HomeNatural environmentAgroforestry has been ignored for too long as a solution to farming and environmental problems

Agroforestry has been ignored for too long as a solution to farming and environmental problems

This post is by Helen Browning, farmer and CEO of the Soil Association.

The nature-based approach to tackling climate change is, more often than not, trees. Perhaps for simplicity as much as anything. And of course, it is true, trees do offer huge potential to both mitigate climate change and adapt to it’s worst effects, as well helping to make space for nature and provide livelihoods. But our efforts to get them in the ground have so far proven disappointing to say the least, and my view is that we have overlooked the key implementers in the tree revolution that we need: farmers. So, with the Committee on Climate Change’s sixth carbon budget and the England Tree Strategy imminent, as well as new farm payment schemes gearing up, now is the time to initiate a farmer-led tree revolution. 

Planting trees for a purpose
In the UK, 72 per cent of land is agricultural so, if we are to even scratch the surface of our tree cover targets, then we need to get serious about agroforestry and farm woodlands. Agroforestry, put simply, is integrating farming with trees for a purpose. This integration might be rows of apple trees through a wheat field, oaks dotted through pasture, or shelterbelts of trees protecting livestock from the cold and helping to prevent flooding and erosion.

Agriculture and forestry have too often been treated as separate disciplines, but it need not be this way. Until the Second World War, trees, woodland and hedgerows formed a larger and more valued part of farm income and self-sufficiency. Even today one third of UK woodland cover is on farms but much of it is poorly managed, left to a forgotten and ‘unproductive’ corner of a farm, offering little to the farm business. Perhaps the best understood ‘trees’ on a farm are hedgerows and, equally, these have seen significant declines, as the ‘bigger is better’ mantra views them as an inconvenience. As such, the hedgerow has been devalued from its potential to be a productive and protective offering to a farm enterprise.

Increasing trees on farms makes sense for farmers
What has become increasingly clear is that there is a compelling case for a huge range of farm business benefits alongside the public benefits that agroforestry offers. For farms, it can make them:

  • More productive: at least 30 per cent more productive than a monoculture, as sheltered crops and animals fare better and give higher yields; and, by utilising the vertical axis as well as the horizontal , farmers can harvest even more of the sun’s energy.
  • More resilient to shocks, be they market-based or climate-based; recent experience of summer droughts has found some farmers turning to ‘tree-fodder’ for animals when their grass has dried up; diversity supports resilience and any farm business can benefit from having another crop to smooth out the good and bad years.  
  • More protective of those downstream; agroforestry increases water infiltration and soil’s capacity to store water, reducing flood risk and cleaning water; in a world where many farmers are watchingsoils literally flowing or blowing away, there’s something in it for the farmer too. 
  • Better welfare  for farm animals; most domesticated animals are woodland or woodland edge in origin, they like being under trees, it makes them feel safe and happy; and this rubs off with hardier, healthier animals that produce higher quality products, hens with access to range have been shown to have bigger, better and more eggs.

Considering so many benefits, you might wonder why it is that agroforestry makes up just three per cent of UK farmed area. 

There’s been a perennial failure to get trees in the ground
After decades of failed planting schemes, even with some cash thrown at it, the farming community has proved that getting trees in the ground is not quite as simple as the Treasury might think. For many farmers, forestry has not been very appetising, reducing land values, removing their ability to be flexible and locking them out of narrowly defined subsidy regimes.

As we venture into the new Environmental Land Management schemes, there is the chance to conceive a new way to incentivise and reward the public benefits agroforestry can offer. There are immediate opportunities available to fund farmers for carbon sequestration and flood remediation from agroforestry, which should be seized. While funds for public goods are welcome, these must not impede the long overlooked opportunity to empower farmers to lead a tree revolution, as they are custodians of so much of our land.

We need a farmer-led tree planting revolution
So, in summary, the policy case is clear, the public goods are clear, and the evidence base is robust. The biggest barrier has been implementation. Maybe we need to turn things around and, rather than telling farmers what to do – “plant these trees to capture carbon and we’ll throw you some money” – we should perhaps ask  “how can you benefit from trees integrated with your farming system?” Farmers tend to know their land better than anyone else, and the ‘right tree, right place’ mantra only really works if ‘for the right reason’ is added. The new agroforestry handbook, which we helped put together, helps farmers and advisers understand what these benefits may be for their systems whilst acknowledging that every farm is different. If we help farmers to own the strategy then, as excellent and highly skilled businesspeople, managing uncertainties, huge variables and diverse businesses, perhaps they will do a better job of implementing from the ground up?

First and foremost, I think of myself as  a farmer,  but I operate multiple businesses: hospitality, retail, tourism and, of course, I work as the CEO of the Soil Association. Like me, every farmer is different and this diverse audience needs to be considered as such, listened to and given the power to do what it is they want to achieve.

Trees, too, are versatile and can deliver multiple benefits and, in our view, at the Soil Association, helping farmers to own the strategy to help plant and care for more trees across our farmed landscape has to be a much bigger part of the conversation going forwards. It’s also important that understanding of agroforestry grows outside of the farming sector. We’ve made significant efforts to communicate with the public about the benefits of agroforestry, including a short video from our head of horticulture, Ben Raskin. If we get the support and investment right, there is a huge opportunity to increase agroforestry systems to five per cent of farmland by 2040, and a doubling of farm woodland area towards meeting the national woodland cover targets.   

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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