For years, farming and forestry have been viewed as fundamentally different, each requiring distinct sets of skills.
As a result, they have been treated separately, in both policy and practice. Many farmers have traditionally perceived trees as competition for their cropped or grazed area, taking up valuable space within the field and provoking yield loss. As a result, few farmers would contemplate growing trees alongside annual crops. However, a growing number of pioneers are going against the perception, connecting the ‘silvo’ with the ‘agri’ and producing a tree-based crop on the same land as cereals (silvoarable) or with livestock (silvopastural). They are experiencing multiple benefits as a result and are actively encouraging others to use agroforestry principles.
Agroforestry can take many different forms and be adapted to suit the economic and environmental needs of a particular farm.
It could result in neat rows of fruit trees grown alongside areas of wheat on an arable farm. It could mean small groups of trees providing shelter for stock, or larger trees dotted through parkland, providing shade within a broad open area. In short, it is about providing space for trees within farming, and reaping the benefits as a result.
Agroforestry enables ‘multi-cropping’: growing more than one crop on the same area of land, which can enhance overall profitability. Stephen Briggs, who farms in Cambridgeshire and uses agroforestry principles, maintains that growing both annuals and perennials within the same field system gives him greater resilience against fluctuating weather conditions and markets as well as better preparing his farm for climate change. For farmers who suffer from wind erosion, trees within the field can reduce wind velocity and therefore cut erosion rates as a consequence.
Clearly, there are benefits for arable farms that wish to diversify their business, utilise their cropping area more efficiently by farming on a ‘3D’ basis, and reduce soil erosion. However, there are also benefits for livestock farmers, and research is illuminating how agroforestry can be integrated into animal-based operations. Planting trees can provide shelter and shade for stock, improving overall performance. It can also provide a sustainable supply of woodchip bedding and fodder.
From climate change to flood protection, food security to biodiversity loss and threats to public health, we face numerous challenges, and many of these can be mitigated through a shift in agricultural strategy. Agroforestry can help curtail soil erosion, biodiversity loss and nitrate leaching through targeted planting of trees where they are needed most. There is a significant opportunity to utilise agroforestry to sequester carbon, using it as a tool to mitigate climate change. According to the Committee on Climate
Change, if agroforestry were expanded to cover 2.3 % of agricultural land by 2050, accompanied by woodland creation averaging 30,000 hectares per year, net greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
A key barrier to overcome is the perception that trees will reduce yields elsewhere in the field. However, Stephen Briggs’ experience
has shown that trees do not necessarily have a detrimental impact on yields. Stephen achieves the same arable yields from his agroforested area as his land without trees. In addition, he is able to harvest a crop of apples in the autumn, increasing the profitability of that area of land. There are evidently increased establishment costs, and tree cropping works on a longer cycle,
but there is an economic net benefit when taken over a longer timeframe.
Land tenure and short-term farm tenancies are a real barrier to agroforestry being taken up on a large scale. The required investment can discourage tenants who cannot afford the cash-flow restrictions involved with certain forms of agroforestry,
especially as some trees will not provide a return for decades. Further costs include harvesting and labour and occasionally
the requirement for specialist equipment.
Convinced? Here are five more reasons to give trees a chance.
On 22 June, more than 250 farmers, foresters and policy-makers came together for the largest ever agroforestry event the UK has seen.
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