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British farms need more trees – consensus among a thousand farmers and foresters

"British farms need more trees" – say a thousand farmers and foresters

More than a thousand people backed a “win win” future of farming with trees for climate and farm resilience at a groundbreaking event held last week to boost uptake of agroforestry in the UK.

Held amid unseasonably high temperatures, the UK’s first ever Agroforestry Show saw “the beginning of change” with consensus across around 1200 delegates that trees are key to ensuring food production while tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.

The show, organised by the Soil Association and Woodland Trust charities, saw farmers, foresters, researchers, environmentalists, and policy makers sharing insights and advice on how to help farm businesses benefit from trees.

Eastbrook Farm in Wiltshire hosted two days of workshops and talks covering how agroforestry – combining trees with livestock or crops – can help both arable and pastoral farms to protect livestock, crops, soils, rivers, biodiversity, and climate.

Upsurge in trees on farms: the beginning of proper change

Essex farmer George Young, who farms livestock organically and started planting trees in an agroforestry system 2.5 years ago, said: “The show has been fantastic. The big thing for me was just how many practical opportunities there were for planting trees and so many different ideas. It’s a sign that there’s more interest in agroforestry and I’m excited by how broad the term has become and that it’s being accepted as the right approach. I think we’re going to see a big upsurge of different planting styles in the next few years when people see what agroforestry can mean and realise that it can fit into their style of farming. It genuinely feels like the beginning of proper change.”

Speaking during the closing session, forester Ruth Pybus of Broadleaf Wales, highlighted how the two sectors were finding common ground. She said: “It’s been a brilliant opportunity – I’ve loved meeting farmers who are feeling positive about having trees on their farm. It’s the same conversation I have with people who are new to owning woodland. You’re going to get fantastic biodiversity, you’re going to do things that are great for carbon, and for air quality – but it’s more than just all those brilliant things, it’s also a good resource.”

Government need to change the rules of the game for agroforestry 

After a recap on current, limited funding options in a session with policy makers, many also called for the investment and policy changes needed to help farmers make this long-term commitment. There were particular concerns for tenant farmers.

Although none were able to give details of any new schemes to boost uptake, representatives from all four UK governments were positive about supporting agroforestry to help deliver benefits for both food production and the environment.

Soil Association Chief Executive Helen Browning, who hosted the event on her organic farm where she has been running an agroforestry project for seven years, said: “The extraordinary number of people here have shown there’s a real thirst for knowledge on agroforestry from both the traditional forestry and farming sectors. Farming with trees is clearly going to be a huge part of our futures, and never has that been more evident than this week where we’ve experienced 30-degree heat in September. If our farms are going to be resilient to face the future with happy and healthy animals and crops that grow well then trees are going to be a big part of that, as well as being very useful for reaching our environmental goals. It’s a win win.

“There needs to be universally available help for farmers and we need to change the rules of the game so that tenant farmers in particular aren’t stuck in a system that doesn’t allow land-use changes. We have gone beyond a consensus that trees are a good thing, into the practical detail of how to do it. So, it is no longer about the ‘why’ or ‘whether’ but into the ‘how’ we do it - whether that’s knocking down the barriers such as tenure and policy, or into the specifics of how, together, we crack on with it successfully in a cost-effective way.”

Woodland Trust Chief Executive Darren Moorcroft closed the show by saying he hoped all had left “inspired and energised” by the fact that agroforestry is the future and that “the UK now needs to reach the tipping point to take us from a really powerful set of early adopters into a mainstream conversation”.

He added: “Our aim was to create a vibrant agroforestry movement that will continue long after the marquees have been taken down. It was encouraging that we had representatives from the UK government and all three devolved administrations speaking yesterday sharing their common beliefs that agroforestry should have a key role in future policy development.  It is up to us all to help support this by sharing our practical experiences so that governments from across the UK develop policy frameworks that will adequately support the establishment and maintenance of a wide diversity of agroforestry systems.  This includes the frameworks to support new markets for both the services and products delivered via agroforestry.”

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