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Improving resiliency, productivity of farmlands through agroforestry

Photo: Black and white photo of landowners working in field.
Landowners tending to their windbreak planted as part of the Prairie States Forestry Project during the 1930s. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

WASHINGTON, DC — Farmers are challenged by ever-increasing production demands under the uncertainties of changing weather conditions, climates and markets. Agroforestry — the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and livestock production systems — can enhance not only the resiliency, but also the productivity and profitability of agricultural operations and lands.

The USDA Forest Service has published a new report, "Agroforestry: Enhancing Resiliency in U.S. Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing Conditions," that presents the first-ever synthesis on agroforestry as a mechanism for improving the resiliency of farm lands. Drawing upon the most current science, the report shows how the resiliency of both livestock and crop production systems can be improved through the use of trees, shrubs and forestry practices.

Agroforestry has played a prominent role in the history of U.S. large-scale agricultural landscape management efforts. In the 1930s, the Prairie States Forestry Program planted over 18,600 miles of windbreaks in the Great Plains to address soil erosion during the Dust Bowl period.

Practices like windbreaks and alley cropping, in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops, can reduce wind velocity, decrease erosion and improve soil health. Silvopasture, the sustainable production of livestock, trees and cattle on the same unit of land, allows trees to be managed for timber or other tree crops while providing shade and shelter for livestock. Riparian buffers — vegetated areas along streams and other water bodies — stabilize banks, reduce nutrient runoff and provide shade that helps keep rising stream temperatures in check. Forest farming, or the cultivation of high-value crops like ginseng or shitake mushrooms under a forest canopy, is another agroforestry tool used to diversify farm portfolios and provide economic stability for landowners.

According to the report, well-designed agroforestry systems can increase crop yields as much as 56 percent by increasing per-land-unit area productivity. These practices also support key nature-based benefits such as crop pollination, biological pest control and habitat connectivity.

Agroforestry advances USDA’s strategic goals of facilitating rural prosperity and economic development through integrated agricultural strategies and production systems. Not only do these practices bolster agriculture sustainability and landscape health, but they also help farmers hedge their bets against future challenges.

 

 

Chart. Crop name & average percentage increase. French beans, Oats, & Potatoes, 6; spring wheat, 8; dry beans, 10; maize, 12; soybeans, 15; tomatoes, 16; rye, 19; grass hay, 20; winter wheat, 23; barley, 25; raspberry, snap beans, 40; strawberry, 56.
By increasing per-land-unit area productivity, well-designed agroforestry systems can increase crop yields as much as 56 percent. Data from "Agroforestry: Enhancing Resiliency in U.S. Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing Conditions."
Photo: Verdant vegetation winding along the banks of a stream.
Riparian buffers — vegetated areas along streams and other water bodies — stabilize banks, reduce nutrient runoff, and provide shade that helps keep rising stream temperatures in check. Photo courtesy of National Agroforestry Center.