The stereotypical picture of American farmland probably looks a lot like this: rolling hills lined with rows upon rows of singular crops, perfectly spaced out for machinery to cultivate, harvest and irrigate the fields.
It wasn’t always that way. In fact, historically, trees and crops co-existed on swaths of farmland together, retaining soil integrity and growing in harmony.
Now, a resurgence in agroforestry—the intentional mixture of forestry and agriculture on farms—is bringing that harmony back to fields across the globe.
Far from a new practice, agroforestry reflects ancient forms of farming much more closely than the monocropping systems that have become extremely prevalent across the United States. “The whole Eastern US in pre-European eras had a lot of agroforestry. That was how a lot of Indigenous groups managed the landscape,” says Cathy Day, a climate policy coordinator with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Because of this, says Day, there’s huge potential to implement agroforesty practices throughout all Eastern US systems.
The canopy term of agroforestry covers six different practices, all centered around integrating trees and perennials into agricultural lands and systems. Some of the techniques, such as alley cropping and silvopasture, integrate trees and bushes into agricultural land. When alley cropping, farmers create rows of trees, forming protected alley ways in which to plant crops. Silvopasture adds trees into livestock pastures, resulting in benefits such as shade and shelter for herds.
Other techniques involve surrounding farmland with trees for added protection. Planting windbreaks or trees encompassing crop areas or livestock land protects from intense winds and other extreme weather. Riparian forest buffers, another agroforestry tool, use trees to separate managed land from waterways and wetlands, resulting in less soil erosion and filtration of pesticides, livestock waste and other potentially harmful agricultural runoff.
All agroforestry practices include the intentional integration of trees and perennials onto cropland in order to protect water quality, regenerate degraded lands and very effectively increase carbon sequestration. According to one North American analysis, agroforestry, even on a modest scale, could sequester enough carbon to offset 34 percent of US annual emissions from coal, oil and gas.
Programs both nationally and overseas are focused on helping farmers implement agroforestry techniques, hoping to spread both environmental and economical benefits. One, Trees for the Future, a non-profit that aims to provide hands-on agroforestry training and resources to farming communities, began in 1989. It focuses on farms in nine countries within sub-Saharan Africa.
Lindsay Cobb, the organization’s deputy director of marketing and communications, says the non-profit honed in on those regions to prove just how effective agroforestry can be, even in difficult growing conditions. “If we can show that our model works in the driest parts of West Africa, that’s really indicative of how effective it can be around the globe,” says Cobb.
The program focuses on a model it calls the “forest garden,” which consists of integrating thousands of trees, while instituting sustainable and regenerative techniques on a piece of land. Farmers work with members of Trees For the Future over four years to develop a prospering forest garden that, if maintained, can sustain the farmer and their family for life. To date, the organization has helped restore more than 70,000 acres of degraded farmland and has started up more than 40,000 forest gardens across Africa.
In the US, where monocropping rules the ways of large-scale farming, the implementation of agroforestry practices is less common. Organizations such as the Savanna Institute, located in Wisconsin, are on a mission to change that.
The institute works with farmers and scientists to lay the groundwork for implementing agroforestry across the Midwest. Kaitie Adams, a community agroforester with the institute, says the focus on the Midwest is a very intentional one. “In places like Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, we see a ton of large-scale row crop agriculture,” she says.
Row crop agriculture refers to the technique of planting in deliberate, predetermined lines wide enough to allow irrigation, tilling and harvesting—usually using farm machinery. “That type of agriculture has been really good at producing a lot of calories, but not so great at building healthy soils, clean waterways and abundant food sources outside of starches and oils,” says Adams. “If we really want to talk about transforming all of agriculture, there’s no better place to start than the place where we see the most intensive amount of agriculture.”
But to successfully implement agroforestry throughout the US, more than just farming techniques need to change. Adams says attitudes around integrating trees into fields need to be adjusted, too.
“Agroforestry is interesting because it’s an ancient way of farming. It’s also practiced around the world with a lot of regularity, but we just don’t see it very often in the United States,” says Adams. The lack of prominence stateside can lead to wariness on the farmers’ end. And for many farmers, the idea is in direct contrast to what they are used to.
As American farms got bigger over the years and the country saw a massive farmland consolidation, farmers began ripping out hedgerows and fence lines of trees because the farmland boundaries were shifting. “We’ve been in a culture of ripping out trees on farmland,” says Adams. To put trees back is “almost an impossible ask because folks have spent a lot of time and money taking them out.”
And even if farmers do agree, they still can face hurdles when looking to introduce agroforestry systems into their fields. Access to materials—such as the trees themselves—is an issue many programs in and outside of the U.S are looking to assist with.
“There’s a lot of need for building up the marketing and other infrastructure in order to ensure that people have access to [plant materials],” adds Day. In hopes of improving that access, organizations such as the NSAC, which advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, are focusing their proposals on agroforestry practices. This year, agroforestry has emerged as one of the high-priority practices for the NSAC’s partners and members, and the organization is lobbying to see investment in agroforestry as a prominent part of the next Farm Bill.
The US Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center (NAC) is also looking to understand and increase agroforestry across the US. In an effort to keep on the pulse of how the practices are playing out on American soil, the 2017 Farm Census included the question, “Do you practice Agroforestry?” The results included a higher-than-expected amount—30,853 farm operations, or around 1.5 percent—of all U.S. producers self-identifying agroforestry practices on their land, a number expected to be an underestimate, as some farmers are unfamiliar with agroforestry terminology.
The NAC also sent out its own survey to gauge just how prominent agroforestry is across the country—something that has never been quantified at this level before.
“One of the primary reasons for the National Agroforestry Survey is we really want to learn from producers,” says Matthew Smith, the NAC’s Research Program Lead. “We want them to share their knowledge and expertise, so then we have a really large data set of what worked for these producers when designing their agroforestry systems and also what didn’t work.” The center hopes this large data set will assist new farmers on a quest into agroforestry that can look at the collected knowledge of farmers before them and see what practices may or may not work on their farms.
The results are still forthcoming—with a goal of analyzing and releasing the results by the summer of 2023—but even without the answers, it’s undeniable that, in the face of evermore prominent impacts of climate change and harsh growing conditions, farmers are looking for practical solutions to keep their land productive and agroforestry practices are becoming more and more common.
”We have a changing climate, with more temperature and weather extremes. And now we have a sufficiently large research base on agroforestry systems really showing how it is effective at diversifying your system both from an economic and ecological perspective,” says Smith. “Finally, I think it’s reached a scale large enough where people are saying, ‘Hey, this has enough proven success on farms that I want to try it.’”