Agroforestry is a land management approach that designs naturally occurring ecosystems with crops and/or livestock in an interactive manner. As the name implies, agroforestry is morphing the theories of agriculture with forestry. The process is intended to maximize the benefits of natural biological systems while providing support to productive agricultural systems. The goal is to mitigate environmental impacts to the local ecosystem while enhancing farm production.
Agroforestry is an intentional process whereby combinations of trees, shrubs, crops and animals are done in a strategic manner – these components are designed patterns of trees, shrubs, crops and livestock are done in a strategy manner and these components are thought of holistically rather than as separate units.
Agroforestry in Practice
There is no one size fits all agroforestry model. Agroforestry practices should be tailored to existing ecosystem conditions that vary considerably by climate and geography. And the type of agroforestry tactic implemented should integrate with the unique needs and conditions of the farm in question, including its goals and the tools and technical skills it comes equipped with. Nonetheless, there are five general ways to practice agroforestry:
Windbreaks are when farmers plant shrubs and trees in a manner to provide shelter to the agricultural landscape. In this way, crops and livestock are better protected against damage from wind and other weather elements (snow, rain, sleet, etc.) and soil erosion and runoff is mitigated. Most commonly, windbreaks are set up on edges of farms. Some farmers also establish windbreaks near the home to reduce the amount of airflow between indoors and outdoors, thereby reducing heating and cooling needs. As an added benefit, windbreaks are a habitat for local wildlife. Sometimes, windbreaks are erected along roadways – this helps reduce the visual incursion of and noise from a motorway and provides a safe barrier between roads and wildlife and livestock.
Alley cropping is when trees are planted adjacent to an agricultural crop; often the trees are planted to have wide spacing in between and the space is filled with the crop. This type of practice diversifies farmers’ crops with those that have annual and perennial output. In addition, the trees provide habitat for wildlife and serve as an added protection to the crops against weather damage. This is a particularly good option for areas prone to erosion.
Silvo is Latin for “forest,” so as the name implies, a silvopasture is an area that meshes forested areas with pastures suitable for livestock grazing. Not only is soil and land more protected in a silvopasture, but farmers can reap the benefits of dual income from trees and livestock.
Riparian buffers are when forested vegetation is grown near waterways, like streams, rivers and lakes. The goal of a riparian buffer is to protect the stream against runoff that could alter the ecosystem. These buffers are also designed to provide shade to crops.
Forest farming is the practice of growing crops under a forested area – the crops and trees are chosen specifically to suit one another. For instance, shade loving crops like mushrooms, ginseng and ferns make good candidates for forest farming.
Benefits of Agroforestry
Agroforestry offers many advantages over traditional agriculture and forestry practices from both an economic and environmental standpoint.
From an environmental perspective, agroforestry is advantageous, because it helps to conserve and protect natural resources. Many farming practices are actually degrading natural landscapes having the effect of erosion, pollution, habitat loss and depletion of biodiversity. By contrast, agroforestry practices value the natural ecosystem and local habitat and incorporate this system into the agricultural makeup. In fact, biodiversity has been found to be higher in most agroforestry systems compared to their conventional agricultural counterparts. Having multiple plant species interact with one another helps to create a system that supports a wider diversity and number of animal species, including birds, insects, reptiles and mammals, both large and small.
There are other environmental benefits too. For one, agroforestry reduces and sometimes eliminates the need to apply toxic chemicals, like insecticides and herbicides, to crops so food recipients are exposed to less harmful food products. Similarly, water resources in agroforestry areas are typically less polluted since there is less nutrient and soil runoff – this is a boon for local wildlife (most notably water species) and human populations alike that may draw their drinking water from local wells or water bodies.
In recent years, agroforestry has received a lot of attention from climate scientists as well due to some evidence that suggests the practice of agroforestry can help mitigate climate change by contributing to carbon sequestration.
From an economic standpoint, farming in this manner can be profitable in a number of ways. For one agroforestry has been found to actually improve the total output per unit of resource (tree/crop/livestock) than farms with one single component.
There is also less risk for farmers who implement agroforestry. Trees and shrubs used in agroforestry help protect crops and livestock against the elements, like wind and storms resulting in less damage to these commodities.
And agroforestry helps farmers diversify their resources, which helps to further minimize risk of profit loss. Instead, farmers can be flexible in what they deliver to market and when they deliver it – this helps farmers hedge against ups and downs in the market and provide more steady and even sources of revenue.
Agroforestry can provide economic benefits in unsuspecting ways, too. It’s ideal in many rural and developing economies, for instance, because it helps provide a diverse set of resources to communities that may otherwise have access to this. As an example, communities can tap into wood and other tree products used in agroforestry for heating their homes, while reaping the benefits of a diverse set of crop yields. In addition to these economic and environmental benefits, agroforestry has added advantages. Many use agroforestry practices to reduce odor, dust and noise from agricultural practices. And agroforestry can promote green space and have visual aesthetic appeal.
12 Trees for Agroforestry
There are a number of tree species that are particularly suited for agroforestry practices in North America, and even if you can just plant one or two of these in your backyard most of them can still produce bountiful crop for a single household.
The keawe tree, also known as the American carob, is originally a native tree of South America. It makes a good agroforestry tree for a few reasons. First, the tree is known for its longevity, living over a millennium in some cases. It’s good for shade and provides a good hardwood source for burning. The pods from the tree can also be used for livestock feed and the tree’s flowers are sought after by bees who can produce ample stocks of honey. The tree thrives best at lower altitude, but can grow as high as two thousand feet and prefers drier coastal climates.
The carob tree is a flowering evergreen shrub tree that is native to the Mediterranean region. Various parts of the carob plant are used for many different purposes, making it an ideal choice for agroforestry. For instance, carob is used in the production of a thickening agent called locust bean gum. It’s also used to make liquor, as a sweetener, and as livestock feed. The tree is also aesthetically pleasing, often used as an ornamental tree in gardens. And it provides a good shade source.
Native to North America, the honey locust thrives in areas with moist soil. The tree makes a good candidate for agroforestry largely due to its shade potential – honey locusts are easily transplanted and grow at quick rates to provide a quick and easy source of shade on farms. Honey locusts also produce an edible legume, which can make for good feed for cattle and horses. The trees also have a lot of aesthetic appeal.
The mesquite tree is also native to North America, particularly more arid and semiarid regions of Mexico and the United States southwest. Mesquite trees are advantageous for certain agroforestry areas, because they’re incredibly drought resistant, drawing its water from the water table though a long taproot. The trees also provide a good source of nectar for bees and grow quickly to provide good shade and wildlife habitats. Finally, the legumes of mesquite trees can be used for flour and are eaten by wildlife.
Native to southwest Asia, mulberry trees are most well known for their fruits, which can be used as a food source in a variety of ways, but other parts of the tree are very useful as well. The tree branches are often used for weaving. The leaves are a source of food for silk worms, which are used to make silk. And the pigment from the fruit is often used to make food coloring.
Persimmon trees are native to Asia and Europe and their versatility make them a good fit for agroforestry. They produce a berry or fruit that is used as a food source in a variety of ways – fresh, cooked, raw, and dried. The fruit is also sold commercially. The wood from persimmon trees is also used for carpentry, such as to make furniture. Persimmon trees are also well known for their durability and resistance. They grow quickly and are good for recovering habitats and are particularly adept at holding their roots in flood zones.
Chestnut trees are native to many areas in the Northern hemisphere and are best suited in areas that have cooler temperatures. They are most well known for the edible nuts they produce, which can be sold commercially. Chestnuts are also good at restoring soil, making them a good choice for agroforestry practices.
Oak trees are also native to the Northern hemisphere. The trees produce a fruit, more commonly called an acorn. The wood from oak trees is popular for various types of uses due to its hardness and durability. Oak trees also make for excellent wildlife habitat for a wide variety of species.
The Persian Walnut, also known as the English Walnut tree, is native to eastern Europe, the Himalayan region, and China. The tree needs lots of sunlight, making it suitable for sunnier climates. Besides being used for their legumes, Persian Walnut trees are used as timber – the wood is heavy and hard and prized in fine woodworking. The leaves of the Persian Walnut are also a delicacy for horses.
American Black Walnut
The American Black Walnut tree is native to eastern North America, preferring riparian areas. The wood is used for flooring and furniture making. And nuts can be harvested for a food source and sold commercially or used as a dye source. The actual walnut shell is used in many commercial cleaning products. Some tout the benefits of the black walnut for its medicinal properties.
Pecan trees are native to Mexico and southern regions of the United States. Popular for their nuts, which are actually a fruit, pecans are sold commercially throughout the world. The wood is also commonly used to make flooring and furniture. Pecan trees have a long shelf life, often living for up to 300 years.
Sugar maple trees are native to Canada. Their primary use is for the sugar maple they produce, which is sold commercially. Sugar maples are extremely shade tolerant, making them an ideal tree for shaded areas or those that don’t receive much sunlight. The wood from sugar maple trees is one of the hardest and most durable, making it a good choice for furniture and flooring.
The State of Agroforestry
Agroforestry is an increasingly popular practice in North America. However, much remains to be understood about its long term impacts. As such, researchers are investigating the long-term implications (both biological and economical) of agroforestry. And there are many efforts to expand agroforestry education within state, community and junior colleges through the United States.
One of the biggest unknowns with agroforestry is the economic costs and benefits associated with agroforestry, information vital to driving widespread adoption. And most farmers are still unaware of these benefits, which is likely an even greater challenge. That is why there needs to be greater emphasis on disseminating information about agroforestry to farmers, since there is a major barrier in actually getting the word out about the benefits. This information should be locally tailored to the unique goals, needs and conditions of an area by including specific information about favorable combinations of plants, trees, shrubs, crops and livestock, as well as information about techniques that might benefit a given area.
The “Bible” of Agroforestry – Yours For Free
If you want to learn more about tree crops and agroforestry, and maybe even establish a food forest of your own, then the book “Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture” by J. Russel Smith will surely interest you. It was published in 1929 and it’s seen by many as the “bible” of agroforestry
You’ll find a reprint of this book on Amazon for $50, but as a member of Resilient Strategies you won’t have to pay a cent because included with this month’s issue is the first edition public domain work of this book. You can download it here.