Overstory #7 - Agroforestry: A way of farming that can work for everyone
There is growing concern throughout the world about the loss of species diversity.
Much of the destruction has taken place to make room for human agriculture, particularly pastures, plantations, and other monocultures. Is there a way of farming that can provide for human needs while benefiting all forms of life?
Agroforestry systems increase species diversity within farming systems, providing for human needs while supporting wildlife, soil microorganisms, rural communities, farmers, economic interests, watersheds, clean air concerns, biodiversity, and more.
There are many different definitions of agroforestry. This is one we prefer, adapted from definitions from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and International Center for Agroforestry Research:
Agroforestry is a collective name for land-management systems that optimize the economic and ecological benefits created when trees and/or shrubs are integrated with crops and/or livestock.
Defining and creating an agroforestry system is more than simply including trees. The key is to maximize the number of beneficial connections formed between trees and other elements on the farm. Agroforestry is about mimicking and recreating the natural web of life, creating an integrated farm system (like an ecosystem) with a multitude of beneficial connections between trees and other parts of the farm. For example, alley cropping is an agroforestry technique that integrates nitrogen fixing trees to provide fertilizer and mulch for crops. With careful design, this technique can also provide erosion control, windbreak, and animal fodder. Some agroforestry systems are very simple, forming just a few connections. Other agroforestry systems are more complex, and their form and function can ultimately resemble a multi-storied forest.
Trees are valuable elements in agricultural systems because by their nature, they lend themselves to making connections to other plants, animals, people, soil, etc. One reason why trees have been such a huge success in natural ecosystems is their ability to benefit all forms of life, and contribute to natural ecological stability and fertility.
Some of the benefits of agroforestry to people:
- Greater long-term economic stability through diversified products
- Reduced need for purchasing off-farm inputs
- Broader opportunities for rural enterprises
- Reduced risk to the farmer
- Increased overall yields
- Year-round production
- Local creation of resources like firewood, animal fodder, construction materials, etc.
Some ecological benefits:
- More efficient use of land to provide for human needs, allowing more land to be left to nature
- Decreased use of manufactured fertilizers, insecticides, fuels, etc.
- Protection of the land from wind and erosion
- Trees provide habitat for wildlife (which in turn can balance insect pests on the farm)
- Support for a diversity of soil microlife
- Planting more trees stores more carbon from the air, helping to reduce carbon dioxide pollution and global warming
Agroforestry systems have been cultivated traditionally in Pacific Islands and other areas of the world for many generations, and modern agroforests have often expanded on this traditional knowledge to improve productivity and sustainability. By implementing agroforestry systems, we build upon time-honored human understanding about how the many forms of life can interact to benefit everyone.
P. Ramachandran Nair, An Introduction to Agroforestry. 1993. Kluwer Academic Publisher. This comprehensive textbook bridges the gap between theoretical and practical knowledge in agroforestry.
W.C. Clark, R.R. Thaman (Editor), Agro-Forestry in the Pacific Islands: Systems for Sustainability. 1994. Unipub. Very thorough treatment of agroforestry practices in the Pacific. Includes list and descriptions of many agroforestry species.
International Institute of Rural Reconstruction. Agroforestry Technology Information Kit, 1990. IIRR, Room 1270, 475 Riverside Dr., New York, NY 10115. One of the most practical references in tropical agroforestry.
Information Resources for Pacific Island Agroforestry provides an introduction to agroforestry, followed by descriptions and contact information for books, guides, periodicals, organizations, and web sites useful to practitioners of agroforestry in Pacific Islands
About the Authors
Kim M. Wilkinson is the Education Director for Permanent Agriculture Resources and editor of The Overstory. She has B.A. degrees in Anthropology and Ecology from Emory University.
Craig R. Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist with more than ten years of public and private sector experience in tropical agroforest and forest management. He has a M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering (Dynamical Systems) from Cornell University.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #57--The Agroforester's Library, Part Three--Organizations and Periodicals
- The Overstory #54--The Agroforester's Library Part Two-Species References
- The Overstory #52--The Agroforester's Library Part One-Books
- The Overstory #44--Integrated Resource Systems
- The Overstory #18--Designing Resource Systems
- The Overstory #9--Observation