AFTA defines agroforestry as an intensive land management system that optimizes the benefits from the biological interactions created when trees and/or shrubs are deliberately combined with crops and/or livestock. There are five basic types of agroforestry practices today in the North America: windbreaks, alley cropping, silvopasture, riparian buffers and forest farming. Within each agroforestry practice, there is a continuum of options available to landowners depending on their own goals (e.g., whether to maximize the production of interplanted crops, animal forage, or trees).
Benefits of Agroforestry
The benefits created by agroforestry practices are both economic and environmental. Agroforestry can increase farm profitability in several ways:
- the total output per unit area of tree/ crop/livestock combinations is greater than any single component alone
- crops and livestock protected from the damaging effects of wind are more productive
- new products add to the financial diversity and flexibility of the farming enterprise.
Agroforestry helps to conserve and protect natural resources by, for example, mitigating non-point source pollution, controlling soil erosion, and creating wildlife habitat. The benefits of agroforestry add up to a substantial improvement of the economic and resource sustainability of agriculture.
Key Traits of Agroforestry Practices
Agroforestry practices are intentional combinations of trees with crops and/or livestock which involve intensive management of the interactions between the components as an integrated agroecosystem. These four key characteristics - intentional, intensive, interactive and integrated - are the essence of agroforestry and are what distinguish it from other farming or forestry practices. To be called agroforestry, a land use practice must satisfy all of the following four criteria:
Intentional: Combinations of trees, crops and/or animals are intentionally designed and managed as a whole unit, rather than as individual elements which may occur in close proximity but are controlled separately.
Intensive: Agroforestry practices are intensively managed to maintain their productive and protective functions, and often involve annual operations such as cultivation, fertilization and irrigation.
Interactive: Agroforestry management seeks to actively manipulate the biological and physical interactions between the tree, crop and animal components. The goal is to enhance the production of more than one harvestable component at a time, while also providing conservation benefits such as non-point source water pollution control or wildlife habitat.
Integrated: The tree, crop and/or animal components are structurally and functionally combined into a single, integrated management unit. Integration may be horizontal or vertical, and above- or below-ground. Such integration utilizes more of the productive capacity of the land and helps to balance economic production with resource conservation.
Research and Development
To advance agroforestry in the North America, research is needed both on basic, process-level questions and on applied management techniques that are appropriate for commercial farm or forest operations. While basic research may, for example, investigate the long-term biological interactions between the components of an agroforestry practice, applied research should seek to maximize the tangible short and intermediate term benefits. Agroforestry practices should be tailored to readily integrate into existing farming or forestry enterprises, minimize the displacement of existing crops, use equipment and technical skills that are readily available, and allow some harvesting of products within conservation agroforestry practices (e.g., hardwood timber from riparian buffer strips). There is the potential to expand the participation of state, community and junior colleges, through their agriculture and forestry programs, in agroforestry research.
The greatest research need is to develop farm-level analyses of the potential economic costs, benefits, and risks associated with agroforestry practices. This information is a vital prerequisite to the objective comparison of both production-and conservation-driven agroforestry practices with alternative land use options. Furthermore, attention should be given to evaluations of future price trends in regional, national and international markets for commodities that can be produced using agroforestry (e.g., hardwood lumber or high-value, wind-sensitive crops). Research on tree-crop-animal-environment interactions should be pursued to provide a scientific basis for optimizing agroforestry designs.
Information and Technology Transfer
Technical information must be developed locally or regionally for application within that region. Information which is too general or which is based on studies conducted in dissimilar regions or climate zones is not likely to convince landowners to adopt agroforestry practices, or provide relevant skills and knowledge to ensure their success. on-farm demonstrations and field days are key to the understanding and appreciation of agroforestry practices by landowners. Education and training in agroforestry are needed both for natural resource professionals and college students.
In addition to the traditional model for the transfer of technology from researcher to extension agent to practitioner, landowners should have greater involvement in all phases of this process. With the assistance of research and extension personnel, local groups of landowners may analyze their own needs for agroforestry development, conduct on-farm experiments under real-life conditions, and then choose the practices most appropriate for their individual properties. Rather than accusing landowners of causing environmental degradation, they should be approached from a "win-win" perspective. Emphasis should be placed on participatory decision-making including landowner advisory groups. Research and information development should focus on agroforestry practices that afford economic opportunities, increase production efficiency, and provide cost-effective and pro-active solutions to conservation problems.
Farmers, ranchers, and foresters may not recognize particular practices as "agroforestry" even though they make use of them (e.g., field windbreaks to protect crops). Agroforestry is a set of practices integrated into larger land use systems. It is not a product or commodity. As a part of integrated land use management systems, agroforestry is relevant to the sustainable production of a wide variety of agricultural commodities, as well as the production of high-value specialty products.
Economic gain is the primary motivating factor in the adoption of agroforestry in the North America. The decision whether or not to adopt an agroforestry practice depends on the decision maker’s perception of how that practice compares with alternative land use options. To be acceptable, agroforestry practices must offer:
- at least as much income potential, without significantly greater risk, compared to other market-driven land uses
- better prospects for solving a particular conservation problem compared to other practices that do not involve tree planting.
While economics are often paramount in the decision to adopt one land use practice over another, social and aesthetic considerations may also be important to the landowner. The relative weighting of economic, social and other factors will vary among landowners depending on the size of the farming or forestry enterprise, the level of production intensity, proximity to markets, and whether it is a full or part-time activity.