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Agroforestry delivers for nature and farming

Agroforestry is about making the most of land area through three dimensional farming. As Stephen Briggs explains, the deliberate integration of trees within agricultural crops and livestock is a win-win for food production and the natural environment.

April 2018

Farmer Stephen Briggs’ agroforestry project is bearing fruit in more ways than one. By having a mix of perennials (apple trees) and annuals (cereals) he is growing more produce from the same area, managing risk against climate change as well as enhancing nature.

Agroforestry will help the Government meet its ambition for a more dynamic, more self-reliant agricultural industry whilst delivering a better and richer environment. So why no mention of it in DEFRA's recently published Command Paper? Below we present the arguments as to why agroforestry should be incentivised to become a mainstream farming method.

Back in 2009 Stephen developed a 52 hectare silvoarable scheme. Imagine standing amongst single rows of apple trees with a 24 metre alley left in between for cereal production.The tree rows are orientated north:south to minimise shading and the understory is sown with a diverse range of pollen and nectar and wildflower species. Why did Stephen do this? As a new tenant he was horrified when his fine grade one soils where being blown off his farm. The rows of apple trees immediately started to act as very effective windbreaks.

But agroforestry also helps maximise productivity – through three dimensional farming. His arable crops primarily use water, nutrients and sunlight in spring and early summer, whereas the trees need these resources right through to late autumn. Tree roots gather nutrients and water from deep in the soil benefitting both crops. The canopy protects the annual crop from extremes of weather. Tree height enables this system to use another dimension of space above the ground enabling maximum energy to be captured from sunlight and turned into food.

Stephen is also improving the resilience of his business by growing another income earning crop and one that allows him to add value. Visit the recently opened Harvest Barn farm shop & café and sample his home grown apple juice.

But what about public benefits? As well as protecting the soil the trees are improving soil health (via leaf litter) and boosting the biodiversity of the farm. Stephen regularly sees a wide range of birds including yellow wagtail, tawny owl and reed warbler. And in this flat fen landscape they improve landscape character whilst sequestering carbon and capturing air pollutants. The trees also have a role to play in water management; protecting water quality from pollutants and helping to slow the flow by improving the infiltration of water into the soil.

So why are not more farmers undertaking agroforestry? Historically farming and forestry have largely been seen as separate industries with little transfer of skills and knowledge. Coupled with a separation of policy regimes at UK and EU level for agriculture and forestry which failed to recognise the landscape scale benefits of tree and agricultural integration has meant levels of agroforestry in the UK are very low. Going forward a lack of skills and knowledge to successfully design, implement and manage agroforestry systems and identify and develop markets are significant barriers. But perhaps the biggest barrier is having the capital to invest as there are long lead times before returns are seen.

Agroforestry offers a multi-benefit approach harnessing increased productivity and business resilience with the delivery of a range of public benefits. Investment in trees doesn’t require public goods to be ranked against each other, nor public against private. We are calling for the Government's new land management policy to support farmers to take up agroforestry via a range of mechanisms including capital payments for trees and tree protection, provision of advice for both the design and planting but also longer-term advice on management and marketing.

Stephen Briggs says "if you’re interested in using agroforestry to make your farm more productive, profitable and resilient, engage with the consultation and voice your support of agroforestry to your local MP and industry leaders... let's shape the future of farming into what we want to see, a future that includes trees in the land-use mix".

You can find more information about the consultation here.

Helen Chesshire

Senior Farming Advisor, Woodland Trust, and Chair of Link's Agriculture Working Group

Follow @chesshire_helen & @WoodlandTrust

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.