On a windy afternoon in Marin County, California, rancher Guido Frosini reached down into a clump of weeds, pulling back the dry stalks to reveal a sapling so small some might not recognize it as a tree. But Frosini’s voice swelled with pride when he saw the cork oak, still covered in leaves that looked strikingly green against the drought-bleached backdrop of rolling, golden hills.
Like much of the work Frosini is doing at True Grass Farms, this tiny tree, a cork oak, is deceptive. It doesn’t yet shape the landscape in any noticeable way, but it’s one of 75 saplings he has planted around his property this year in hopes of establishing “mother trees” that will make the landscape hospitable to other cork oaks. The trees are key to Frosini’s permaculture approach to transforming the windswept 100-acre ranch into a savannah for his pastured cattle, pigs, and chickens. In addition to using a keyline design for water retention, closely managing his animals’ rotational grazing, and several Hugelkultur mounds the young rancher built by covering piles of wood with soil and compost, he’s trying out silvopasture—the integration of trees into pastureland.
Along the foggy Northern California coast, trees trap moisture from the air that eventually drips down to the base of their roots. “We just need one drip line. It’s like you need one cow to have a herd, and you go from there,” Frosini said. In a part of the country where most conventional pastureland dries up for four to six months a year, any water that makes it into the soil can help keep the fungal properties in the soil alive and provide food for the animals. But getting the trees established during the state’s fifth year of drought—and keeping them alive through the early years, when they’ll be vulnerable to the livestock’s eager appetites—won’t be easy.
For all the effort trees like Frosini’s and the forests they will grow into require, they’re also a form of insurance—a direct investment in the future. Not only can intentionally introducing trees into agriculture, known as agroforestry, protect farms from wind, enrich the soil, absorb excess nutrients, filter and retain water, and sequester carbon, but they can produce food and timber products as well.
While agroforestry has long been seen as a solution to food insecurity and soil erosion in the developing world, it is only recently beginning to show up on farmers’ radars here in the U.S. Without the same type of food security issues in this country, the reasons to remove trees from farms—to make room for more crops and more animals—have often been seen as far more pressing than the reasons to cultivate them (barring the introduction of windbreaks after the dust bowl). But that seems to be changing. According to the Census of Agriculture, more than 2,700 farms around the U.S. were engaged in one or more agroforestry practices in 2012.
Today, the USDA National Agroforestry Center is charting a course to expand its adoption over the next five years. In April, NAC brought together 50 leaders from the public and private sectors—including university and NGO leaders and representatives from Organic Valley, the American Soybean Association, and Dow Chemical—to discuss how to share experiences and insights on agroforestry research and adoption.
“With climate change increasing, drought increasing, and more high rainfall events, I think there’s more of a need to incorporate permanent vegetation into agriculture systems,” said Susan Stein, director of NAC.
Silvopasture is one of several practices commonly grouped under the term agroforestry. The other core practices include wind breaks, which were planted en masse from Texas to North Dakota after the dust bowl and remain in effect in many places; forest farming, which produces everything from fruit to mushrooms to medicinal herbs; alley cropping, which involves planting rows of trees between rows of crops; and riparian forested buffers, which use stands of trees to absorb excess nutrients and agricultural chemicals before they run into streams, rivers, and other waterways.
(Illustrations: Clark Kohanek)
Getting mainstream agriculture interests like the Soybean Growers and Dow (Dow did not respond to an interview request) into a room to discuss what NAC calls “working trees” is a promising sign of what’s to come, Stein said. But like many environmental messages in the agricultural world, NAC’s is at once urgent and—on the practical side—easily diluted. Like the USDA itself, NAC is reaching two different audiences with two different approaches.
Stein said commercial agroforestry (much of it forest farming for products like mushrooms, goldenseal, ginseng, berries, and timber) is being practiced by small landholders and newer farmers who have limited resources—“people who are trying to intensively manage parts of their land so they can intensively produce more food on a small piece of land.”
The USDA is also investing in trees for riparian forest buffers, and some have been planted on sizable farms growing commodity crops. In 2012, the agency provided funding for more than 76,000 acres of riparian forest buffers. “A lot of soybean producers are using agroforestry” to reduce runoff and as windbreaks, Stein said. “That really surprised me.”
As she sees it, the farms of the future are likely to include more trees than they do today—but most will probably be planted for the “ecosystem services” they provide, like absorbing runoff, rather than producing their own commercial crops. But those services will also be key to crop survival.
“Trees are going to make up a bigger part of the landscape in terms of trying to meet some of the conservation and environmental challenges that farmers are looking to try to solve,” said Beverly Paul of the American Soybean Association. She pointed to areas where water quality is a concern—namely the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River basin—as ones where trees could have a conservation impact.
Many farmers have never heard the term agroforestry (Paul said she had to look it up when Stein invited her to a recent national stakeholder meeting NAC held), but Paul said that building financial incentives into federal conservation programs might go part of the way toward encouraging farmers to plant more trees. The USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, for example, have been applied to close to 80 million acres combined. There’s also the possibility of federal funding for farmers who plant trees and other perennials as pollinator corridors. Public-private partnerships like the Marin Carbon Project, which Frosini’s True Grass Farms is a part of, may help farmers access funding for carbon farming practices in the coming years.
On a similar note, John Munsell, an associate professor and a forest management extension specialist at Virginia Tech, is working with his colleagues to introduce agroforestry as a best practice in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Nutrient Credit Exchange Program—one of the most active trading programs for phosphorous pollution in the U.S., which covers more than 4 million acres of agricultural land.
“The current trading is primarily if not entirely limited to land retirement,” said Munsell, “which means you take pastureland and plant trees on it to create a forest. That forest is assigned a phosphorous value, and then that can be sold in a private market to a developer who needs to offset their own pollution.” Virginia Tech runs a demonstration site where they’re hoping to show that other, more intentionally managed forest plantings, such as alley cropping, can be equally successful in balancing out the soil and protecting the region’s waterways.
Other farmers will likely turn to agroforestry to help them deal with the impacts of climate change. Mark Kopecky, a soils agronomist at Organic Valley who works with farmers around the U.S., says trees can keep pastures from overheating during record-breaking heat waves, especially in warm regions such as the South.
Partially shaded pastures also allow cows to graze all day rather than at dawn or at dusk. Kopecky said he has also seen fescue, a common forage grass that is usually rugged and sharp when grown in direct sun, morph into a much more palatable grass in semi-shaded conditions. “It reduces the nasty fibers, and the cows are more comfortable. When they are more comfortable they want to eat more,” he said.
“I’d love to see more farmers get interested in and started experimenting” with silvopasture he added. So far, Kopecky only knows of two Organic Valley ranchers who are actively using the practice, and he wants to see more demonstration sites established to help illustrate the benefits directly.
“If we can get some of the thought leader types from around the country and use them as examples—that’s how we’ll really get this to take off,” he said.
The Savannah Institute is one organization that’s doing just that. The group works with four case study farms around the Midwest, including Vulcan Farm in Illinois, which is growing more than 400 varieties of perennial crops. The institute is conducting experiments and carefully gathering data on a range of agroforestry projects to help more farmers make the case for trees within their own businesses.
But Keefe Keeley, executive director of the Savanna Institute, said even the most carefully extracted data may never be enough to convince some farmers.
Agroforestry “requires more management and more labor,” he said, which can make it a tough sell in the current agricultural landscape. Keeley compared it to the rising awareness of the value of having more teachers per pupil or more nurses per patient. “If we’re really going to have an agriculture that cares for landscapes and produces food that’s healthy for people, we need to have more hands involved in doing it,” he said.
But Keeley is encouraged by what he sees as the potential impact of the forestry world on farming. Whereas early forestry was simply about maximizing production of timber, “in the last generation or so, forestry has really evolved to incorporate the insights of ecology, so now our foresters are trained to manage for multiple objectives, including wildlife, carbon, and water quality.”
In this sense, agroforestry may offer more than the opportunity for individual farmers to, say, protect their land from wind or avoid excess nutrient runoff. “I think it also has the potential to cause us to rethink agriculture,” he said.
When thinking about the potential for agroforestry’s wide-scale adoption, Virginia Tech’s Munsell likes to look to no-till farming, which began as a niche practice but has become increasingly popular with conventional farmers as they see the benefits to their land and their bottom lines over time.
“For 40 or 50 years people were talking about no-till and saying, ‘You’re crazy.’ Then by decade five, it was ‘No-till ag? Of course we do it!’ ” he said. “These things don’t happen overnight. It’s an arc.”