Making agroforestry mainstream

The cultivation of trees alongside crops or animals has been a part of farming practice in Europe for millennia. Sadly, like many traditional land uses, it has slowly been consigned to the agricultural history books here in the UK. As farming intensified over the latter half of the twentieth century – with vast monoculture crops and intensive animal units taking the place of many mixed farms – trees were steadily lost from Britain’s agricultural landscape.

Now is the time to reverse that trend, with Bright Blue’s tree planting campaign shining a spotlight on the benefits of trees on farms. Momentum is starting to build; MPs on the cross-party  Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee backed agroforestry in a recent inquiry, and on 22 June, leading agroforestry experts will come together with farmers, foresters and policymakers for a major conference convened by the Soil Association, the Woodland Trust, and the Royal Forestry Society.

What makes agroforestry different from other tree planting is the deliberate integration of productive trees and farming systems - and the range of benefits this brings in terms of productivity, biodiversity, environment and animal welfare. Growing two crops from the same land - for example, rows of fruit trees in cereal crops – can yield more than growing them separately and thereby increase farm profitability.

This productivity increase is measured by the Land Equivalent Ratio (LER): the ratio of the area needed in a monocrop to the area of mixed cropping (such as in agroforestry) to produce the same yield of a particular crop. So, an LER of 1.2 indicates a 20% yield advantage to the mixed crop. Studies of different agroforestry systems, in countries with similar climates to the UK, have found LERs ranging from 1 to 2.01. The implications are dramatic. Combining commercial forestry and farming with LER of just 1.1 would release 10% of the area involved, whether for woodland, rewilding or farming less intensively, for example reverting from crops to pasture.

The adoption of agroforestry could dramatically help to reduce soil erosion and nitrogen leaching, and biodiversity loss while increasing carbon sequestration to help mitigate the UK’s agricultural carbon emissions.

The biodiversity and ecosystem benefits of agroforestry are also significant. Research has concluded that agroforestry systems can increase farm biodiversity by a factor of 2.6. This is because trees provide habitats for birds, insects and mammals which might otherwise not be found in agricultural landscapes, while the understory (the ground below trees) can be home to a more diverse number of plant species.  Agroforestry can also provide animal welfare benefits by providing shelter, shade and food to livestock – especially poultry, pigs, sheep and cattle.

With all these benefits, why does agroforestry remain a niche farming practice? There are a number of reasons why we aren’t yet seeing more trees on farms in the UK – from lack of financial support, to short farm tenancies discouraging farmers from making long-term investments. There is also a scarcity of understanding among farmers and landowners of the benefits that agroforestry can bring, and how to get started.

Luckily, these barriers could be overcome, and we don’t have to look too far for a model to kick-start agroforestry. In 2016, the French government launched a wide-reaching and ambitious national agroforestry strategy.  There is no reason why the UK Government should not seek to adopt a national agroforestry strategy of its own. This should draw on domestic and international experience, and it should be led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, working closely with the devolved administrations and the Forestry Commission. It should be drawn up with input from farmers, foresters, civil society organisations and the public.

There are farmers experimenting with agroforestry systems in the UK, paving the way for others to follow. In Shropshire, one farmer has integrated a number of tree species on is farm, and has observed significant benefits in the health and welfare of his cattle as a result. In Cambridgeshire, agroforestry pioneer Stephen Briggs is producing apples alongside cereal crops, improving his farm’s economic resilience, achieving significant reductions in soil loss and improving biodiversity. The Soil Association’s own Chief Executive, Helen Browning, is embarking on an extensive and ambitious agroforestry project at her organic farm near Swindon.

The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will require a new national farming policy to replace the love-it-or-hate-it Common Agricultural Policy. There is no single silver bullet, but if any farming practice embodies sustainability, innovation and resilience, surely it’s agroforestry, which is why it should be a core component of the future of farming in the UK.

Georgia Farnworth is a policy officer at the Soil Association, the UK's leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.  The Soil Association, in partnership with the Woodland Trust and the Royal Forestry Society, are hosting the national agroforestry conference on 22 June.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue