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Transitional Strategy and Agroforestry

By Mark Shepard
An excerpt from Restoration Agriculture

Agroforestry is a term that is used to describe a set of agricultural practices in which woody plants, especially trees, are integrated with annual crops or livestock on the same piece of cropland. Although widely practiced around the world, agroforestry was not an official USDA-accepted agricultural practice until the mid-1980s. Even today, although some agroforestry practices are eligible for federal cost-sharing money, in the grand scheme of things relatively little agroforestry is being practiced in North America.

For the practitioner of restoration agriculture, agroforestry represents the transitional forms that help a farmer or rancher transform his or her operation from an annual system to a more perennial system. Agroforestry practices allow a farmer to continue to do what they are doing today while they install the perennials that will be the mainstay of their future. Current cash flow is preserved while future cash flow is getting established and starts to grow. This is a critical element in restoration agriculture. Agroforestry represents the techniques that we use to bridge the gap between annual and perennial crops.

The transition from a cornfield to a deeply diverse, food-producing savanna system takes time. Succession must take place. Agroforestry will help us to leap across the scary chasm of the unknown during the years while our perennial crops mature and begin to bear fruit.

trees in field

North American agroforestry is focused around five major practices — each with their own USDA technical manual describing it. The technical manual must be followed step-by-step if federal cost-sharing money is sought. Agriculture extension agents and USDA employees will refuse to offer assistance dealing with agroforestry practices unless they have a copy of the technical manual describing the practice (only then does this give them permission to help you) and are reminded of the USDA Agroforestry Strategic Framework adopted during the Obama administration.

The Agroforestry Strategic Framework (2011-16) outlines strategies that the USDA claims to promote in order to create productive, healthy farms, ranches, woodlands and communities. To do so, the USDA will provide knowledge, tools, and assistance to combine agriculture and forestry for the benefit of the landowner, the community and the nation.

Now that you are aware that the USDA itself wants to promote these important techniques, you have legitimacy in the eyes of “Big Ag” and the folks looking at what you are doing on your farm while scratching their heads. The officially USDA-accepted agroforestry practices are as follows: windbreaks, riparian buffers, alley cropping, silvopasture and forest farming. A sixth practice was officially accepted on several occasions in the 1990s and 2000s, but suffered a slow, death by the bureaucratic process. The sixth practice had several different names, my favorite of which was “multi-story cropping systems,” a term which actually begins to approach restoration agriculture in many respects. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats who were responsible for the development of the technical manual describing the practice had zero experience planting or managing such systems, and the practice that they eventually described was, for all practical purposes, totally unworkable. In some agroforestry circles the term “special applications” is used in order to include things like “multi-story cropping systems,” the growing of woody biomass crops, as well as restoration agriculture and permaculture systems.

Putting the ineptness of those with no experience aside, the five officially accepted agroforestry practices actually are workable and provide an excellent transitional model for restoration agriculturists. Since agroforestry has actually been written about for decades and has been extensively researched, you are welcome to hide behind the vanguard of agroforestry when neighbors and family begin to wonder what you are doing. The restoration agriculture farmer
is practicing agroforestry. We have not gone off the deep end; we are merely following good USDA agricultural practices that have the backing of universities and government agencies. Believe me, this can be important sometimes. The difference between USDA-approved agroforestry and restoration agriculture is that the latter is the practice of agroforestry on ecological steroids!

Agroforestry practices are relatively simple systems that are universally applicable in nearly all regions of the world. Probably the simplest of the practices and easiest to install and manage are windbreaks. Windbreaks are linear plantings of trees or shrubs that are intended to mitigate the effects of the wind. Windbreaks help to prevent desiccation in field crops. They can prevent mechanical crop damage from wind-thrash and wind-throw. They can help prevent wind-generated soil erosion, preserving valuable topsoil, and preventing the sand-blasting of delicate field crops such as squash, melons, peppers and eggplants.

Much in the same way that windbreaks can protect field crops from the effects of wind, they can also be used to protect buildings from the same damage. Winter heating costs in buildings can be dramatically reduced with the
proper planting of windbreaks, and the relentless winds of the Canadian prairie provinces can be mellowed to such a degree that the land immediately around the farmstead can become a pleasant microclimate suitable for badminton in the summer instead of just parasailing or studying wind-tunnel aerodynamics.

In the same manner that windbreaks can help to create sheltered spots for picnics, they can be used to dramatically reduce livestock stress. Windbreaks can provide shade against the summer heat and shelter from the shivering winter winds. Animals protected from winter winds require less feed to keep warm, reducing feed costs, animal mortality, and thereby helping the farmer’s bottom line. Additionally, windbreaks are now being widely planted to block the view of increasingly unpopular animal confinement facilities while simultaneously reducing escaped odors.
Windbreaks can help to prevent chemical drift in either direction, either from the property in question (thereby reducing the risk of overspray liability) or they can help to prevent chemical drift coming onto a site from outside the property.

The hybrid poplars surrounding New Forest Farm, planted purposefully as sacrificial trees, have taken a hit for the team during herbicide overspray events on a number of occasions. Instead of losing valuable chestnut or apple crops, all that was lost were a few thousand leaves and a month of growth on the inexpensive, fast-growing, expendable hybrid poplars. Windbreaks provide a wide diversity of habitats for numerous beneficial organisms from the obvious nesting sites for birds to the not-so-obvious alternative pollen sources and homes for native wild bees. They provide shelter for tree frogs and toads, insectivorous spiders, and praying mantises and hiding sites for upland game birds such as pheasant, quail and grouse. This feature can add another enterprise to the farm — selling leases for bird hunting enthusiasts or offering tours for birdwatchers seeking the elusive bird “du jour.”

When planted along roadsides or driveways windbreaks can act as living snow fences. You don’t have to plow the snow from your driveway if you never let drifts accumulate there in the first place. With careful observation and planning you can design living snow fences so that drifts can be deposited where you would like to see increased soil moisture in the springtime and away from vehicle driving areas. Or windbreaks can be designed to spread out drifting snow for a more even accumulation of moisture. Yes, you can actually steer snowdrifts to reduce the need for plowing your driveway and to increase the soil moisture in a spot where you have planted some moisture-loving species.

Windbreaks can be made of varying densities, allowing for more or less wind penetration. They can be made of taller or shorter trees, in multiple or single rows, and using evergreens or deciduous trees (or a combination of all the above). Evergreens are more impenetrable to the wind and would be more suitable for livestock and homestead shelter, whereas more widely spaced deciduous trees would be more suited for breaking up a driving wind and for
scattering snow more widely. Multiple rows of trees can be used to catch snow in between them. They will also capture autumn leaves or drifted topsoil from a neighbor’s property. Although the idea of a windbreak may seem simple, their uses are only limited by the creativity of the observant landowner. In my opinion, the creative use of windbreaks has only begun to be explored.

About the Author:

Mark Shepard heads Forest Agriculture Enterprises and runs New Forest Farm, an 106-acre commercial-scale perennial agricultural ecosystem that was converted from a row-crop grain farm. Trained in mechanical engineering and ecology, Mark has combined these two passions to develop equipment and processes for the cultivation, harvesting and processing of forest-derived agricultural products for human foods and biofuel production. Mark is a certified permaculture designer and teaches agroforestry and permaculture around the world.