AGROFORESTRY - SHRIMPS, ANYONE?
Updated: May 4
There are more blogs about agroforestry than you can shake a branch at, but since agroforestry was the theme of the recent 2023 Institute of Chartered Foresters Annual Conference here is another contribution to the pool.
I spent a fascinating two days listening to experts from both farming and forestry backgrounds. Indeed some speakers felt that the word itself can be a bit of a deterrent, especially as it can imply that it is forestry with a dash of farming thrown in which may put farmers off rather than a way of farming enhanced and magnified by the benefits of trees.
One common theme that emerged is that agroforestry is a flexible concept – you can mix trees with almost any type of farming enterprise and that is both its strength and its weakness. It can defy definition. Of course trees already form part of many farmed landscapes within hedgerows, orchards, wood pasture and woodmeadows, and can be integrated into agricultural systems in many ways. They can be part of a pastoral and livestock-based farming system, poultry rearing or arable farming. Indeed I have even seen ‘aqua forestry’ systems in Thailand where lines of coconut palm trees alternate with linear watercourses used for shrimp farming, though I am not recommending this for the UK!
A silvoarable system (fruit trees plus arable crops) in the Cambridgeshire Fens on Steven Briggs' farm. Photo: Hilary Allison
The conference explored and attempted to debunk some of the myths around trees and farming. There is plenty of evidence to show that the overall average value of land is not reduced by planting trees and in some cases it can even be enhanced. It is possible to make money from trees if you use the current tax and grant systems to their full potential in the gap before timber income begins to materialise. The impact of taking land out of food production into woodland is small as woodland creation does not and should not happen on Grade 1 land.
But there are of course barriers to extending woodland on farmland – tenant farmers may want to plant trees but their landlords need to be onside too. Knowledge about what the benefits of trees to farming systems can provide is poorly disseminated. Cultural barriers, something which most foresters find hard to get their heads around, were emphasised time and time again by speakers from the farming community: farmers can feel threatened by uncertainty about their role in a future where the tree planting push is on and many are experiencing significant pressures on their time, well-being and cash flow as farming and land management schemes are being redesigned.
This is both an opportunity and a challenge: forestry grant schemes as designed at present are not flexible enough to support the trees element of agroforestry and to allow it to be a non-permanent land use change; all of this has to be factored into the new Environmental Land Management Scheme in England. Some important and urgent policy shifts need to happen according to the Woodland Trust to ensure this intuitive and flexible approach to managing land is welcomed rather than constrained by regulation, grants and advice.
Yet we also heard some powerful can-do stories from about how agroforestry can work in amongst the huffing and puffing about the challenges. In Ireland silvopastoral systems in particular have been existence for many years yielding long term data on their environmental benefits to create strong evidence for its benefits. Several energetic farmers spoke of how the use of trees and woodland in marketing farm products can be a powerful tool and how looking over the farm gate to see how others are doing agroforestry is being encouraged through networks and events such as the agroforestry open weekend event in May 2023 and the Agroforestry Show in September 2023.
Traditional wood pasture system with cattle on Selborne Common, Hampshire. Photo: Hilary Allison
A really important and simple message which emerged for me is that function is central to the role of trees on farms. Trees must serve the farms needs first and foremost, and that probably means planting on farms for carbon is not and should not be the primary driver. Maintaining and enhancing soil fertility and health, reducing soil erosion, improving water quality and retention in soils, supporting crop pollination, extending grazing seasons, crop and income diversification are all on-farm benefits which need to be more forcefully articulated.
While the Welsh Government is consulting on proposals as part of its Sustainable Farming Scheme that farmers put 10% of their land over to tree cover in order to be eligible to access farming grants, even a 5% figure across all farms across the UK would accelerate progress towards government planting targets whilst enhancing the delivery of environmental, animal welfare and economic outcomes.