Why Agro-forestry Improves Farming Practices

04 May 2017
Posted by Megan Ray Nichols.

Society depends on farmers to feed the world. Many agriculture techniques from the past exacerbated problems, such as soil erosion. These techniques were profitable, but chemical pesticides, fertilisers and heavy machinery severely compromised the land, soil, water and air. During the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. felt the effects of poor farming practices. For example, many farmers ploughed deep into virgin soil and displaced native grasses, leading to soil that could no longer retain water and soil erosion. The soil that washed away contained more than three times the nutrients of the soil that remained. These poor techniques worsened both climate change and natural events like the infamous Dust Bowl.

Today, farmers are implementing agroecology to save farmlands, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions, decrease air and water pollution, and advance biodiversity. They are implementing agroforestry practices into the current techniques to improve sustainable agriculture.

How Agroforestry Improves Current Techniques

Using agroforestry practices with current agriculture techniques, farmers can reuse the land while introducing diverse crops. Small farmers and giant commercial farms will benefit from using this system. The arrangement of the various trees, shrubs and plants will provide shelter for the crops and a habitat for wildlife and hunting, as well as increase the profitability of the farm.

Combining agriculture science with current systems can help farmers design and cultivate the area. Big data analytics can assist with creating an efficient layout of the farm to maximize crop yields. Farmers can take advantage of weather forecasting, soil maps and predictive analysis. Knowing where to plant trees and shrubs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air, soil and water pollution, and decrease soil erosion will prove profitable to farms of all sizes.

Current Agriculture Techniques

Two current agriculture techniques include hydroseeding and hydromulching. Both practices use a slurry of water and wood fibre mulch. With hydroseeding, the mixture combines with seed and fertiliser for plant growth and decreased soil erosion. Hydromulching mixes the water and wood fibre mulch with a tackifier to stop soil erosion.

Agriculture businesses and farmers use specialised equipment to reach the areas damaged by erosion, such as steep slopes and land around bridges and homes. The trucks can hold 1000 to 3000 gallons of the mixture. Water is added first, then the wood fibre mulch and seed or tackifier.

The hoses mounted on the trucks can treat areas of up to 150 feet or 125 feet of a steep-sloped area. Farmers can treat larger areas of up to 225 feet using a pressurised hose measuring 100 to 150 feet.

For these techniques, farmers can include a linear anionic polymer product into the hydroseeding tank along with the water, wood fibre mulch and seed mixture. The product binds with the mixture to stop soil erosion, remove soil particles from runoff water, reduce fertiliser loss and decrease the loss of pesticides.

The Benefits of Using Agroforestry

Farmers can arrange trees, grasses and shrubs in specific areas to easily adapt agroforestry into their farming. Although trees take longer to grow, the long-term effect is sustainable with several environmental benefits. Forests provide wildlife habitats, while shrubs and other plants provide flowers and leaves for pollinators and insects.

Due to agroforestry, crops could see a yield increase of 6 to 56 percent depending on the crop, as well as an increase of edible fruits to sell as an additional income stream. Using the trees as windbreakers increases crop yield, controls soil erosion and decreases snowdrift.

Farmers with crops such as ramps, ginseng and goldenseal can grow them under forest canopies that provide shelter and shade — a practice known as forest farming. The farmers can also harvest nuts and fruit under these canopies for income.

Grazing livestock can damage forests, so one agroforestry practice brings the trees to the cows. Silvopasture is a technique farmers use to arrange trees in pastures. Farmers can benefit financially from the growth and cultivation. For example, a farmer that grows pine trees for Christmas can also graze sheep.

Farmers can increase their income by alley cropping. With this technique, farmers plant crops between rows of trees and then harvest the crops, as well as the nuts and fruit from the trees. The farmers can also sell the timber.

Runoff can be a problem for crops, but designing riparian forest buffers like trees and shrubs can provide a filter for the pollution and a home for wildlife along streams.

Combining Farming Practices to Benefit the Environment and Farmers

In this day of global sharing, countries can share the techniques, benefits and results from applying sustainable climate-smart agriculture to their current agriculture practices. For example, Tanzania began using a farming technique on rice farms that does not require as much water as previous practices. The technique is now implemented by as many as 30 percent of all rice farmers in Morogora, Iringa, Lake Zone, Shinyanga and Mbeya. Farmers are experiencing higher crop yields in areas of drought since applying the decreased-water techniques.

Farmers in Vietnam are diversifying their rice crops to include fruit trees and grapes to combat the adverse effects of drought while creating additional income. The practice of agroforestry allows farmers to lay out their annual food crops in arrangements with fruit and forests.

Combining agroforestry with current agriculture techniques benefits the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lessening soil erosion, and it also benefits the community. Beginning farmers and seasoned agricultural businesses can diversify crops, take advantage of agroforestry concepts like planting cover crops around trees, and increase the farm’s productivity to increase their income.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is requesting public investment into research for agroecology, as well as education for farmers. More than 450 scientists and agriculture experts support the statement.

Agroecology and the practice of agroforestry will continue to grow as the agriculture industry introduces more sustainable practices to improve the environment while increasing yields and profitability. 

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