The USDA explains that agroforestry is “putting the right tree, in the right place, for the right purpose.” This integration of trees and shrubs has been used for centuries to create climate-resilient landscapes that benefit the water, soil, crops and animals.
Today, it’s becoming more common across the U.S. as a way to prevent crops from extreme weather and ensure product success. Agroforestry is climate resilient and contributes to food security around the world by protecting crops and livestock.
What Is Agroforestry?
Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into farming systems involving both crops and animals. The purpose of agroforestry is to create environmental, economic and social benefits, and according to the USDA this farming method enhances the country’s agricultural landscapes, watersheds and communities.
There are several categories of agroforestry, including the following:
- Alley cropping: When crops are planted between rows of trees while the trees mature. The crops used may include fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and more.
- Forest farming: Also known as multi-story cropping, this is when crops are grown under a forest canopy to provide shade.
- Silvopasture: When livestock, their food sources and trees are on the same piece of land to allow for shade and shelter.
- Riparian forest buffers: When trees, shrubs and grasses are planted along rivers and streams to create a buffer that filters runoff and prevents erosion.
- Windbreaks: Also called hedgerows and shelter belts, this is when trees and shrubs are used to shelter crops, animals and oil from the wind, dust or snow.
Agroforestry techniques have been used around the world for centuries, but they are becoming more common in the U.S. because they help to mitigate the risks of severe weather, environmental impacts and product price volatility for farmers.
A 2017 review published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research International found that agroforestry plays a role in climate change mitigation worldwide and is able to overcome various financial, technical and institutional barriers to have a positive impact, including carbon sequestration.
And a 2022 study published in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment indicates that agroforestry reduces soil loss and runoff compared to sole crop cultivation, and the technique improves productivity and profitability, while reducing energy consumption.
The benefits of agroforestry also include:
- Protecting the soil, crops, animals and homes from extreme weather
- Enhancing food supply
- Trapping snow and runoff
- Reducing erosion
- Providing shade and shelter for animals
- Mitigating odors
- Sequestering carbon and other greenhouse gases
- Improving water quality
- Improving pollinator habitat
- Mitigating weather and product risk for farmers
- Producing trees for timber and other products
- Bringing nutrients in the ground to the surface
- Building soil matter
Best Agroforestry Trees
The best trees for agroforestry depends greatly on the goals for that farm or land. There are several reasons why you’d integrate trees, crops and livestock: climate control, shelter for animals, shade for crops and more.
You also need to consider your local climate and choose only well-adapted trees for your region.
Once you’ve figured out the logistics, you can choose the best tree varieties. Here are some popular trees used in agroforestry systems in the U.S. (including as part of Ancient Nutrition’s R.A.N.C.H. Project) and beyond:
- White Oak
- Southern Red Oak
- Silk Oak
- Eastern Red Cedar
- White Pine
- Sugar Maple
- Black Walnut
- Shagbark Hickory
- Black Walnut
- Red Mulberry
- Common Apple
- Black Elder
Although it hasn’t always been called agroforestry, the concept has been used around the world since ancient times. The integration of trees, crops and livestock allowed farmers and settlers to not only produce their own foods, but provide shelter, clothes, medicine and more.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.S. suggests that the farming technique dates back to the Spanish Dehesas, 4,500 years ago, when the pasture was covered by scattered oak trees. In Europe, until the Middle Ages, trees were planted parallel to crops. Trees covered ground crops in Africa, Asia and in the Americas.
Today, perhaps because of changes in climate and the occurrence of weather disasters, agroforestry techniques are being used more commonly in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand. New categories within the agroforestry method are emerging to meet specific environmental issues or necessities, and agricultural programs are supporting farmers to create these integrative systems.
Farms across the U.S. are using this technique to manage their risks and improve resource sustainability. One such farm is owned and operated by Ancient Nutrition, as part of the R.A.N.C.H. Project, which includes over 4,000 acres of regenerative agriculture that uses agroforestry techniques.
Agroforestry vs. Silvopastoral
Silvopastoral systems integrate forestry and grazing of domesticated animals on the farm and pastures. This is a category within the agroforestry farming method that has many advantages, including reducing heat stress in livestock, providing wind and weather protection, improving wildlife diversity and water quality, and supplying food for animals.
A silvopastoral system will typically include pasture grasses and fertilization, contributing to the health of the soil. Rotational grazing is key to well-managed silvopastoral systems because it minimizes damage to trees and contributes to long-term soil and tree regeneration.
- Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into farming systems involving both crops and animals.
- There are several categories of agroforestry, such as alley cropping, forest farming and silvopasture farming.
- There are many benefits of agroforestry, including offering weather protection, enhancing food supply, improving water quality, reducing erosion and mitigating climate change.
- The trees used for agroforestry system depends on the region and goals, but may include trees from oak, pine, maple and cedar species, among many others.