What is Agroforestry

Agroforestry is the integration of trees and shrubs with open-space agriculture allowing simultaneous, multi-use purposes.  Agroforestry is a worldwide practice since the dawn of farming. However, in the developed world, large-scale, investment monoculture farming replaced agroforestry. 

Today the practice is receiving renewed attention in both developed and developing countries.

BREAKING DOWN Agroforestry

Agroforestry benefits are economic, environmental and even social. Trees themselves become a crop, whether harvested for wood or for the fruit, nuts, and oils they produce. When planted alongside open-space annual crops such as corn, wheat, and legumes, trees can provide a steady income for landowners, expanding their harvests to more than the field crops. 

Agroforestry can also make it easier for farmers to transition from one crop type to another as market demand for their products changes. This crop diversity is also crucial for food security. A wide range of crops serves as protection against catastrophic loss should any single crop be destroyed by a pest, virus or drought.

Climate Change Spurs Agroforestry

As global warming desiccates formerly productive agricultural regions in many parts of the world, farmers are planting trees to shelter both crops and livestock from the sun. The trees help retain moisture in the ground and prevent erosion. The Paris Agreement, COP21, addressed global warming. Leaders of over 170 countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100.

In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, tall banana trees, which are themselves a lucrative commercial crop, are interplanted with smaller oil palms which yield a valuable cooking oil. Farmers will also plant lower-growing cassava and pineapple plants, fully utilizing all available ground and limiting the evaporation of moisture from the soils. 

While this type of mixed farming has been traditional in the developing world, farmers are working with agricultural experts to plant more trees and increase crop yields through sustainable agroforestry.

Knowledge Is Key in Agroforestry

Agroforestry does require more planning and know-how than simpler land uses because the system must take into consideration the diverse and sometimes contradictory needs of each component. For example, grazing cattle can damage a tree’s root system. On the other hand, some crops thrive in the shade of overhanging trees, such as mushrooms, ramps, and cocoa.

The United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, has initiated the Agroforestry Strategic Framework to develop and promote agroforestry. The program brings together scientists, landowners and other USDA partners in applying research and technology to the practice. The goals include rural prosperity, food security, forest and open-space conservation and sustainable farming.