Agroforestry: Integrating Trees with Crop and Livestock
Agroforestry: Integrating trees with crops and livestock A lively discussion followed three informative and engaging presentations to a packed audience. Jo Smith (The Organic Research Centre) presented an overview of previous research in this area and Mike Townsend (The Woodland Trust) explained the many and wide-ranging benefits that agroforestry offers. These two presentations were put into context by Stephen Briggs (Abacus Organic and Bluebell Farm), who has recently converted 125 acres of his Cambridgeshire farm into an agroforestry system incorporating 4500 apple trees with combinable crops. This raised questions of the practicalities of tree and fruit management, combinable cropping and policy.
Agroforestry is a land-use system in which woody perennials are grown in association with herbaceous plants (crops, pastures) or livestock; and this can produce advantageous ecological and economic interactions between the trees and the other components of the system. Despite the benefits that agroforestry has been shown to provide, this agricultural approach is uncommon in the UK and agroforestry research to date has been limited. This is particularly true for organic agroforestry. The new agroforestry programme at The Organic Research Centre, funded by The Ashden Trust and led by Dr. Jo Smith, seeks to redress the lack of research in this area.
The benefits of integrating trees into farming systems are numerous. Besides mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, agroforestry results in resilient farming systems more adaptable to climate change. Trees can provide a wind-break for crops and shelter for livestock, as well as attracting beneficial insects. Components of agroforestry systems can be used as an energy source, such as wood chips from coppiced trees, and can generate additional income. The increased habitat has a positive effect on biodiversity, which can add to the aesthetic benefits of such a system.
Stephen Briggs gave a personal account of why he became interested in agroforestry – the idea of multi-functional land use, reducing soil erosion, a desire to do something different and a hint of (self-professed) madness. He now has 4500 apple trees of 13 different varieties on 125 acres, grown in rows 27m apart, allowing for a combinable crops strip of 24m between each row. As a tenant farmer, the initial hurdle was getting the landlord’s agreement, but future challenges may include practical tasks such as pruning, and marketing of the apples. Issues surrounding policy and available grants were explored in the discussion. The key message of the session was that agroforestry can deliver, but management of the system is crucial.