurements can be used to complement tower-based studies of forest carbon flux, and recommend design criteria for future field studies of forest NPP.