What is Agroforestry?
How Trees and Agriculture
Meaghan Weeden | March 25, 2022 | 7 min read
What is Agroforestry and Why is it Important?
If you're interested in environmental restoration and climate change solutions, then you've probably heard about sustainable agroforestry and the incredible impact it can have for farming communities and surrounding ecosystems. Before we dive into the benefits of agroforestry and the ways that One Tree Planted integrates it into select reforestation projects, let's begin by defining the term.
Agroforestry is a traditional land use system that incorporates the planting, cultivation and conservation of woody vegetation (that's trees!) alongside food crop and/or livestock farming. At the systems level, it’s a model of land management that integrates more sustainable methods of agricultural production together with the planting of native tree species to create lasting economic benefits for farmers, as well as ecological benefits for the surrounding communities.
According to the USDA, for a management practice to be called agroforestry, it must satisfy the four "I"s:
From a community perspective, it's a powerful tool for empowering smallholder farmers with more reliable income, conserving primary forests in areas that are under threat of degradation for basic survival needs, reducing hunger in rural areas and so much more. Over the years, we've found that when sustainable agroforestry training and resources are provided alongside reforestation efforts, these projects have a much better chance of long-term success.
5 Benefits of Agroforestry to Show How Trees and Agriculture Work in Balance
1. Healthy crops support healthy trees
Since the dawn of intensive agriculture and the green revolution, plant and animal species around the world have been lost or threatened due to unsustainable farming practices. In contrast, sustainable agroforestry emphasizes managing crops in a way that supports the natural plant, animal and insect biodiversity of an area. By protecting this natural diversity of life, farmers are able to leverage pollinators, natural pest predators and more to enrich and protect their crops.
One of our partners, based in Guatemala, took advantage of this natural relationship by planting saplings on farms near coffee and cacao plants, which will help keep the soil and trees fertilized and free from pests.
Inversely, when agroforestry crops are planted thoughtfully and rotated regularly within the forest-farm interface, they help to nourish and enrich the surrounding area, which helps native types of tree species grow stronger and more resilient.
2. Trees provide shelter and food for livestock
The presence of trees in or near livestock grazing areas benefits the animals by providing fruit and bark to eat, shading them from harmful UV rays, cooling temperatures in the surrounding microclimate, protecting them from wind and rain events, and more.
Trees also help reduce the animals’ stress by making them feel more at ease in their environment. While livestock was often considered a part of forest farming early on, animals are becoming less common in the agroforestry field. But when managed thoughtfully, they can play an important role in a mutually beneficial integrated agroforestry system.
Research has also shown that including trees in open grazing areas has direct biodiversity benefits. In fact, adding a single forest tree to an open pasture can increase bird biodiversity from 0 species to as high as 80.
3. Riparian restoration and conservation
When the interface between land and a river or stream, otherwise known as the riparian zone, is degraded by intensive activity, it can have a cascade of harmful effects.
In addition to providing unique habitat for specialized species, riparian areas absorb and filter sediment and debris that would otherwise make their way into waterways. When they are lost, water quality and quantity is reduced, habitat is degraded, native specialist species can be lost, soil stability is reduced, and more.
In other words, in a healthy watershed, riparian zones are an essential piece of the puzzle and their loss or degradation has serious implications downstream.
When trees and shrubs are planted along rivers and streams to form a riparian forest buffer, they can help stabilize riverbanks and prevent soil erosion, filter farm runoff and improve water quality, shade and slow the flow of water, create better moisture balance in the area, and more.
4. Forest farming
As any herbalist or forager will tell you, foods and herbs that are sustainably wildcrafted within their natural environment provide superior nutrition and medicine over their conventionally cultivated counterparts. However, unsustainable, over harvesting is a prevalent issue in this space.
Forest farming is one way to enjoy the benefits of wild foods in a more managed way that is respectful of the ecosystem. This method involves cultivating specialty crops including fruits, nuts, mushrooms, ginseng and other medicinal herbs, woody florals, maple syrup and more under the protection of a forest canopy. To provide optimal growing conditions, forest farmers will carefully modify the existing canopy to provide optimal shade levels while retaining biodiversity and ecosystem benefits.
The forest serves as a complex natural environment for the edible, floral, or medicinal crops to grow and thrive, while soil erosion and other degradation is prevented and trees can mature.
Agroforestry practices often focus on balancing the preservation of natural forests while also cultivating a productive agriculture system. In a time when conventional industrial agriculture is a top contributor to deforestation around the world, sustainable agroforestry offers a powerful one-two punch of feeding communities and protecting the environment from further degradation.
More than that, agroforestry has the potential to regenerate soil and ground water supplies, prevent droughts, provide financial value for farmers over the long term, and so much more. When integrated in a thoughtful way, it can change lives for the better by enabling communities to live more harmoniously within the environments they call home, improving long-term survival and access to critical resources for all.
When a forest is properly managed through natural cycles of conservation, harvesting, and replenishment, the result is a win-win for both people and the planet.
How does one tree planted integrate sustainable agroforestry into our projects?
We work together with amazing on the ground partners to plant trees through agroforestry projects around the world. As these trees grow, they change lives and communities for the better, creating impact that will last for generations to come. Here are just a few of our incredible agroforestry projects:
Fruit Trees Change Lives: Sustainable Agroforestry in Rural India
When intercropped with seasonal vegetables, a grove of 100 fruit trees provides nutritional meals and sustainable income to a family of 4, helping to reduce migration into urban areas. In 2021, we planted a total of 1,533,930 fruit trees to restore 1,553 hectares of land in rural India. The plantings were distributed across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, India. We also built nurseries in strategic areas of Haryana to reduce transportation costs and improve seedling acclimatization.
As the trees grow, they'll help alleviate hunger and poverty while fighting pollution and climate change across rural India. Special emphasis was given to employing people from marginalized groups like widowed and elderly women. To accomplish this, our partners planted a diverse mix of fruit tree species, including guava, key lime, pomegranate, custard apple, jackfruit and more.
In addition to providing social benefits, the trees planted will provide food and shelter for insects, bees, small animals, and birds. Biodiversity will also benefit from improved watershed health thanks to improved water absorption (and therefore, reduced runoff) during rain events. This will help keep area rivers clean by stabilizing soils, filtering stormwater, and more!
women's empowerment and landscape restoration in rwanda
Between the intersection of reforestation and women's empowerment lie incredible opportunities to improve the lives of women and their families — and enact lasting change within local communities and environments.
While many of our reforestation projects benefit women and communities, our Kula project in Rwanda truly stands out. Through this ongoing project, we're working with our partner to provide coffee and shade trees to 3 communities of smallholder coffee farmers in Rwanda. The project will provide an increase in harvest and income, empowering over 200 coffee farmers to invest in their futures and create thriving communities.
Women farmers are also trained by expert agronomists in tree canopy management, coffee tree and variety characteristics, soil productivity, harvesting, erosion control, weeding and waste management, composting and amendment, shade trees and more. This helps ensure the long-term success of the project, improves their community standing, and more!
Integrated Coffee agroforestry in Guatemala
In Solola, Guatemala, we planted 250,000 trees to help an estimated 5,000 Independent coffee growers that were struggling to produce export quality coffee and subsist on said production. To help, we worked with them to establish a system that will provide enough shade to the coffee plants and at the same time, create chains where farmers can harvest beans and corn in the same space they grow coffee. This type of project encourages small entrepreneurs to have better product quality and rewards them with a better quality of life by entering better economic chains.
The fruit-producing trees integrated within these coffee plantations will create microclimatic conditions that favor the development of coffee and at the same time diversify the production of the farms. As the trees grow, they'll also reduce erosion, improve moisture retention, expand the canopy of trees, increase soil fertility and the amount of carbon captured, and more!
Agroforestry is a great model of sustainable land use that's imbued with incentive and value to keep forests standing, and it’s one used by a growing number of our reforestation partners. Many struggling communities resort to cutting down trees simply to survive from the profits of logging, only to suffer when water sources dry up, soil is degraded, and ecosystem services diminished. With agroforestry, they're empowered to generate income from crops while keeping forests healthy and alive!
Want to help local communities and ecosystems? Make a difference by planting a tree today!