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Agroforestry
Credit: Alamy

Agroforestry

Call to action:

Expand the use of agroforestry to improve soil health, produce higher crop yields, and increase water quality, food security, and carbon sequestration.

Agroforestry is the intentional integration of forestry with agriculture. It combines trees, shrubs, and vines with crop and animal farming systems in ways that mimic natural ecosystems. Agroforestry is used by millions of people as a traditional source of food, fiber, and wood. It mixes annual crops and perennial trees and plants in different ways that sustain short- and long-term financial and ecological returns. Agroforestry provides shade, protects plants and animals from wind, and builds soil. It can sequester carbon and help end the climate crisis. It is a strategy for restoring degraded land. It maintains cultural traditions. Agroforestry is a science that studies the interactions between people, trees, and agriculture at a range of scales, from field to forest.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why agroforestry is a productive and regenerative system of food production and land management. Agroforestry is a new word for old practices used by millions of people around the world. It is a type of agroecology, a nature-based food system that views farms as ecosystems (see Agroecology Nexus). It has produced food and wood regeneratively for centuries and combines Indigenous and traditional agriculture with scientific research. Types of agroforestry include forest farms, alley cropping, buffers, and silvopasture (see Farmers below). In much of the industrialized world, forestry and agriculture have been separate disciplines for research, policy, and implementation. Today, agroforestry leads innovation in regenerative food production, carbon sequestration, and land restoration (see Regenerative Agriculture and Degraded Land Restoration Nexus). Benefits include:

  • Integrating perennial trees and shrubs with annual crops produces diverse products for farmers and communities, including food, fiber, fodder, fuel, timber, and medicines.
  • Trees used in agroforestry help protect watersheds by slowing wind and water erosion, stabilizing streambanks, and buffering against flooding.
  • Falling leaves, branches, and decomposing bark mulch the ground, aiding water infiltration and continuously enriching soil with organic matter.
  • Shade, moisture, and organic matter provided by trees, shrubs, and crops support a wide variety of soil microbes, especially fungi that enhance nutrient uptake, build soil structure, and sequester carbon.
  • Shrubs and blossoming trees provide pollen for beneficial insects.
  • Natural forest-like conditions created by agroforestry can provide habitat for birds and other wildlife and create corridors for their travel between wild, semiwild, and cultivated lands.
  • Agroforestry can be implemented in urban environments, including backyard gardens.
  • Agroforestry creates beautiful landscapes for people to enjoy.

Learn about the diversity of agroforestry systems around the world. Agroforestry can be utilized in any ecosystem that can support trees and shrubs. Elements can include trees with edible leaves, freshwater fish, chickens, timber trees, milpas, cactus, pigs, hedgerows, and vineyards. The integration of different elements must be in alignment with an area’s ecology. Examples:

  • Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is a practice that nurtures trees to grow from former stumps, resulting in hundreds of thousands of acres being reforested in the Sahel region of Africa.
  • A vegetable farm under tall timber trees in southern France is called “tree ratatouille” by the farmer, honoring the mixed-vegetable stew.
  • Moringa trees have edible leaves and are utilized as part of agroforestry systems. Here is an example from South Africa.
  • At a vineyard in Italy, poultry have free range of the olive tree groves, providing a double income for the farmer while improving the soil.
  • Black pepper is produced from a vine that grows in the tropics and can easily be integrated with mango and banana trees in agroforestry.
  • In Tanzania, farmers mix cash crops, such as cardamom, with food crops and trees, diversifying incomes and sustainably maximizing available land.
  • An agroforestry project in England grows almonds and peaches, which is highly unusual for the island.
  • Home gardens in Ethiopia help build community resilience.
  • Agave plants can be grown as part of agroforestry projects in arid environments, sequestering carbon.
  • A forest farm in Connecticut grows chestnuts in combination with elderberries, pawpaws, persimmons, and chickens.
  • Forest garden traditions in British Columbia are being revived by Indigenous communities.
  • Buffer strips of trees and shrubs along waterways in the Chesapeake Bay area are creating ecological and economic benefits, including erosion control along waterways, shade for livestock, fruit and nuts for harvesting,
  • For an Indigenous tribe in Costa Rica, agroforestry is both a form of food production and an act of resistance.
  • A milpa is a multicrop forest-garden system widely used by Indigenous and traditional communities in Central and South America.
  • In Polynesia, a mix of introduced and native species are grown together in an Indigenous agroforestry system called novel forests.
  • In the Amazon, agroforestry-grown coffee helps farmers earn a living while diminishing the effects of climate change.
  • Cocoa agroforestry is a sustainable way to produce chocolate.

Support agroforestry by buying directly from farmers and ranchers who practice regenerative agriculture or from retailers who support them. Purchasing products from regenerative farms and ranches encourages other farmers and ranchers to adopt similar practices and goals (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus and Eating Plants Nexus for more suggestions).

Grow a forest garden or food forest at home. Organize your garden to grow like a forest. The idea was introduced by Robert Hart in his book Forest Gardening. In a traditional garden, plants and trees are kept separate, but in a forest garden are combined in a manner resembling nature.

  • A step-by-step guide to starting a food forest can be found here from GroCycle, a permaculture organization. They also provide guides to forest garden design; permaculture plants you can grow in your garden; and growing mushrooms.
  • The Agroforestry Research Trust has online courses on forest gardening and nut crops.
  • The Orchard Project (UK) has courses on creating community orchards in urban environments.

Donate to or join organizations that support agroecology. There are many choices, including volunteer projects and other community-based initiatives that preserve biodiversity (see Key Players).

Groups

Farmers and Ranchers

Adopt or expand agroforestry practices. Agroforestry enables farmers and landowners, small and large, to become sustainably profitable for long periods of time. It can mitigate disaster risk, including the effects of climate change, by improving environmental conditions. It supports families, communities, and nations. The integration of trees and crops needs to be carefully designed and managed over time so they don’t compete for sunlight and water. Some types of agroforestry are more intensive than others, requiring pruning, irrigating, cultivation, and careful control of livestock. All agroforestry practices take advantage of interactions between crops, animals, and trees, creating a synergy this is productive and resilient (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus, Agroecology Nexus, and Eating Plants Nexus).

Adopt new practices and technology. New agricultural technology and training programs have the potential to boost agroforestry yields and make farming more efficient and profitable.

  • The University of Missouri has an Agroforestry Academy that is designed to train farmers, natural resource professionals, educators, and others in planning and design. Advance training is offered in marketing, ecology, and economics.
  • California State University, Chico’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems has a mentoring program for ranchers, as well as numerous educational materials. It has educational resources on how to start alley cropping.
  • The USDA National Agroforestry Center has online resources for training sessions taught by agricultural specialists.
  • The USDA National Agricultural Library has a list of educational resources for agroforestry, including training programs in the United States.
  • The Cornell University Small Farms Program offers courses for farmers in various aspects of small farm development, including agroforestry.
  • Agroforestry training can often be provided in the related fields of agroecology and regenerative agriculture. The Regenerative Organic Alliance has a certification program for farmers and ranchers.
  • The Rodale Institute has a training program in regenerative organic practices for aspiring farmers.
  • The Soil Health Academy has a Regenerative Agriculture 101 online program designed for farmers and ranchers.
  • On the technology front, here is a digital decision-making tool that enables farmers to assess their operations to make them more resilient and equitable. Here and here are examples of using digital technology in agroforestry.
  • A report on food and tech that discusses how new digital devices, artificial intelligence, and smart software can accelerate the creation of more sustainable, scalable, and equitable food systems.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides answers to frequently asked questions about agroforestry.
  • The Overstory is an online agroforestry journal for practitioners.
  • Here are videos from the Savanna Institute on implementing various types of agroforestry.

Scientists

Extend agroforestry research into practices and customs that build resilient and equitable food systems, particularly at scale. Agroforestry needs to expand outside of ecology and forestry and study the interconnections between sustainable farming practices, social sciences, cultural heritage, and their potential for ending the climate crisis. By studying agroforestry’s social, ecological, and economic benefits, researchers can make their work more useful to farmers, ranchers, and other types of agriculturalists. New research includes Indigenous and marginalized voices and addresses how agroforestry can be scaled to feed more people.

  • The research program at the University of Missouri’s Center for Agroforestry is a role model for the practical application of science.
  • According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), perennialized agriculture, such as agroforestry, can transform the lives of smallholder and family farmers because it is more flexible, resilient, and secure than conventional food production. Here are some of the FAO’s research recommendations.
  • Research is being conducted on identifying and developing the most suitable perennial crops to include in polyculture mixes for diverse farms and ranches.
  • Abandoned croplands and degraded lands have been determined to be well suited to agroforestry systems, which expands the potential for food production as well as carbon sequestration.
  • Agroforestry can help to overcome “carbon slowdown,” by accelerating additional carbon drawdown when a landscape is saturated with carbon, according to recent research.

Companies

Support agroforestry as an economically viable, ecologically beneficial, and resilient system of farming. Companies can support agroforestry in diverse ways, particularly in their efforts to improve access to agroforestry products, or onset carbon in their supply chain. Onsets are carbon credits that create a net reduction in greenhouse gases.

  • Investors can directly participate in supporting agroforestry and regenerative agriculture, with short and long-term investments.
  • Purchase onsets that support agroforestry projects. Organizations, such as Gold Standard and the Carbon Fund, provide verified onsets via their financial support of projects that improve carbon levels in the soil through agroforestry and reforestation. Examples include projects in Mali, Timor Lest in Southeast Asia, Colombia, Panama, and Brazil.
  • Help develop markets for products. Agroforestry businesses often lack access to premium markets, especially in low-income countries. Companies can help by building awareness of the benefits of agroforestry for customers.
  • Companies can bring digital technology to the distribution and marketing of agroforestry products. Here is an example of wholesale suppliers of moringa tree products from Africa who support farmers while delivering high-value products.

Governance

Remove barriers to farmers seeking to transition to an agroforestry system, including obstacles to obtaining access to necessary land, water, and crop seed. Policies need to be adopted and implemented that support agroforestry, particularly in regions with chronic poverty and hunger.

  • India has a National Agroforestry Policy, adopted in 2014, which aims to increase participation by farmers in agroforestry projects. Nepal adopted a similar policy in 2019.
  • An analysis of a case study from Peru reveals how governments can help incentivize changes in agricultural practices that promote sustainability, including agroforestry.
  • A report from the UK examines the policy and economic barriers that prevent wider adoption of agroforestry, particularly the long-standing policy of separating land management practices into different bureaucratic sectors.
  • Policy changes can help foster markets for carbon removal and storage in soils via agroforestry practices.

Increase funding for research, outreach, and education programs. Support on-farm innovation, incentive programs, training, and improved capacity to support farmers transitioning to agroforestry systems.

  • The USDA has an Agroforestry Strategic Framework that provides a road map for research, implementation, education, and adoption that could serve as a role model for other governments. Here is a guide to USDA Agroforestry research funding opportunities.
  • Recommendations on how international governments can improve policies for the adoption of agroforestry can be found here.
  • A network of agroforestry practitioners has called for proactive governmental policies and financial support to help agroforestry products reach new markets.

Learn

Read

Tree Crops: a Permanent Agriculture (orig. 1929) by J. Russell Smith

Edible Forest Gardens (2 volumes) by David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier

Farming the Woods: An Integrated Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel

Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice by Eric Holt-Gimenez and Raj Patel

A list of books and journals about agroforestry

Civil Eats archive on agroecology

The Overstory, an online agroforestry journal for practitioners, researchers, students, and professionals

Mongabay journalism series on agroforestry

Agroforestry Systems, an international scientific journal.

Listen

The Agroforestry Podcast (University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry)

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