Agroforestry integrates agriculture and forestry, with a focus on using a variety of plant species to help one another. The system uses woody perennials as a support for growing herbaceous plants and it can be implemented from the scale of a home garden to a large estate. Woody perennials are evergreen trees that have hard stems and grow continuously with each passing year, surviving even through winters. Herbaceous plants, on the other hand, have soft stems and a periodic life cycle. In general, these are the plants we cultivate for our consumption. In effect, the system of agroforestry utilizes the circular process of the natural ecosystem, rather than breaking the flow of the biosphere through monocropping.
The word agroforestry was coined in the mid-1970s, but the idea of cultivating food in close intimacy with the forest ecosystem is not new. It is something that was traditionally practiced, in almost all parts of the world from ancient times, before ‘modern’ farming was introduced. Being an innate and intuitive practice that provided people with staple food, fruits, fuel, forest produce, and medicines, agroforestry has been a self-restorative system that helped human beings thrive as a part of nature. This blog will illustrate how one can build an agroforest today and points out its long-term benefits for the planet.
The major loophole in conventional agricultural practices is that our natural resources such as water, soil, and forests deteriorate. Soil and water degradation directly affects the agricultural produce itself, and farmers have a tough time trying to regenerate their soil to make it fruitful for the next cycle of harvest. This leads to increased dependence on chemical fertilizers and other harmful practices such as stubble burning. All of these issues can be solved through agroforestry since it helps us to develop healthy, diverse, productive, lucrative, and regenerative land-use systems.
Soil and Water Conservation
Scientific studies in the past few decades have proven that agroforestry can be beneficial both in terms of environmental health and food production quantity. Trees help in holding the soil together and are therefore a highly underrated, yet simple, solution to the disastrous effects of soil erosion caused by conventional farming methods. Fallen tree leaves and parts of tree bark keep the soil moist by forming a protective layer called mulch and later replenish the soil with nutrients when they decompose. Controlled pruning of tree leaves can be an additional method of soil enrichment. Tree roots detoxify soil pollutants and keep the soil’s acidity and salinity levels in check, by balancing it as required. Nitrogen-fixing trees (or NFTs) further help in the growth of food crops by keeping the soil fertile all year round.
Due to the accelerated weathering of lower rock through extensive root networks, along with the presence of organic matter, the soil is regenerated much faster in agroforestry. Hence, they can even be used as a method for transforming degraded land into high-yielding land. However, in general, the process of afforestation can take 25-100 years to shape up reasonably well.
Conventional agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s water consumption and it is expected to increase by 19% by 2050 with the rising world population. About 40 to 54% of water pollution occurs from water run-off from farmlands. By capturing two times the amount of rainwater run-off compared to a conventional farm, agroforestry replenishes the groundwater as well as the soil’s water-retaining capacity. Agroforests can help conserve our natural watersheds and also prevent pollutants from entering our water bodies. Another advantage is that due to the use of a variety of trees and crops of different heights, a greater amount of sunlight is captured, which means that solar energy is utilized more efficiently.
Early river valley settlements evolved because humans were directly dependent on water from the rivers for food production. The advancement of science and technology has led to many ways by which water can be obtained for daily needs even in regions far from a waterbody. A psychological disconnect may have caused our rivers to become more and more polluted. Afforestation in the river-land buffer area can help in purifying the river water, reviving biodiversity around the rivers as well as bring back the river ecology to life.
How to practice Agroforestry?
Different versions of agroforestry can be put into practice, based on the existing natural geography and one’s farming needs. Agroforestry is not a quick-fix solution that can be applied in the same manner everywhere for every person and stakeholder involved. With each context, the challenges faced are different in terms of the climate, the surrounding physical features, the scale of the farm, the crop requirements, etc. This results in the need for a unique solution for each place. The following are a few categories of agroforestry that can be implemented as it is or in combination.
- Miyawaki forest planting method is a Japanese forestry method that helps the plants to grow 10 times faster than normal. A medium-sized forest can be grown in as little as five years. This is done by growing a variety of native plant species 30 times denser (3 to 5 saplings per square metre), so that the plants compete for sunlight, thereby growing much faster. Perforators, organic fertilizers, water retainers, and mulch are added to the soil to make it highly productive for the packed growth of young plants.
- Forest farming is a method used when there is already an existing forest. The trees are thinned out slightly, to accommodate food crops. Since there are already a variety of trees, additional forest products can be produced at the beginning itself while replanting native trees, which will help in gaining an extra source of income. When there are existing trees in the form of defined rows, alley cropping can be done, wherein the crops are grown in the ‘alleys’ between the trees. This results in a more manicured version of agroforestry.
- Silvopasture is the integration of livestock farming with forestry, by combining the grazing land with tree clusters or trees planted throughout the farm. This method helps in shading the livestock and also in producing a greater amount of forage for the animals to avoid overgrazing of grass.
- When there are existing large farmlands, single or multiple rows of trees can be planted in between the farmland, breaking it up into different zones. These are called windbreaks and they help in shading the crops and the soil. As the name suggests, they protect people from wind, dust, and snow. They also help considerably in saving up on heating costs, particularly during cold seasons. This can be a starting point of agroforestry for monocultures, before transforming into a fully-fledged forest farm.
- Riparian forest buffers are trees, shrubs, and plants that are planted as a transition between water bodies and land. They prevent soil erosion and also absorb farm run-off water and purify them before they flow into the rivers, streams, or lakes. They help in flood control by maintaining the water levels. The buffers are also thriving zones for wildlife habitat.
Economic benefits for farmers
Farmers face poverty, especially in underdeveloped countries, simply because the amount of crops they produce is meagre in return for the amount of effort that they put in. Agroforestry frees the farmers from the massive work that goes into plowing land and making it fertile. Growing trees also gives them additional security of money in the form of timber that can be harvested after 10 to 30 years depending on the species. By planting trees every few years, harvesting a few of them will not cause environmental harm. Thus, growing trees becomes an investment scheme for the farmers, while at the same time maintaining ecological balance.
The use of multiple crops also results in greater economic stability for farmers as compared to when they are dependent on a single crop since they can be harvested seasonally. Farmers also become less dependent on fertilizers as trees aid in plant health by diverting pests and plant diseases. By becoming more financially independent, and at the same time having more time on hand, they can use their free time for other ventures in their life.
Whether one is a farmer or an individual with any size of land, the method of agroforestry can be employed for growing one’s own food or for business. Even at the scale of an independent house, one can create a mini-forest in the backyard for cultivating just what is needed for the household. A combination of fruit trees, vegetables, and a few staple food crops can help people reduce bills and at the same time create a micro-ecosystem of their own.
Urbanization comes with challenges, and it is important to understand how to deal with these challenges. With the advent of climate change, afforestation has become a necessity and not a choice, whether it be in the urban, suburban, or rural areas. Agroforestry opens up a sky of possibilities in terms of economical and ecological development. As much as it is important to move forward with the latest scientific technologies, it is also important to revive practices that have proved effective for centuries and will continue being so.