Benefits of Agroforestry on your Farm
Discover the multiple benefits of integrating trees into your farm system
For the farmed environment
1. Building healthy soils
Tree roots reach deep into the ground, releasing much-needed carbon into the soil. They cycle nutrients and bind the soil together, preventing it from being eroded by the wind or the rain.
2. Protecting water sources and keeping them cleaner
Riparian buffers along riverbanks protect them from the impact of adjacent farming activity and run-off.
3. Helping prevent flooding
Trees help slow the flow of rainwater, by first hitting leaves and potentially evaporating, and then by moving more slowly to lower areas, allowing water to infiltrate into soil, reducing the risk of rivers bursting their banks.
4. Protecting against effects of drought
Deep, water-seeking root systems help retain moisture, both vertically and horizontally. Trees also provide shade for livestock, while grass and other plants continue to grow and provide grazing opportunities.
5. Sequestering carbon
To mis-quote Franklyn Roosevelt, 'trees are the lungs of our land' through the process of photosynthesis and building carbon stocks in their branches, roots and supported below ground fungal systems.
6. Encouraging greater biodiversity
Trees and hedgerows are a haven for pollinating insects, fungi, birds, mammals and plant life, who all have their part to play in managing ecosystems. They can also act as 'corridors' for species moving across landscapes.
In some trials, the extra habitats provided by trees have even helped with pest control, because they act as a home for “friendly predators”, who combat some of the pests that would otherwise eat or destroy crops.
For animal welfare:
Trees provide livestock with shelter from the full range of our weather. Agroforestry systems, particularly in upland areas, mean sheep and cattle can stay out for more of the year - in some cases, virtually year-round. Tree shelter can form 'open' or 'living' barns, meaning less time indoors, saving on feed, bedding costs etc.
Ruminant benefit not only from more time spent outdoors grazing, but also from browsing trees and hedgerows. Many trees have high levels of nutrients in their leaves and may also have medicinal properties for instancewillow, which contains salicylic acid a natural form of aspirin.
3. Prevention of nose to nose contact
Good hedgerow management around boundaries can help reduce the spread of diseases such as TB from farm to farm.
4. Helps combat liver fluke and lameness
Protecting against flooding has the added benefit of helping prevent certain diseases. This pdf from National Sheep Association contains more details.
Opportunities to increase productivity
1. 'Layering up'
Agroforestry provides the opportunity to become three dimensional, to 'layer up', creating crops vertically as well as horizontally. This may give you an extra crop, and protection against poor harvests. Fruit, nuts or timber can provide an alternative income stream if the main crop fails due to unlucky circumstances such as wet summers or mild winters.
Diversified cropping through agroforestry can support farm businesses to operate throughout the year and avoid the peaks and troughs of seasonal demands and therefore providing a source of year-round income. Many farmers benefit from having their own source of timber, for biomass heaters, fencing, woodchip etc.
The potential barriers
Farming with trees is no silver bullet. They bring complexity and diversity into what may currently be a highly specialised operation. They usually require investment up front and development of new skills and maybe new markets. And they will probably result in higher labour costs.
1. Skilling up
Even if you understand the benefits, converting your farm can be a daunting task: someone who expertly manages a dairy farm may not feel so confident starting from scratch growing chestnuts!
2. Short-term tenancies
Short-term farm tenancies are also a problem, because they discourage farmers from making long-term investments. It can be years before trees start to bear fruit or can be harvested to pay themselves off. Luckily, these challenges can be overcome. More and more UK farmers are beginning to experiment with agroforestry, and they’re already starting to see improvements in resilience, biodiversity and soil health.
Choosing what is right for any particular farm is not easy and depends on enterprise, soil, geography and potential markets. But overall agroforestry systems are often more than 30% more productive than monocultural systems. So, although more complicated, in the long term they can be productive, profitable and resilient.