Agroforestry

What is it and how can it be useful for you?

Get started with agroforestry

In the simplest terms agroforestry is a mix of agriculture and forestry. Trees and other perennials are integrated with annual crops or pasture land.  

What is agroforestry?

From Theory to Practice

What different types of agroforestry are there?

Understand why and how Regenerative Agriculture practices work

One of the most incredible aspects of agroforestry is how many different tree and woody perennial crop systems that this term includes and can be integrated with. The history and variety of world cultures that have managed woodland ecosystems for millennia has resulted in nearly endless management techniques and traditions that span all of the Earth’s woodland ecosystems. From semi aquatic riparian and coastal regions, to semi desert arid zones, alpine regions and everything in between, humans have relied upon, and intricately coevolved with, trees through our entire history. 

Rather than try and outline every conceivable configuration of agroforestry, I’ll attempt to outline some of the most common production focuses in order to present the possibilities and integrations.

Orchards

Orchards are some of the most well-known and common types of agroforestry in modern farming. It’s important to mention that an orchard can mean many different things and look quite different to different people around the world based on their culture, history, and orchard management practices. Orchards can also be primary or secondary parts of an integrated agroforestry system that includes animals, fencing or other barriers, and even be integrated in a timber grove. 

The confusion between an orchard and a food forest often comes up because they can be similar and overlapping. In essence a food forest is a type of orchard. More specifics will be listed in the section on food forests below. 

The simple definition of an orchard is, an area devoted to the cultivation of fruit and nut trees. The word cultivation is most relevant here because it separates orchards from “wild” spaces where edible tree species can also grow. 

In modern times an orchard can be managed in many different ways from semi-wild, to industrial management where trees are grown in greenhouse conditions with advanced monitoring, pollination, and irrigation.

Silvopasture

Silvopasture refers to animal grazing space in which trees are intentionally integrated as part of the system. This can mean trees for active cultivation (such as food orchards or tree hay), occasional seasonal harvesting (such as cork oak bark, firewood, or construction timber), or semi-wild woodland (where the trees are not actively managed or harvested). 

There are countless benefits for many types of livestock to be managed in woodland environments. Many animals such as goats, foul, certain breeds of sheep and cattle even, will browse or primarily eat material from the underbrush and lower branches of trees. This can be a source of minerals and nutrients that are lacking in pasture grasses. The shade and weather protection from the trees can help to keep animals cool in the heat of the day or protected from rains and storms. The added habitat for wildlife brings a myriad of ecosystem benefits such as pest control and increased pollination of native plants. The trees can also benefit from the presence of the animals if they are managed correctly and regularly moved to allow the land to rest and recover. The manure from the animals will fertilise the ground. They’ll also eat competing plants and grasses that may compete with the trees for water and soil nutrients. 

Though in our recent history it was not uncommon to manage animals in this way all round the world, only recently have Silvopasture systems begun to be seriously considered in large ranches and animal raising operations. There is so much potential for silvopasture to regain its place as a primary system for animal raising and ecosystem restoration.

Timber land

As long as timber has been used for building and tools, humans have developed ways to manage forests to promote the growth of trees that they prefer to use and the characteristics of those trees that are desirable. We’re now at the point where vast expanses of land are cultivated for timber, often in monoculture plantations. While these certainly count as agroforestry systems, their methods of planting and management have created many detrimental effects for the environments. 

Like any other huge monoculture plantings, timber plantations reduce biodiversity, destroy topsoil (mostly when they’re harvested and heavy machinery prepares the ground for replanting), damage the water table, and wreak havoc on wildlife habitat. 

Many of the opposite things can happen if timber plantations are well designed and managed. With so many reforestation efforts going on around the world, there are increasing opportunities to find funding for diverse native species afforestation, even if you plan to harvest them in the future. 

There are also two primary timber harvesting methods that allow timber, small diameter poles, and firewood to be harvested from a tree without killing it. Pollarding and coppicing both involve carefully pruning trees at specific heights that allow them to regrow and be harvested again, usually in a few years.

Like all the previous examples of agroforestry, timber plantations can be integrated with all the others. Timber can be eventually harvested from certain fruit and nut trees, be integrated with orchards, be managed with animals in silvopasture systems, serve as living fences and hedgerows, and even be integrated as a part of all of them. 

Depending on the amount of space you have, the limitations of your context, and the business model of your farm, trees for timber can also make for long term monetary investments.

Food forests

In my opinion, food forests are worth mentioning here because they’ve become very popular in permaculture circles around the world. The idea of a forest full of delicious edible tree and perennial bush species is very alluring. There have even been successful installations of food forests in public parks and urban areas, as well as the back yards and small farms where they’ve gained their popularity. 

Food forests are also more similar to the ways that indigenous people all around the world have managed their forests and tree crops for thousands of years. Trees that they favored for one reason or another were cared for within a more “wild” forest in a way that resembles a garden more than the large scale orchards and tree cropping systems of today. 

The benefits are that you can harvest yields from many multiple levels of the forest from high canopy down to ground covers. The wide variety of species support one another, create habitat for wildlife, and build resilience to storms, droughts, and other severe weather patterns. 

The drawback from all the diversity, multilevel cultivation, and resilience of these integrated forest gardens is that they can be comparatively inefficient to manage if you’re hoping to produce food or other products at an industrial scale. Machinery for planting and harvesting needs straight rows and extra space to maneuver. Food forests, in contrast, often need to be cared for and harvested by hand which can be slower and increase production costs. 

Like in so many aspects of business, and especially agrobusiness, a balance needs to be struck between managing efficiency and production costs with the health and resilience of the overall system. This will be determined by many factors, but in general, the environmental factors often get left out of the equation and need to be carefully considered if sustainability or even regeneration are to be achieved through your farming operations.  

Fencing and hedgerows

Though this form of agroforestry is not often considered a part of the major systems, it’s worth profiling for all of the potential benefits that it brings to other types of crop cultivation.

Since the beginning, land has often been separated and fenced off in order to prevent access from other humans or animals, or to prevent animals from leaving a confined area. The longest lasting and often most resilient way of creating these barriers is by planting living fences with hedgerows (to use the common English term). 

There are long histories from different regions of the world on how to manipulate the planted rows to create dense and impenetrable barriers to all sorts of animals, some tightly woven enough to deter even small animals like rabbits. Living fences and hedgerows can serve a lot of purposes beyond just keeping animals in and intruders out. They can also shield crops from wind, heavy weather, and also provide shade. The added wildlife habitat can help control pests and insects that would damage crops. The deeper root systems of the hedges can also prevent soil erosion, help to infiltrate and hold water in the ground, and prevent compaction. Trimming them can provide everything from mulch and organic matter for compost to building poles, food, and medicine. 

Some of the oldest known hedgerows were planted during the Roman occupation of England and are still alive today. Though living fences and barriers require more expertise and labor to maintain, hopefully the added benefits that they bring will encourage farmers to bring them back into wider use.

Though agroforestry systems around the world and throughout history are incredibly diverse, I hope this short guide has given some insight into the major configurations that they can take. One of the most remarkable characteristics of agroforestry is just how versatile and complementary these systems can be for just about any farm enterprise. Woody perennial systems can be integrated into market gardens, commodity crop ventures, cattle ranching, small mixed farms and massive monoculture operations. They also blend well with each other making timber, fruit orchards, native reforestation, silvopasture and more, possible all on a single site. Add to that the fact that pollarding and coppicing management means that they can be harvested from and pruned almost indefinitely without killing the trees and you have the potential for an incredibly resilient and profitable system. 

If you’re looking to learn more about agroforestry, please check out the other resources we have on the topic at ClimateFarmers.org

You can also join our community discussion and have your questions answered in the group chat. You can also find episodes and panel discussions with experts going into great depth on agroforestry on the Regenerative Skills podcast at regenerativeskills.com

What IS THE PROFITABILITY OF agroforestry?

What perennial crops have the highest return and profitability (for my context)

In order to answer the complex question of what perennial crops are the most profitable, it’s important to answer a few others to better understand your own context and needs. 

  • What tree and perennial crops grow well in my climate? While there are a lot of ways to grow plants that are suited to other climates, the easiest to grow and those which require the least amount of maintenance and worry will be those which are already adapted to your local area. Ultimately, they’ll have the most benefits for your whole farm ecology too.
  • Which of those offers the highest price by weight or volume? The profitability of a crop, especially at larger scales of production is largely dependent on the price you can sell it at by weight or specific volume. If you’re planning to grow at a small scale it will be easier to further process your harvest into value added products that are less dependent on price by weight or volume
  • Is there a market in your area for that product, and does it fluctuate regularly? Your climate and soil may be able to grow high value crops, but if there’s no one interested in buying it, you’ll struggle to make a profit. Be sure to do some thorough market research before committing to planting. The volatility of the market is also an important factor. For example, recent wholesale prices for olives have been so low that olive growers in Spain and other Mediterannean countries have been unable to pay for the overheads of production and harvest. Many have taken to the streets in protest and their crops have been left to rot as a result. Long life perennial systems are a major investment and if you’re investing in trees or other perennials that have a history of crashing commodity prices, you could find yourself in a very difficult financial situation down the road.
  • How densely can you plant that crop (trees per hectare for example)? The size of land you have access to will always be a limitation to how much of a given crop you can produce. For example 4-6m of space in between pomegranate trees is recommended, while walnuts, though much larger trees need only about 2.7 meters between them if grown for timber, but 5.2 meters is better if grown for their nuts. 
  • Be sure to consider pollination
  • How much volume can you modestly expect to produce on the land you have?
  • What is the cost of planting the system, irrigation, machinery, labor, and other maintenance costs?
  • What equipment is needed to harvest and prepare the product for sale as well as storage for optimal preservation?
  • Once all of these are researched and calculated, you can determine the likely profitability of the crop. 
  • Each question should narrow down the options that you consider

What plants can I make money on while they are growing

  • Once you’ve decided on one or more central plants for production in your agroforestry system, you can start to look into what other profitable crops can be grown within the remaining space. Grazing animals in agroforestry rows can also be a profitable option that can help to bring in an income while your perennial crops are maturing. They can also enrich your soil and help to maintain the health of the trees if properly managed. 
  • There’s no one-size-fits-all option here. Your decision should always carefully consider your context. With that said, there are many successful examples in Europe and around the world that can serve as inspiration. 
  • Commodity crops between agroforestry rows can benefit from the wind and sun protection of agroforestry crops while bringing in a secondary or primary income. The deep roots of trees, bushes and hedgerows can also help to hold soil in place and prevent erosion, aid in rainwater infiltration and hold water in the soil. Perennial plants can also increase biodiversity by acting as native habitat for wildlife, attracting pollinators, and so many other ecosystem services that will increase yields and reduce inputs. Be careful to consider the row spacing of your trees though. Lanes for grain cultivation need to be wide enough for machinery to pass through and also turn around safely at the end of the rows. 
  • Vegetable production between hedge rows and orchards. There is a long history all around the world of growing annual vegetables in the margins and cleared spaces between tree crops. The types of annuals and perennials that will work best in your system will be determined by many factors including your climate, soil type, annual rainfall, native species varieties, companion planting guilds and much more. Just like with grain production, annual vegetables can benefit greatly from having trees and hedgerows nearby. Likewise, trees and other perennials can benefit from having certain types of cultivated plants in their understory as long as care is taken to observe the interactions of these plant species over time. Managing the understory of your perennials can help to keep weed pressure under control, reduce pests, increase soil health and moisture, and much more. 
  • Rotational grazing and silvopasture. The relationship between grazing animals in forest and mixed forest ecosystems predates human agricultural traditions and many pastoral cultures evolved in these ecosystems. Often referred to as silvopasture today, grazing animals in the understory of both cultivated and wild trees is another example of symbiotic ecosystem relationships if managed correctly. Animals can feed on the grasses and weeds that might otherwise compete with the perennial plants for water and nutrients. The manure from those animals is a powerful fertilizer for the trees and helps to add carbon rich decomposed material to the soil. Many trees and perennials are also protein and mineral rich food for animals that can help reduce the amount of supplementation they will need in their diet. Tree hay from mulberry trees is just one example of this. Ancient traditions such as the dehesa system in Spain and Portugal are a testament to the sustainability of mixed rotational grazing systems managed by whole communities that helped to maintain healthy biodiverse forests for thousands of years. 
  • One of the biggest advantages of agroforestry is that it lends itself to so many different combinations of synergistic farming enterprises and land management techniques which can all complement each other for the benefit of all life on the land. These mixed farms were the norm in agriculture for most of human history and represent what we need to return to if our farming practices are to be beneficial to our local ecosystems once again.

When will the system start to make a profit

  • When planning an agroforestry system you’ll need to consider the time to full production of your trees and other perennials, because unlike annual crops, most of them won’t give a harvest in their first year. Many tree crops, like fruit and nuts, won’t produce a yield for 3 to 7 years and some may take as long as 10-15 years. 
  • The best way to calculate how long you’ll have to wait to harvest your plantings is to speak with the growers of your trees and perennials directly. 
  • While you can find great information about nearly any variety of plant online, the growers at the nursery will know the most about the specific varietals and genetics that they cultivate as well as the conditions that their plants need to grow well and produce consistently
  • Some of the factors that can affect the time to production of your plants
    • Access to water
    • Competition from weeds and other plants
    • Quality and type of soil they’re grown in
    • Whether or not they were grafted onto rootstock
    • Access to sunlight
    • Exposure to heavy frosts or high temperatures  
  • Even before starting to plan the planting of your agroforestry system, it’s a good idea to speak with the people at a local tree nursery and explain your ideas and give them a description of your land. They’ll likely have good advice and could make recommendations you hadn’t considered.
  • Speak with other growers of the same crops or similar crops nearby. Anyone with prior experience will be able to offer a valuable perspective and give practical advice.  
  • Once you’ve gathered reliable information that will allow you to accurately calculate the time to harvest for your perennial crops, be sure to factor this into your business plan. If you need to find other ways of generating an income before you can expect to make money from your agroforestry system, check out our short article on What plants can I make money on while they are growing?

The difference between a food forest and agroforestry

  • It can be tricky to know the difference between a food forest and an agroforestry system because they have so much in common. In fact a food forest, a term made popular in permaculture teachings, is one type of agroforestry system. 
  • The distinguishing aspect of a food forest that attracts many people is that a diversity of plants in a designed forest aim to mimic the resilience and variety found in a healthy mature forest, but with an emphasis on plants that are edible and useful to humans. By choosing plants that occupy all of the many layers of a forest, from the upper canopy to the ground layer, and even below ground in some cases, beneficial interactions between species can be leveraged to create abundance. 
  • This can be in contrast to other agroforestry systems that are designed for higher efficiency and greater yields of one, or just a few, primary crops in the enterprise. A conventional orchard may only grow a couple varieties of apple or pear which are planted in straight rows for easy access with machinery and simpler irrigation systems. These are still examples of agroforestry, but while they may produce an enormous amount of apples and pears, they tend to be devoid of diversity and often require many mechanical and chemical inputs to maintain. 
  • Though there are great examples of orchards managed with regenerative land practices and whole ecosystem approaches (miracle farms, holistic orchard), food forests are usually non-commercial plantings such as those in yards, parks, and ecosystem restoration efforts

If you’re interested in learning about other agroforestry systems that could be perfect for your own context, check out our article on The Array of Agroforestry systems.

Agroforestry in action

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