Agroforestry

What is it?

Colombia soil

Tropical soils are typically red due to high clay content and fragile once the forest cover is removed. When converted to unsustainable farming practices, the soil quickly erodes during heavy rains and pollutes waterways with heavy sediments loads. Agroforestry practices can help protect waterways and soil while diversifying farming products for financial stability for the farmer. Photo taken in Urrao, Colombia, 2012- Catherine Bukowski

A simplistic definition of agroforestry is a sustainable land management system that offers production practices that intentionally integrate trees, crops, and/or livestock. Agroforestry became formerly recognized as a science in the 1970s, but the practices are rooted in traditional farming practices and indigenous knowledge from around the world, particularly, but not limited to, the humid tropical environments.

Traditional farming in tropical regions was studied by scientists to understand and explain why and how the systems they saw were structured and functioned. Scientists began collecting data on the systems to quantify inputs and outputs as well as to improve and/or replicate them.  The majority of agroforestry practices are seen as integrating trees into agricultural crop or livestock systems while a select few are seen as incorporating or harvesting crops from forestry systems.

An example of a young alley cropping system on a slope in Cameroon. The nitrogen-fixing species planted in a row will be coppiced (pruned) and their leaves will be left on the soil to decompose and add nitrogen to the soil for the corn crop. Photo taken in western Cameroon, 2010 by Catherine Bukowski

An example of a young alley cropping system on a slope in Cameroon. The nitrogen-fixing species planted in a row will be coppiced (pruned) and their leaves will be left on the soil to decompose and add nitrogen to the soil for the corn crop. Photo taken in western Cameroon, 2010 by Catherine Bukowski

There are multiple types of agroforestry practices such as: windbreaks, riparian buffers, alley cropping, forest farming, tropical homegardens (forest gardens), silvopasture, taungya, woodlots, live fence, and border plantings to name a few.

Why is it important?

There has been years of both ecological and sociological research on agroforestry practices that can provide information for better understanding how to make a food forest successful, particularly community ones. When I was first introduced to agroforestry in Latin America, it was a form much closer to what is considered permaculture in North America or temperate places in general. Here many people see permaculture and agroforestry as distinctly different, whereas they are much more blended in other parts of the world. I co-taught a university class in fall 2014 focused on whole-farm planning. We teach students to use site assessment and design processes of permaculture to help place agroforestry practices on the landowner’s property.

I personally see these two practices as very complimentary to each other and they can be integrated to produce holistic and thorough land management plans backed by research. Agroforestry is important for many reasons in my opinion, but particularly because it can have a mutually beneficial relationship with permaculture. Permaculture is a social movement and a design system that is now evolving into a phase where research could help build more credibility that the practices and design processes work. Agroforestry and other areas of science can offer some of that credibility where practices overlap and agroforestry could benefit from more social networking to get information about the practices spreading more quickly.  This is a topic that I feel passionate about and it will most likely be revisited throughout the year so please feel free to comment!

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