Agroforestry: An Ancient Agriculture for a Modern Farm Bill
Environment Policy Brief #139 | By: Jacob Morton | April 8, 2022
Header photo taken from: Climate Institute
Follow us on our social media platforms above
Browse more enivornment policy briefs from the top dashboard
Photo taken from: The Hutchinson News
In 2023, our current Farm Bill will be up for renewal, meaning Federal legislators will have the opportunity to reevaluate how we choose to financially support our food and agricultural industries and services. The Farm Bill is an omnibus piece of legislation, meaning many different programs, measures, and diverse subjects are packaged together into a single document for a single vote by the legislature; much like the recent infrastructure bills. Historically, the Farm Bill focused primarily on programs that supported the production of commodity crops – corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, rice, peanuts, dairy, and sugar – but since 1973, has grown in scope to include subjects like nutrition, conservation, horticulture, bioenergy, and meat production. The Farm Bill is renewed every five to six years, providing an opportunity for policymakers to comprehensively address agricultural and food issues.
According to the EPA, the agriculture sector was responsible for approximately ten percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, not to mention its extensive and continued history of pollution and degradation of our soils, waterways, forests, and other natural ecosystems, as well as the abusive industrial production of meat and application of chemical toxins harmful to not only the planet’s biodiversity, but to humans as well. Humans must eat, and despite the track record of modern agricultural practices, agriculture remains one of the greatest tools at our disposal to fight climate change, revive the health of our ecosystems, and feed the world’s population at the same time. This is where Agroforestry comes in.
Agroforestry, as defined by the USDA, is “the intentional integration of trees and shrubs with crop and animal production to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.” The word “agroforestry,” however, is just a term that has recently become popularized, much like “regenerative agriculture,” but as a method of food production and land management, it has been practiced around the world since long before the USDA, or even the United States, existed. Agroforestry is an ancient agricultural system that not only produces food, but “supports biodiversity, builds soil horizons and water tables, and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.”
Agroforestry is practiced in many forms. It can be used as a conservation practice by planting trees and other perennials along rivers and streams to prevent erosion and nutrient pollution, a practice often referred to as “riparian or vegetative buffers.” Similarly, by reincorporating trees into an open landscape, typical of most farmland, one can transform the farm into an atmospheric carbon sink rather than a carbon source, actively fighting climate change by pulling CO2 out of the air and putting that carbon into the soil via tree roots, thereby reviving the soil microbial food web.
While agroforestry can mean tending existing forests to produce plant and fungal species desirable for human consumption, it also encompasses replanting open lands that had previously been deforested for grazing and annual crop production, with trees and other perennial species. These lands can either be fully reforested or planted with trees and other perennials in strategically spaced rows with livestock grazed or annual crops grown in the open space between, known as Silvopasture or Silviculture.
According to Project Drawdown, a climate change mitigation think tank based out of San Francisco, California, “agroforestry practices are some of the best natural methods to pull carbon out of the air.” The group ranked silvopasture as “the ninth most impactful climate change solution in the world, above rooftop solar power, electric vehicles and geothermal energy.” Drawdown reports that globally, as of 2020, roughly 1.36 billion acres of land are currently managed in silvopasture systems, and if about 540 million more acres were put into silvopasture by 2050, “carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced over those 30 years by up to 42 gigatons—more than enough to offset all of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans globally in 2015, according to NOAA—and could return $206 billion to $273 billion on investment.”
Photo taken from: ProAg
Here in the US, current corn, soy, wheat, and cotton production (all commodity crops subsidized by the Federal government) account for 284.42 million acres. Transitioning these acres to agroforestry systems could theoretically contribute to over half of the carbon sequestration required globally to meet our 2050 goals. While not all of these acres would be transitioned into silvopasture systems (utilizing livestock), Project Drawdown notes that even agroforestry systems that do not utilize livestock, are estimated to sequester 4.45 tons of carbon per hectare (2.47 acres) per year. All of these commodity crops can be integrated into agroforestry systems.
From an economic perspective, agroforestry provides farmers and landowners with the opportunity to diversify their income streams and create long-term viability for their farms. A farmer who plants fruit producing trees and shrubs along the banks of a stream that runs through their land, will catch the excess nutrients running off their crop fields before they are flushed into the stream, thus, preventing pollution and saving the nutrients (and money) that would otherwise be wasted. Those saved nutrients will feed the trees and shrubs, which in turn produce fruit and bring the farmer more money and more resilience. According to the USDA, “U.S. fruit and tree nut value of production has increased steadily over the past decade,” with “Tree-nut value [rising] dramatically to record levels of around $10 billion in recent years.”
Similarly, if a farmer raises livestock, incorporating trees into one’s pastureland allows that farm to “stack functions” (to steal a permaculture term), meaning the farmer will not only earn an income from the meat they produce, but the manure produced by the livestock will feed the growing trees, which then produce fruits, nuts, or timber, increasing and diversifying the farmer’s income, all while providing shade and healthier pastures for the livestock, plus the extra fruit and nut droppings to be scavenged.
And through a social justice lens, agroforestry represents an opportunity to educate ourselves on the land-stewardship methods Indigenous cultures have practiced for centuries, and to hold space for these communities to lead the way for future land-use and agricultural policies based on the cultural knowledge they have amassed and passed down of the lands from which they have historically been displaced.
Additionally, agroforestry provides a model of food production suitable for public lands, such as parks. Trees provide shade, appealing aesthetics, and even food, while the land beneath them is still usable for public purposes, as opposed to fields of vegetables. Such community agroforestry projects create greater food security for communities and opportunities for marginalized communities to reclaim their public spaces and food sovereignty.
So, if agroforestry can help fight climate change, promote biodiversity, increase food security and farm viability, improve living conditions for livestock, and provide an opportunity for Indigenous leadership, why is it not more popular? According to Dietmar Stoian, lead scientist for value chains, private sector engagement and investments with the research group World Agroforestry (ICRAF), because agroforestry is not widely understood in the US and trees can take years to “bear fruit,” farmers, landowners, and local governments have a tough time committing to such an investment.
This is where the Farm Bill comes in. As legislators prepare to craft and vote on the next Farm Bill in 2023, we have the opportunity to press our representatives to support funding for agroforestry projects and farm system transitions. While the USDA has officially recognized agroforestry as an approved conservation practice (meaning farmers and landowners can now receive federal funding and technical assistance to implement agroforestry projects on their lands), few programs providing that support currently exist, and those that do are either underfunded or have additional caveats.
Federal programs like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) offer opportunities for select farmers and landowners to receive funding and consulting services to implement sustainable practices, some of which fall into the agroforestry category, but these farms are then expected to conduct some sort of research project in return and become an educational resource for other farms; an undertaking not necessarily feasible for most farmers. Other conservation incentive programs applicable to agriculture exist, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP), or the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), but all require significantly more funding and the funds that are available are not typically reserved for agriculture but shared with general conservation efforts as well.
Another strategy the Federal government has taken is to provide funding to state and local agencies to administer their own assistance programs for conservation efforts that include some USDA recognized agroforestry-related practices. Some have been successful in spreading the word about agroforestry and its benefits, like Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which has been collaborating with local farmers and landowners to implement vegetative and riparian buffers along waterways, in an effort to mitigate nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But federal funding for these efforts has been limited, and not every state or local government sees this as a priority use of funds.
David LeZaks, senior fellow at the Croatan Institute, a research institute based in Durham, North Carolina, points to the lack of resources out there for farmers, landowners, and investors to feel confident in committing to an agroforestry project.
Photos taken from: Propagateventures (.com)
(click or tap to enlargen)
LeZaks says this is largely because there “is not a one-size-fits-all approach to agroforestry. It depends on climate, objectives, markets, and all sorts of other variables. There really aren’t the technical resources—the infrastructure, the products—that work to support an agroforestry sector at the moment.”
Several groups, however, are working to change that. A start-up called Propagate, based in New York and Colorado, and working primarily in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, has developed software analytics to help farmers analyze their operations and predict long-term cost-to-revenue and yields for potential agroforestry projects and farm transitions to agroforestry systems. Propagate evaluates the farmer’s business goals, uses geographic information system (GIS) software to map out land, and determines the trees most appropriate for the particular agricultural system. Propagate then helps to implement the agroforestry system and connects the farmer with third-party investors through a revenue-sharing model in which the investor takes a percentage of the profit from harvested tree crops and timber. Propagate will even help farmers to arrange commercial contracts with buyers looking for agroforestry-sourced products.
Propagate is a for-profit start-up, having received $1.5 million in seed funding from Boston-based Neglected Climate Opportunities, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust, in 2020. But non-profit groups have been pushing the movement forward as well. The Savannah Institute, based in Illinois and Wisconsin, provides research, education, and outreach to support the growth of agroforestry in the Midwest, while Interlace Commons does similar work in the Northeast, as well as Appalachian Sustainable Development in the Southeast.
The interest and investment potential from the private sector is there, the question is, will the Federal government follow suit and provide the resources necessary to actualize real change in our agriculture sector? For the 2023 Farm Bill, Federal legislators should consider the investment potential, not just economically, but environmentally and socially as well, of supporting agroforestry-based food production.
In addition to providing the traditional subsidies to farmers for growing fields of commodity crops, the Federal government should consider providing extra incentives to commodity producers who begin to integrate tree crops and agroforestry projects into their farming systems. Additionally, similar incentives should be offered to ranchers and cropland owners growing corn and other crops specifically for livestock feed, and increased funding should be allocated to local conservation district offices earmarked for agroforestry projects and education on a smaller scale.
Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available
Project Drawdown (drawdown.org): Founded in 2014, Project Drawdown® is a nonprofit organization that seeks to help the world reach “drawdown”—the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline.
Savanna Institute (savannainstitute.org): The Savanna Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works with farmers and scientists to lay the groundwork for widespread agroforestry adoption in the Midwest US.
World Agroforestry (worldagroforestry.org): Leveraging the world’s largest repository of agroforestry science and information, we develop knowledge practices, from farmers’ fields to the global sphere, to ensure food security and environmental sustainability.
Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available
Cummins, R. (2021, January 19). Roadmap to regeneration in the United States, 2020–2030. Organic Consumers Association. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.organicconsumers.org/blog/roadmap-to-regeneration-in-the-united-states-2020-2030
Derouin, S. (2021, July 31). Agroforestry is key to cleaning up waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Civil Eats. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://civileats.com/2021/07/23/agroforestry-is-key-to-cleaning-up-waterways-and-the-chesapeake-bay/
Hanes, S. (2020, July 31). Agroforestry is both climate friendly and profitable. Civil Eats. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://civileats.com/2020/07/24/agroforestry-is-both-climate-friendly-and-profitable/
USDA. (2021, January 4). Agricultural production and prices. USDA ERS – Agricultural Production and Prices. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/agricultural-production-and-prices/