The critical role of agroforestry in climate-smart agriculture

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Slash Pine Silvopature in Washington County, Florida

Jim Robinson/USDA-NRCS via Flickr

Climate change continues to threaten food systems at home and abroad, highlighting the urgent need for innovative environmental and economic solutions. As the nation comes together to celebrate the 150and anniversary of National Tree Day, it’s time to reflect on how integrating trees into food and animal production can help tackle the climate crisis. By encouraging the widespread adoption of agroforestry, an agricultural practice that combines agriculture and forestry, the United States can develop a more sustainable future.

Agroforestry 101

Agroforestry is a form of regenerative agriculture rooted in traditional indigenous land management. It encourages diversified and integrated farming systems, compared to modern industrial agriculture which favors farmers who produce a single crop on a large scale. The five most common agroforestry practices include:

  1. Riparian forest buffers: Grow trees, shrubs or perennials along streams, lakes or wetlands;
  2. Silvopasture: Incorporate trees into livestock pastures;
  3. Alley cultivation: Alternating rows of crops with rows of trees or woody plants;
  4. Forest farming: Grow forest crops (eg, mushrooms, ferns, ginseng, goldenseal) under managed tree canopies; and
  5. Windbreak : Plant rows of trees or shrubs to protect crops from wind and improve soil and water quality.

The NRDC recently interviewed over 100 Regenerative Farmers, who expressed significant interest in agroforestry and holistic practices that improve soil health, help manage and control erosion, and capture broad ecological and climate benefits. .

Benefits of agroforestry

Agroforestry offers a myriad of benefits. Specifically, trees in agroforestry systems convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their roots and leaves. Because agroforestry relies on trees that live for many years, unlike annual cash crops whose rapid death and decay add to the industry’s outsized emissions footprint, agroforestry sequesters far more carbon than traditional farming practices – and even some regenerative farming practices. Agroforestry has the potential to offset up to a third of US carbon emissions each year, according to one study.

Agroforestry is also a powerful tool to increase crop productivity and support economic growth. By modifying local environmental conditions (eg temperature, nutrient availability, soil and water quality), agroforestry has the potential to improve crop yields. Windbreaks preserve moisture and protect crops from temperature fluctuations and wind, and alley cropping can increase cropland profitability compared to traditional row cropping. Additionally, farmers can diversify their crops and increase their income through integrated agroforestry systems. The expansion of agroforestry practices also presents an opportunity to create new jobs, especially in rural communities. A recent analysis by the World Resources Institute found that the federal government could support more than 49,500 jobs by investing $1.8 billion annually in agroforestry.

Besides its impressive carbon storage potential and economic benefits, agroforestry offers many ecological and environmental benefits. Agroforestry improves water quality and prevents soil, organic carbon and nutrient losses. Riparian forest buffers, for example, filter runoff from farms and can help reduce harmful toxic algal blooms. These buffer zones also improve habitat for fish and wildlife by providing shade and decreasing water temperature. A program in Washington that encourages farmers to plant native vegetation along waterways — instead of crops — has seen summer water temperatures drop more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit, while local people in spring chinook salmon rebounded impressively.

Riparian Forest Buffer in Queen Anne County, Maryland

Courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program, via Flickr

Creating the path to more agroforestry

Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes both the opportunity and the need for forward-thinking agricultural solutions such as agroforestry. Last year, the agency announced the development of a Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry (CSAF) Strategy, emphasizing voluntary initiatives that provide farmers and ranchers with technical assistance and finance to increase their productivity and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

There is tremendous opportunity within CSAF to expand agroforestry technical support, research and funding – all investments needed to overcome significant barriers to agroforestry adoption. In the months ahead, attention should turn to the many ways climate-smart practices can be translated into policy in the Farm Bill, which will guide our nation’s agricultural spending for half a decade. The US Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service have the authority to promote holistic agroforestry practices. Given the growing and severe impacts of climate change, there has never been a better time to invest in sustainable agricultural solutions.

Next steps for agroforestry

As Congress begins drafting the 2023 Farm Bill, the nation should adopt integrated agroforestry policies to prepare farming communities for the difficult challenges of climate change. Establishing programs to support farmers and ranchers seeking to incorporate these age-old traditions into their farms and ranches will make the land more productive, resilient, and able to withstand climate impacts.

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