Picture a farm. What do you see? For most of us, the image that appears is the standard wide-open swath of land, lined with rows of crops and little else. But for an increasing number of American farmers, agriculture is taking on a different face: Agroforestry.
Agriculture meets habitat restoration
Agroforestry is a relatively new term, but it defines a practice that has been going on for hundreds of years around the world. Instead of felling trees to create new farmland—or setting up a farm on a flat, open piece of land and keeping it that way—agroforestry seeks to integrate trees into agriculture, a method that offers countless benefits for humans, animals, and the land itself. Trees and shrubs are grown alongside crops or pastures, helping create a more diverse, productive, and sustainable land-use system.
According to the USDA, the aim of agroforestry is to put “the right tree in the right place for the right purpose.” When trees are strategically planted in this way, they can help:
• Protect crops from extreme weather
• Improve water quality in the area
• Restore soil fertility
• Increase biodiversity
• Make farms more drought-resistant
• Reduce the need for pesticides
• Produce materials beyond food (like wood, medicinal/botanical products, and bioenergy)
• Maintain a better habitat for wildlife
Trees also help farms sequester carbon more efficiently than crops alone can, lessening a farm's overall carbon footprint and making agriculture a better ally in the fight against climate change.
A quiet revolution
During the Dust Bowl era, trees were planted in “shelter belts” to stop severe wind erosion on farms. According to Andy Mason of the National Agroforestry Center, this is how agroforestry got its start in the United States.
Today, the main forms of agroforestry in the U.S. include:
• Silvopasture—A practice that involves raising livestock under the canopy of trees, protecting both the animals and vegetation from hot summer sun, cold winter winds, and downpours.
• Alley cropping—The method of planting crops among rows of trees. Farmers collect income from the crops while the trees mature; once the trees are ready, they provide high-value lumber.
• Forest farming—Also called “multi-story cropping,” forest farming is simply the process of growing food, botanical, herbal, or decorative crops underneath a forest canopy, which helps provide ideal shade levels for these sensitive plants.
Speaking to the New York Times, Dr. Gene Garrett, former director of the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri, sums up why agroforestry practices are so valuable as we strive toward a more sustainable future: “Families spent generations removing trees to practice agriculture. [But] if you don’t put them in the way, you can use working trees to benefit agriculture.”
In the process, agroforestry benefits everything else—from the quality of soil to the nutrient density of foods, sustainability of lumber, habitat conservation, and more. Add in the vital help agroforestry offers in our collective fight against climate change, and the case for adopting this innovative farming philosophy becomes even harder to ignore.