What is Agroforestry?
Agroforestry is a form of “multi-functional” agriculture where trees and shrubs are intentionally integrated into food crop and/or livestock production. Though the term agroforestry is relatively new, the concept has been practiced for time-immemorial by Indigenous communities around the world. By blending agriculture and forestry, farmers can expand their economic opportunities to include high value tree products in addition to their regular income from livestock and/or annual companion crops. Agroforestry also provides numerous environmental co-benefits such as sequestering carbon and improving soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat. In the face of a changing climate, agroforestry represents a unique opportunity to maximize production value while simultaneously protecting the environment.
The United States Department of Agriculture currently recognizes five agroforestry practices: Silvopasture, alley cropping, hedgerows/windbreaks, riparian buffers, and forest farming.
Silvopasture is the deliberate integration of trees and shrubs with livestock production. Silvopasture systems are managed synergistically for three components: forest products, livestock, and forage.
Alley cropping refers to the cultivation of food, forage, or specialty crops between rows of trees. Also called intercropping, alley cropping can range from simple systems such as annual grain rotation between rows of trees, to much more complicated systems that produce a diverse array of agricultural products.
Windbreaks and hedgerows are barriers of trees and shrubs that are used to protect crops and livestock from wind. Windbreaks decrease topsoil loss, define boundaries, and provide tree products, as well as improve landscape aesthetics, wildlife habitat, and water quality.
Riparian buffers provide a transition zone between aquatic and upland environments. These buffers help stabilize stream banks, decrease erosion, filter sources of upland pollution, and improve wildlife habitat.
Forest farming is the intentional cultivation of understory crops within an established or developing tree canopy. This technique intentionally uses vertical space and the interactions of plants and the microclimate. There are seven layers of production that can be utilized in an agroforestry system including roots, fungi, vines, vegetation, shrubs, understory canopy and over story canopy.
Benefits of Agroforestry
Agroforestry practices provide economic, environmental, and social benefits to practitioners and the community at multiple scales. At an individual level, farmers benefit from increased economic and agricultural resiliency. The community benefits from the many ecosystem services associated with agroforestry such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, soil enrichment, and air and water quality improvements.
Economic resiliency: Agroforestry allows farmers to access additional markets, thereby reducing economic risks and diversifying sources of income. This can help stabilize entire communities and stimulate rural economies. Agroforestry also increases the genetic diversity of the food system which can strengthen local food security.
Climate change: Agroforestry practices can help mitigate climate change by sequestering additional carbon and decreasing the emissions associated with conventional farming methods.
Soil health: Trees and shrubs improve soil ecology, decrease erosion, increase water retention, and decrease dependency on inputs such as fertilizer. Nitrogen fixing trees, in particular, can significantly increase soil fertility.
Wildlife habitat: Trees and shrubs provide habitat for pollinators and insects that can increase native crop pollination and combat pests. These spaces also provide habitat for native birds and other wildlife.
Air and water quality: Trees and shrubs planted as riparian buffers help to absorb pollutants before they contaminate waterways. Windbreaks reduce dust and topsoil loss, while all agroforestry practices can help reduce erosion.
Livestock health: Windbreaks can screen dust, odor and noise, while trees planted in silvopasture systems can provide shade for livestock in the summer and respite from the wind in the winter.
Please email us at email@example.com or send us a message using our contact page if you have an agroforestry project idea or would like to be involved in our upcoming agroforestry pilot project.
Snohomish Conservation District: Agroforestry website and factsheets
USDA Agroforestry Practices Fact Sheets
Association for Temperate Agroforestry
Photo credit for top picture. CAFNR /CC BY-NC-2.0.
Riparian Buffers. Photo source: The National Agroforestry Center.
Alley cropping. Photo source: The National Agroforestry Center.
Silvopasture. Photo Credit: The Center for Sustainable Agriculture, UVM
Forest Farming. Photo Credit: Snohomish Conservation District.