Agroforestry: an Introduction

The introduction to Agroforestry is a lengthy article as it paints the scene with colour. It is split into three sections; The Context, The Introduction, and The Vision. 

The immediate need for Agroforestry’s existence is entirely due to the context that is in, and that is a story worth telling in itself. The introduction gives a beginner's description of Agroforestry, providing the foundation to more specific information. The last section of this post visualises how the future will look when Agroforestry is applied at scale.

 

The Current Context

 

Has the world become more complex? Or has the world’s complexity become more widely understood?

As the well-cited phrase by Mark Twain goes, "buy land, they’re not making any more”, we’re having to maximise our use of a finite resource to serve a growing population, all the while working in ever-changing planetary boundaries. 

You and I, like every human, place demands on the land such as food, housing, commodities, recreation, and culture. Each factor is playing out in the same arena as the natural processes that sustain life on our planet. As Charlie Chaplin once said, “The great Earth is rich and can provide for everyone .. but we have lost the way”. 

Pressing issues have arisen through our mismanagement of natural resources. Very challenging times lie ahead of us, new thinking is required. 

Like a child trying understand how a new toy works, humans have been adept at taking the world apart and compartmentalising it - the go-to method for developing knowledge. However, the universe doesn’t quite work like that, separation is only an illusion. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Everything is interconnected and interdependent on every scale.

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Imagine a spider’s web that has caught the droplets of early morning dew. Each droplet contains in it the reflection of every other. 

The spider’s web has a threshold of how much damage it can withstand. If a significant amount is damaged, the objective of the web (to catch flies) becomes compromised. If it is fixable, the spider will do its best, if not, it’ll likely start again elsewhere.

Imagine then, that each dew droplet is an element of the environment (one is a singing lark, the other a dung beetle, ivy, moss, a beech tree, plankton, a bacterium, a pathogen etc.). Each, joined to every other through relationships, interconnectivity (analogised in the web as the droplet’s reflections). The loss of one or two species is manageable, but if a vast extension exists, relationships fail, it passes a threshold and causes environmental collapse. 

We can take this metaphor further, the spider’s web is now infinite in size - every dewdrop is its centre of the endless web. One dewdrop is you, and another is me, another a telephone box, a cloud, a bitcoin, a word, a kangaroo, an idea; it is all connected, this begins the fundamental principle of oneness. 

The entire network is made up of energy movements, called cycles. Einstein once said that “Energy can never be created nor destroyed", it can only travel from form, through form and into form. 

Every child is taught the water cycle at school, and how water evaporates from the ocean, to travel in clouds, becoming rainfall, to flow into rivers, and out to sea, ad. infinitum. This cycle, this flow, is a primary a pillar of life.

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Cycles are everywhere around us and are innately interlinked. A bear fishes in a forest, the catch is taken somewhere secret to eat and the unwanted carcass, discarded at the foot of a tree. Insects devour some of the fleshy remains and they become food for birds. The hard bones and non-digestible aspects of the fish begin to rot, they break down and eventually become core elements in the soil, such as calcium or magnesium. Then, a tree captures the nutrient, drawing it in through the roots systems. Consequently, the nutrient is utilised through growth and the tree produces leaves. Photosynthesis absorbs carbon dioxide and oxygen is released into the atmosphere. Riding the air currents, the oxygen particle somehow enters your room and you breathe it in. It resonates with your blood and becomes a part of you, sat there, reading this.

When you look at a flower in the field, it is the whole field flowering. The flower couldn't exist in that specific place without those supportive surroundings. In the same way, you only find human beings on a planet of this kind, one with an atmosphere, water and with a convenient neighbouring star for heat. 

The self-sustaining capacity of life is nothing short of a miracle. Every creature has its place in space and time. Everything works in harmony. 

In the 19th century, a propulsion in the trajectory of humanity’s fate occurred in the form of the Industrial Revolution. The underlying collective psychology of that time pertains to this day in the way of a productivist ideology; ever continuous growth.

Back then, the impact on ecosystems went unnoticed and the consequences were far from affecting its threshold. It is said ‘no one can stop progress’, and so progress continued. 

Across swathes of humanity, the natural world was overlooked as systems of agriculture was deployed with an only objective: production at all costs. 

Admittedly, at the time there was a need for it, but away went the old natural-cyclical methods (and those with the knowledge). In came the inappropriately named, Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s consisting of mechanisation, heavy inputs of agro-chemicals, new high yielding, hybrid varieties of crop and the controlled water supply.

The Green Revolution saved a billion people from starvation - a vast amount more if one considers the time that has elapsed since then. It has become the human fuel source of modern society – “an army marches on its stomach”. 

Agriculture exists in the nexus between cyclical and regulatory natural systems, and the ongoing, 20th Century productivist ideology. The history and impact of modern farming are at one with that of manufacturing and consumption. Agriculture is where the world of man and the world of nature meet. But again this separation is an illusion; the two worlds are the same. 

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The installation of modern agriculture with a singular objective is at odds with the multi-dimensional natural world. It has served us well for getting us to this point and now an evolution in thinking, practice, application and appreciation is due to commence. The entire food system is ripe for sustainable innovation. 

The way humanity has treated agriculture is akin to the child breaking apart a toy. One part, (say, wheat) is put over there, to this field. Another part (corn), to that area. Livestock, here. And conservation goes, well.. where I can’t produce anything. 

With the Green Revolution came the birth of the monoculture. 

As economies of scale play out across the globe, millions of small farms are being engulfed by larger ones. The consequence is vast landscapes blanketed by a desert of fields with production as its sole form of life. Regulatory natural services are side-lined. Collectively we all pay the cost. 

Business, within the capitalist framework, requires efficiency that has low production costs with high sales returns. Low production costs need cheap labour; cheap labour requires cheap food. The price of which we are paying twice for through expenditure of fixing environmental degradation

Non-capitalised benefits (such as oxygen and water regulation) are termed ‘Ecosystem Services’ yet their provision is paid for by the state, through subsidies, paid for by taxes: you and me. 

The impact of the monoculture is stark. Watercourses that once lazily meandered downstream now flash local flood towns. The fertility of the land that underpins production erodes out into the sea. The natural world is losing up to 1,000 times more species a year due to habitat loss. Carbon is no longer naturally sequestered at the rate of demand. Humans are stripped of their cultural identity.

Agriculture is at the frontier of global change. 

The ecosystem spider’s web of an ecosystem has reached that previously mentioned critical threshold, the natural balance of the earth is tipping. People are taking notice. Change is very much in the air.  

We are at the point where the child with the toy looks down at his creation. He sees a pile of parts strewed sparingly across the carpet. He has a choice, put it back together or lose interest and leave it for mum to clean up the mess. But unlike that metaphor, we have no mum, and our existence depends on that toy being whole. By will or by force, we are to evolve.

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In that entire context; Agroforestry is not the answer, it is a part of it. A tool that is used in a compound of initiatives to fix a broken system. 

If you are a farmer, I will show you how you can apply it to your farm for profit while also caring for the natural life in and around your farm. If you are a campaigner, I will show you how agroforestry can be a cause for conservation. If you live in the countryside, I will show you how the countryside that you love, can be utilised in a way that looks beautiful, feeds the population, maintains biodiversity, and also keeps communities together.

Trust in trees. 

 

 

Introduction


From the outside, agroforestry is simply trees in fields. 

But you’d be mistaken to think that’s all it is. Like Dr Who’s ‘Tardis’, it is a lot bigger on the inside. I’d like to welcome you into a community of farmers, growers, scientists, NGOs, and campaigners that have rediscovered an interconnected and multi-beneficial farming system. 

Agroforestry is as ancient as agrarian culture itself. Today, it has regenerated under the light of modern challenges, becoming a frontier of innovation, harmoniously embracing natural processes while increasing production.

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After many years of working with and observing farm systems. It is easy first to think that a tree in a field will reduce the space available for growing a crop - it is plainly in front of our eyes.

However, upon a closer and slower inspection, you can witness relationships existing between trees and all that they contact. 

The simple reason why agroforestry is so popular is that trees give. 

You have a friend or a co-worker that you really like. The two of you have an energy exchange in the form conversation, empathy, humour etc. The likelihood, is that they are giving you what you need.

If you walk into a wood on a hot summer's day, you'll notice a change of temperature. That is their innate nature, to regulate the immediate environment. For this example, it is the regulation of temperature (through a process called evapotranspiration) to develop optimum conditions. Other forms of beneficial environment exchange come in the form of water flow, air quality, soil health and habitat creation. 

The following article embraces the biophysical nature of trees and how they are expert givers of life:

  • The life and value of trees.

Today, the known benefits of agroforestry are numerous but each stem from a vital and straightforward notion; agroforestry has both regulatory and productivity benefits. It works in harmony with the environment through a myriad of relationships while simultaneously increasing production (in the way of timber and non-timber products, and importantly, an increase in yield through a better-regulated environment). 

Agroforestry systems have proven to have a positive impact on the following environmental issues, specifically when applied at landscape level:

  • Climate Change
  • Flooding
  • Carbon Sequestration
  • Food Security
  • Timber Security
  • Soil Fertility
  • Biodiversity
  • Rural Communities
  • The Uplands
  • Reforestation
  • Timber Security

 

At the farm level, I write about the direct impact that trees have to the benefit of the farmer and farm ecosystem. Agroforestry systems have proved to increase profitability, yield, diversification, and resilience. The following pages describe the direct benefits to farmers: 

  • Livestock Pasture
  • Shelterbelts
  • Fodder and Self Medication
  • Animal Welfare
  • Cattle
  • Sheep
  • Poultry
  • Game
  • Arable Production
  • Diversification
  • Horticulture

Additional pages are written to further expand the inquiry into agroforestry: 

  • Establishment; Cost, Design and Planning
  • Policy
  • Competition and Complimentary Systems
  • Economics
  • Adoption
  • Carbon Offsetting 

 

Vision

Describe here the point of what adoption at the level would do to the landscape. Also provide artistic impressions of landscapes. 

Thank you for taking the time to read about Agroforestry and the multiple benefits that it provides. I hope that this information contributes to solving some our ecosystem and food security challenges. We need more trees. ✌

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Robert Reed: Shifting paradigms for Food, Farming and Forestry.
Advocate for ethical evolution.