Sustainable America Blog

What Is Agroforestry?

Cows grazing in a silvopasture

"Silvopasture," a type of agroforestry, is the integration of trees with animal grazes. Photo: USDA

If you’ve ever sipped a cup of shade-grown coffee, you’ve savored the fruits of agroforestry, the subject of a new USDA report about an age-old practice now used by growers in developing nations to boost production and profits while conserving resources and promoting biodiversity. Using shade trees, an agroforestry practice called “forest farming,” reduces stress on coffee crops, retains moisture, and shelters pest-eating, pollinating critters, all of which means a better product and healthier operation.

Forest farming is just one of five types of agroforestry. The practice includes the use of trees as “windbreaks” and for flood control along rivers as “riparian buffers.” “Silvopasture” is the integration of trees with animal grazes, and “alley cropping” is when farmers alternate rows of annual crops with high-value trees or shrubs.

Agroforestry in the U.S. isn’t new. It served as an invaluable weapon against Dustbowl erosion in the 1930s with the creation of the Great Plains Shelterbelt, when the Civilian Conservation Corp planted 145 million trees from Canada to Texas. But agroforestry’s real genius lies in the number of benefits it can yield, like protecting soil, animals, crops, and homes from extreme weather, improving pollinator habitats, and sequestering carbon and other greenhouse gases.

For over a decade, entrepreneurs Dan Hellmuth and Nicola Macpherson’s Ozark Forest Mushrooms operation has produced gourmet mushrooms, combining forest management with sustainable agriculture and even agritourism on a former clear-cut timber operation. They selectively thin their 2,500 forested acres on a 30-year cycle. Shitake mushrooms grow on stumps, stems, and branches, recycling unmarketable forest byproducts. Meanwhile the forest thrives as a healthy, managed ecosystem.

In Virginia, thanks in part to USDA financial and technical assistance, Chris Fields-Johnson’s success raising sheep and goats on a loblolly pine plantation using silvopasture provides an example for other area farmers of how long-term revenue from trees can be combined with short-term livestock profits. The trees’ biomass and root systems greatly increase the land’s resilience to drought and erosion.

Agroforestry: USDA Reports to America finds that despite these benefits, agroforestry is used on a fraction of the land suitable to the practice. The report stresses the need for examples of agroforestry in action to spread the practice. Growers, consumers, and importantly, investors, need to understand that integrating trees and shrubs into agriculture makes plain economic sense, yielding stronger operations and higher profits. The USDA details several success stories. Cattle farmers in Ohio and the Southeast, for instance, add timber, nut, fruit, and even edible trees to pastures, which reduces stress on animals that in turn thrive and fertilize the land. Alley-cropping systems in the Minnesota River Basin produce biofuel, enhance water quality, and generate jobs and income. Across the country, alley-cropping has been used to build drought resistance while providing multiple income sources, hedging against crop failures.

Over the last five years, the USDA has provided financial and technical assistance to landowners who established a total of 336,000 acres of windbreaks, riparian forest buffers and alley cropping, 2,000 acres of silvopasture, and 500 acres of forest farms. Yet according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, tree-based practices represent less than one-percent of the USDA’s budget. That number needs to increase, says Vilsack, because even this small investment has yielded dramatic economic growth and job creation in rural communities and quality-of-life improvement to suburban areas, where agroforestry filters water and counteracts air and sound pollution. The agency remains eager to offer financial, technical, and scientific assistance to growers committed to implementing agroforestry.

If Sustainable America’s goal of increasing food production 50% by 2035 to alleviate a food system taxed beyond its capacity is to be met, farmers and consumers can’t ignore agroforestry as a toolbox of sustainable techniques. Nor in the current economy can we afford to pass up opportunities to diversify revenue sources. Short-term profitability is essential to survival, as are changes in methods and ongoing research into sustainable agricultural techniques that make our food system more resilient. But true sustainability is impossible without long-term profitability. Agroforestry may hold answers to all of these challenges.

Cedric Rose
Sustainable America Contributor

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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