What is agroforestry?

Agroforestry is the strategic integration of agriculture and trees. In an agroforestry system, a wide range of trees and shrubs are strategically integrated with crops or animals (such as cacao, papaya, coconut, coffee and chickens), increasing farm resilience, crop diversity and biodiversity. 

Agroforestry is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It can be utilised in a variety of contexts, including trees on farms and farming in and next to forests. 

Give me an example

Wedgetail’s first nature-linked loanee was Zorzal Cacao, which has dedicated 130 acres of tropical forest to the production of cacao. In this example, cacao has been integrated into an existing forest, increasing its commercial value and with the intention of making it more valuable standing than cleared. 

In other instances, agroforestry is a way of restoring cleared or degraded land. For example, at the edge of the Pacific Forest of Ecuador is a sea of deforested and degraded land. Wedgetail loanee To’ak is working with farmers to convert this land into small, agroforestry farms that structurally mimic the Pacific Forest. The intention is to create a buffer zone for the highly endangered Pacific Forest and enable local farmers to produce cacao that can be sold at a premium price.

Source: To'ak.

Why does it matter?

Agroforestry isn’t a new practice, but it went out of favour with the rise of modern, monoculture agriculture, where one crop is grown in full sunlight to maximise productivity. However, modern agriculture relies on lots of inputs, including pesticides and fertiliser, which leads to poor soil and water quality in the long term. 

On the other hand, by nature of being structurally and functionally complex, agroforestry systems are more resilient, with improved nutrient, light and water capture and utilisation. In a world of climate change and biodiversity loss, agroforestry has never been more important. But it’s not just about mitigating the negative, long-term consequences of monoculture cropping — there are additional benefits of agroforestry too. For example:

  • Most agroforestry systems are designed to boost soil richness which mitigates the need for fertilisers and pesticides;
  • Additional crops can be sold for financial diversity and flexibility; 
  • Additional crops can be used as a food source;
  • Crops are more protected from the damaging effects of wind and heavy rains;
  • Deep root systems prevent soil erosion which improves water quality and infiltration and lessens the impacts of flooding;
  • Forests sequester atmospheric carbon in above- and below-ground vegetation and soil; and 
  • Agroforestry can conserve and create wildlife habitat. 

While this list of benefits is significant, it would be misleading to imply agroforestry systems are always superior. 

First, given the variety of trees involved, they require a lot more pruning. 

Second, there are limited to no incentives or options for farmers to get paid extra for doing agroforestry in general. 

Third, because trees use space that would otherwise be used for rows of cacao planted in full sunlight, for example, less cacao can be planted. There’s simply less room, which means a reduction in cacao yield specifically. However, if all agricultural output from the land is considered, the overall yield might not be less. 

In other words, agroforestry can be slightly less productive in the short term, however, in the medium and long term, it is more resilient, sustaining land resources for generations to come. 

Use it in a sentence

On an agroforestry farm, cacao trees might be integrated with native trees and shrubs that provide critical habitat, banana trees that mature quickly, and leguminous cover crops to support soil health. 

Food for thought

Humans are great at streamlining. We have plots of land where we grow wheat, other plots where we graze sheep, national parks where we connect with nature, and cities where we do business. It’s neat and orderly. Everything has a place, a purpose and a fenceline. And in most examples, people and nature are very separate.

But agroforestry is an example of a system where people, business and nature are re-integrated. Agroforestry is designed so that business sustains people which sustains nature which sustains business. It’s harmonious and complex and the ample benefits compound.

With the scene set, could we reintegrate our waste system in a similar way? Or how we approach national parks and conservation? Or our transportation industry? Or how we design cities? How can we reintegrate people, nature and business for the benefit of all three? 

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