Agroforestry: where business meets nature

The modern agricultural methods have definitely eased most processes connected to farming, but they have also proven to be harmful for the environment in the long run. Today’s world is witnessing many issues caused by current agricultural systems: excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has led to land degradation and has ultimately increased the amount of wasteland; deforestation is another major problem which not only contributes to global warming but also has a huge impact on soil fertility since the lack of trees impedes the regulation of carbon and oxygen cycles; the levels of pollution that originate in agriculture also increase the concentration of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, a phenomenon that leads to the formation of acid rains, which cause significant damage to crops, forests, soil, and underground water sources. 

The evidence of these effects has led humanity to a debate regarding possible solutions to the matter: is there a way to protect the planet by enhancing productivity? Is it possible for the agricultural sector to assure health and respect for the environment while still witnessing positive, if not increased, incomes? A recent study by the UK Soil Association seems to provide impressive answers to these questions. 



Agroforestry is a practice that many countries in the world have been accustomed to throughout history: Europe definitely saw its application at least until the Middle Ages, although places like Finland and Germany have followed this tradition up to the last century. The achievement and development of new farming techniques in the past decades has inevitably led to agroforestry’s decline; however, many farmers in the UK are rediscovering this ancient method, which seems to be conceived as a powerful weapon in facing today’s environmental issues.

Having said this, what does this approach consist of exactly? What makes it such a big revolution? 
Agroforestry is a particular farming system that combines trees or shrubs with crops or livestock. This approach includes a wide spectrum of distinct categories: 
  • Silvopastoral: trees and livestock; 
  • Silvoarable: trees and crops; 
  • Hedgerows and buffer strips; 
  • Forest farming: cultivation within a forest environment; 
  • Home gardens: small-scale, mixed or urban settings.

Benefits

This innovative system can certainly be seen as a sustainable alternative to common agricultural practices, since it provides many benefits when it comes to environmental protection, but also in terms of business revenues. 

Productivity 

The combination of two different crops grown from the same land, such as rows of fruit trees through arable crops, is tied to various beneficial factors for farm businesses: agroforestry supports an increased habitat for pollinators, shelter for livestock, as well as diversification of agricultural products.

In some cases, productivity can increase significantly up to 40%, while hens ranging on land with 20% tree cover have been found to have increased laying rates, that imply higher output and reduced losses.

The main advantage deriving from the use of well-planned agroforestry is undoubtedly the diversification of products, which provides farms with multiple sources of income and allows businesses to operate throughout the year while avoiding the peaks and troughs of seasonal demands. 

Facing the effects of climate change

The Committee on Climate Change highlights that agroforestry could contribute significantly to meeting the carbon budget target by 2030. It is in fact proven that trees integrated in arable settings protect soils from erosion by wind and water by holding them firm and at the same time they increase soil organic matter by adding decomposing leaf litter. Therefore the UK government has acknowledged the benefits of this system in mitigating the effects of climate change, primarily through the prevention of soil erosion, in addition to the advantages coming from tree planting, such as enrichment and protection of biodiversity. 

Flood mitigation and water management

Trees play a key role in reducing the impact of farming activities on watercourses: it is noticeable how lands affected by agroforestry practices retain larger amounts of water in the earth as well as nutrients. Tree roots are able to provide the land with nutrients that can only be found in deeper layers of soil thereby increasing fertility. It is by now clear that this system not only mitigates agricultural pollution, but also contributes to reducing all the related costs. 

Biodiversity and animal welfare

The employment of agroforestry can also improve life quality for a wide range of wild animals as well as for livestock.

The sheltered environments granted by trees allow farmers to keep stock on the land in all weathers and reduce investments in animal housing; the shelter provided by tree-belts and hedgerows facilitates the increase of soil temperature during the early spring and late autumn with the result being an extended growing season for grass. This reduces the need for supplementary feed, especially in upland livestock areas.

Finally, the leaves and barks of trees provide increased nutritional diversity, improving the overall health of animals and offering the opportunity to alleviate the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. 

Whitehall Farm



A great success story in the implementation of agroforestry within farming is the one told by farmer and soil scientist Stephen Briggs: he and his wife have in fact witnessed the many benefits from this sustainable technique after its application on their farm in Cambridgeshire. Agroforestry was initially adopted by the farmers as a solution to the soil erosion problem that their land was facing and, as time passed, it proved to be a great advantage by solving the issue and also increasing productivity and biodiversity.

The system employed by Mr and Mrs Briggs consists in a mixture of apple crops and field crops and the benefits of the choice are very tangible: 
  • Productivity from the apple crops is about the same as from field crops, but more value can be added to tree crops so there’s an economic gain. 
  • Studies on the farm have revealed a significant increase of biodiversity as well as in numbers of insect pollinators. 
  • Agroforestry brings carbon into the farming system during times of the year that other farming systems cannot. This aspect is particularly relevant given that the levels of carbon in soil organic matter are declining on farms. 
  • The method allows a more efficient use of land. 
  • The combination of perennial and annual crops can increase resilience in helping to fight climate change.
The example offered by Whitehall Farm in Cambridgeshire is the proof that sustainability is the best choice in business as well as in life, since higher profits and production levels often come with an increase of health levels for the planet and humans, the results of which translate into an overall improved quality of life.


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