What is Agroforestry?

by Evan DeMarco on Jul 05, 2022

What is Agroforestry?

There are plenty of ways that communities can grow plants and crops to help the environment, rather than to deplete it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines agroforestry as “the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.”

As we face climate change, a rapidly depleted topsoil layer and pollution, agroforestry can make a major difference in the land’s overall health. Consciously making the decision to turn a landscape into an agroforested area is a practice that has been conducted for thousands of years. Indigenous societies commonly practice forms of agroforestry, as a way to work with the environment, rather than against it.

Learning more about agroforestry, and advocating for the practice in your own community, can make a difference. Here’s the scoop on agroforestry, and why it’s so important.

What qualifies as agroforestry?

Not every regenerative farm or natural landscape is considered agroforestry. In order to qualify as agroforestry, at least according to the USDA, the farming and animal systems must satisfy the “four Is”: it has to be intentional, intensive, integrated and interactive.

Types of agroforestry

There are five different types of agroforestry in two broad categories: farming and linear practices. Alley cropping, forest farming and silvopasture are farming practices, while riparian forest buffers and windbreaks are linear practices.

  • Alley cropping: This type of practice involves planting crops, between rows of trees, while the trees mature. This is usually used to provide income while the trees grow to provide shade and other benefits, if they’re not food crops themselves. From fruits, vegetables and herbs to grain, flowers and bioenergy feedstocks, the possibilities are endless.
  • Forest farming: Forest farming is used to provide the right amount of shade to food, herbs, botanical and decorative crops. You may have heard this referred to as “multi-story” cropping. Again, the trees provide a natural way to give crops exactly what they need.
  • Silvopasture: Silvopasture includes livestock, trees and forages for the livestock on one piece of land. The trees can be used to produce fruit, nuts or timber, while also acting as shelter from the sun and elements for the livestock. This allows them to roam while still protected from sun, wind, rain and more.
  • Riparian forest buffers: These are either natural or “reestablished” areas along riparian areas—rivers and streams. The buffers are made of trees, shrubs and grasses, which help prevent pollution and erosion. The plants’ roots add stability, while filtering out farm runoff. Farmers may use these to provide more income or support wildlife.
  • Windbreaks: Wind, snow, dust and even unpleasant odors can wreak havoc on crops, buildings and the topsoil layer. Windbreaks are referred to as hedgerows, “living snow fences” and shelterbelts. They keep wind and other elements from harming certain areas.

Benefits of agroforestry

The UK’s Soil Association describes agroforestry as a “3D farming practice,” where the roots help cycle nutrients deep within the ground and trap carbon, while aboveground, the crops and trees can provide shelter and nutrients for humans and animals. Like regenerative agriculture, agroforestry seeks to improve the health of the land and its inhabitants by working with the natural environment, rather than creating manmade structures.

In turn, this makes for better and more resilient food production: the soil is nourished as different biological systems work symbiotically. Because soil retention is so crucial to crops and animals alike, the anti-erosion benefits are especially important.

There’s also a better chance of growing productive crops and happier animals. If one crop or forage fails, there are still alternative sources of income to lessen the blow.

Finally, agroforestry supports wildlife with smaller farms, more shelter for animals and even provides pest control with “friendly predators.”

Agroforestry matters

Agroforestry is an ancient practice that continues to this day for one good reason: it works. It’s hard to argue with improved food production, better soil retention, carbon trapping and wildlife protection. Whether you’re involved in farming yourself, or simply want to patronize farms which use sustainable practices, it’s important to advocate for agroforestry everywhere.

To find local farms who practice agroforestry, you can always turn to Google—but a better way might be to visit your farmers’ markets and start asking questions. Once you have a good agroforestry source, try to patronize them as often as possible, and tell others why. Spreading the word and supporting local communities is just as important as protecting our planet and its inhabitants.