Agroforestry: more support needed

Agroforestry: more support needed

Agroforestry – the practice of planting the right trees in the right places for improved soil health, carbon capture, biodiversity and animal welfare – isn’t a new idea, but having previously fallen out of favour, it’s currently experiencing a surge of interest.

Cows and trees

The Agroforestry Handbook released in 2019 broke records for pdf downloads on the Soil Association website.

But what are the barriers keeping more farmers from planting trees on their farm?

Soil Association sent a survey to recipients of the handbook to understand more.

What is agroforestry?

The Soil Association and the Farm Woodland Forum have recently published the Agroforestry Handbook (free to download), written by Dr Tim Pagella, Lecturer in Forestry at Bangor University, and Ben Raskin, Head of Horticulture and Agroforestry at the Soil Association. Its purpose is to explain the theory and practicalities of agroforestry, so those involved in land management can consider it in their plans.

Dr Tim Pagella (pictured) says ‘Agroforestry is a new name for an ancient practice. Trees have potential to play a critical role as we move towards more sustainable and ‘climate smart’ food systems’.

Why integrate trees into farmland?

The benefits of planting trees on farms are manifold.

To start with, it can boost farm productivity by 30%, as well as support the Government’s tree planting targets.

But as the handbook explains, the advantage of planting trees goes further. It provides opportunities for UK farmers to reduce inputs and decrease our reliance on imports in tree products such as fruit, nuts, fence post timber, animal bedding, fuelwood and mulches.

Research by French think tank IDDRI has shown that in Europe a ten-year transition to agroecological farming practices – like agroforestry – would slash agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, help to restore biodiversity and protect natural resources – all while producing enough healthy food for Europe’s growing population.

The survey

The Soil Association undertook a survey of the farmers and land managers who ordered the handbook to explore levels of interest and understanding into how agroforestry systems work.

Three-quarters of survey respondents said that having read the handbook, they were more likely to implement agroforestry on their farms. Among the most common motivations were:

  • increased biodiversity,
  • to protect land from drought and flooding, and
  • for making their farms more resilient to economic and climatic shocks

So why isn’t everyone doing it?

Despite strong interest in the benefits of agroforestry for farms and the environment, the survey found that there were significant barriers holding development back, including a lack of technical knowledge and uncertainty around support payments.

Around 40% of respondents did not know where to go for further guidance on agroforestry, with many others finding that the information they need from the government simply does not exist.

For example, survey respondent Tom Fairfax from the Mindrum Partnership, said ‘Whilst Government has understood the superficial aspects of it – whether shelter belts or woodland and hedges, many of the really valuable projects are very context specific ... There’s too much focus on generic best practice and not enough scope for common sense in context’.

This need for detail is echoed by Teona Dorrien-Smith, who runs a small 47 ha mixed organic farm in Monmouthshire. ‘There’s not enough information on what tree varieties are best suited to our climate – and whether or not there’s a market for what grows best’.

Handbook co-author Ben Raskin agrees. ‘The UK is amongst the least wooded countries in Europe – with only 13% of the UK under trees compared to 38% on average in Europe … The UK is already well behind on our Government’s own targets and there’s been other issues, like the potential impacts on wildlife. It’s critical for nature and climate that the right trees are grown in the right places.’

What support is needed

The survey reveals the need for more financial modelling and case studies as well as information on UK specific benefits (environmental and otherwise).

There is also work to be done to share knowledge on systems design, species choice, and management.

Beyond this, help is needed to develop markets for the broad range of outputs from agroforestry systems, and all this needs to be underpinned with greater policy support and funding.

Ben continues, ‘It seems a no brainer for UK government to provide a supportive policy framework and more clarity on payments in order to increase the uptake of agroforestry. Tree planting can and must play a vital role in a green recovery – tapping into the strong appetite for agroforestry could support more resilient farming, and help restore nature, health and a safe climate.’

To find out more about agroforestry, download the free Agroforestry Handbook.