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agroforestry

Climate Mitigation through Agroforestry

in Current Issue/Uncategorized

Emily Lorenz

This article first appeared on the FarmFolk CityFolk website and is printed here with gratitude.

Agroforestry integrates trees or shrubs with other crops and/or livestock. Trees can capture greenhouse gases through their branches, leaves, trunks, and roots, making them an important climate solution and aid in reducing emissions in agriculture. In addition to sequestration, trees improve soil structure with their root systems and add nutrients to the soil with fallen leaves. Trees prevent flash flooding on agricultural lands by slowing down water with their root systems. Agroforestry systems create diversified habitats for wildlife with hedges, fruit trees, dead wood, grazing animals and other crops. Woodlands are a place for climate solutions, beneficial outcomes for farmers, and a calming space to promote farmer well-being.

George Powell, previously employed by the University of Alberta and the Ministry of Forests research program, is now an independent consultant offering his depth of knowledge as an agrologist specializing in integrated production systems. Powell describes agroforestry as, “a whole family of land-use practices that in some way involve the purposeful integration of trees or shrubs with other agricultural production, other crops or with livestock systems.” Agroforestry systems are diverse and complex and often “not defined by what you’re producing, but more like how you’re producing it,” says Powell. Clear cutting for agriculture and eliminating native tree species has severe environmental consequences. Powell says, “That’s probably one of the bigger environmental issues we’re still facing in BC. A lot of small and large stream networks [are suffering]. Forest cover was eliminated up to the water’s edge, which has big consequences for water quality and wildlife habitat.”

Cattle thriving in the margins of woods and field. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

Maintaining and planting woody plants has beneficial results for our climate. Trees and other woody perennials are a significant source of carbon capture. Powell has experience testing carbon levels in test plots of agroforestry models. He says, “Every tonne of woody material that you grow, about 50% of that is carbon. Large perennials turn over about 50% of their fine root material every year, which means huge soil organic carbon pools could be created. It’s a sequestration monster.” There are benefits for farmers to maintain trees on their land; benefits that include savings on time and labour as well as increasing soil health. Powell says, “With a forested system cleared for agriculture, the more trees and shrubs you retain there, the more you’re mimicking that structural setting and natural flows. The nutrient dynamics and the water dynamics completely change when you bring trees and shrubs into the picture. The soil erosion risks drop off because you have those deep-rooted components that you don’t have from most crops.”

Not only are trees and large woody perennials a climate solution, but agroforestry is an effective adaptation tool for farmers. Powell says, “I think the real strength of agroforestry for BC is in adaptation.” One of the largest benefits of agroforestry modelled farms is the diversification of species on the land. Powell says, “Having a diverse range of things that you’re producing is your first best strategy against climate change and annual variability in the climate extremes.” Windbreaks and temperature control are beneficial results of trees. Powell encourages the use of trees and shrubs for soil moisture conservation in terms of windbreaks.

Farmers can adopt several categories of agroforestry to diversify and strengthen their agricultural system. The list includes alley cropping, silvopasture, shelterbelts, hedgerows, timberbelts, forest farming, and integrated riparian management. Each method offers unique benefits and is typically chosen according to the qualities of the farming operation.

Alley Cropping. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

The integration of livestock and forest systems through silvopasture is a popular method of integrating trees on a farm. The approach of blending trees and animals in a system has numerous positive effects that benefit animal livelihood and our climate. In the winter, animals have an area to shelter from harsh temperatures and weather that is too extreme for them. Powell notes, “Trees and shrubs are largely water, they become big pools of long wave radiation and they radiate out that energy all around them. In wildlife terms, it’s called a thermal cover and the same principles apply to livestock.” Powell suggests setting up “living barns”, which are, “block or strip cuts into forests where you winter your animals in those strips and they benefit from the sheltering from the wind and the thermal radiation coming from the trees.” More importantly, in summer, shade is an important benefit that animals receive from tree cover. Heat stress occurs when an animal takes on more heat than its capacity to lose it. When they begin to experience heat stress, they seek shelter which a forest can provide easily.

Trees and shrubs offer a variety of nutrients that animals may not otherwise get. Fallen leaves and species that produce nuts and berries are nutritious to an animal’s diet. Beyond the numerous reasons that forested areas benefit livestock, the simplest encouragement is that certain species are meant to be integrated with trees. Powell says, “Livestock species were selected from forest-dwelling species. Cattle and chicken’s native predecessors are forest species. So they’re just happier with forest cover around. There are definite animal welfare benefits there.” Heather Young from Under the Oak Farm is preparing her farm for a silvopasture system. She strategically plants species of nut trees with the native and already established forest species and will introduce cattle onto in the coming years. Young plans to provide her cattle with the benefits of shelter from extreme climate variability and nutrients from the fallen nuts and foliage from the trees.

Forest farming is a unique technique for farmers to cultivate a high-value production crop under a canopy of trees. In addition to maintaining their forested area, they have planted numerous fruit trees with crops underneath to create a food forest. There are numerous benefits to forest farming. Young says, “In nature, trees grow with an understory of plants. If we reproduce that and let nature do its thing, it makes our life easier. We don’t have to weed as much, we don’t need to use nitrogen fertilizer, especially if you have nitrogen fixers. And, the trees provide habitat for birds that will eat your bugs.”

Hens as part of the agroforestry system. Credit: Big Bear Ranch.

Many small-scale farmers use alley cropping to optimize space on their farms. This agroforestry method involves planting rows of trees and/or shrubs to intentionally create alleys where crops are produced. For farmers who row-crop, this is a unique way of increasing income using a different profit source than their regular crops. Alley crops reduce erosion and can be a positive use of space where other crops cannot be planted. Strategically planted rows of trees can act as windbreaks and microclimates for other crops and livestock, increasing yield and quality of life. Alley cropping increases biodiversity and provides additional habitat for wildlife.

One or more rows of closely spaced trees and/or shrubs planted at the right angles to protect crops, soils, animals, and buildings from wind pressure are referred to as shelterbelts and hedgerows. These can be utilized along fence lines or as buffers between crops or animals. According to Powell, we need to restore the damaged waterways caused by agricultural clearing. He suggests, “Restoring those [waterways] in an agricultural setting would involve reestablishing buffers,” like hedgerows and shelterbelts. Rainer Krumsiek at Big Bear Ranch uses shelterbelts and hedgerows on their farm to create windbreaks for both their animals and wildlife. For Krumsiek, agroforestry is an important part of their farming operation. Krumsiek says, “Agroforestry helps with erosion control and nutrient balance. The moisture from snow accumulation and the fallen leaves from trees bring nutrients to the soil.”

Whichever approach farmers choose, agroforestry is regarded highly as a climate solution in agriculture. Trees are massive carbon sinks, add biodiversity to the farm ecosystem, and provide wildlife habitat, all contributing to climate mitigation. Farmers like Young note, “Our ability as agriculture to sequester carbon is more far-reaching than any technology we have so far.” Agroforestry systems benefit farmers in many ways. This includes saving time, labour, and financial costs over time; reducing erosion and increasing soil health; providing a natural canopy and windbreak for grazing livestock and poultry; providing nutrients to the ground below; spreading the risk in agriculture and increasing climate change variability.

When considering an agroforestry approach on a farm, it’s important to keep in mind that not all areas are appropriate for planting trees. Powell says, “When trees are applied to an area, you need to understand what varieties are native to that area and ecosystem, whenever possible. If the goal is to integrate livestock, it’s important to consider that not all livestock are appropriate for certain areas and species of trees. Find a local expert, speak to the local council and consult with First Nations communities.”

Approaching agroforestry by studying local agroecology is a good first step. Natural systems are thriving for a reason and farmers can learn a lot from natural ecosystems. Powell says, “It’s less energy to maintain a system the more of the natural cycles and processes you can retain. That’s what agroforestry does.” This approach can hugely benefit our climate, especially if more agricultural lands in BC incorporate agroforestry practices. Young says, “I am a firm believer that if we change parts of how we live, our emissions would decrease. A big part of how we live is choosing better agricultural practices.”

farmfolkcityfolk.ca


Emily Lorenz is the Engagement Coordinator for FarmFolkCityFolk and is passionate about supporting farmers and ranchers across BC.

Feature image: Alders fix nitrogen in wooded areas. Credit: Farm Folk City Folk.

Finding the Rhythm of Agroforestry

in 2022/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2022/Tools & Techniques/Water Management

Andrew Adams

Trees, shrubs, and seeds all wait to begin a lifetime or two of photosynthesizing sugars for human and animal consumption and enjoyment.

The road where Walter’s backhoe broke in a muck of two summers of nonstop rain is now ditched and has a new layer of gravel. Part of me broke in that spot. I walked away from that machine until the following spring when I magically got it out despite its broken axle.

The field has its drainage ditches dug for freshet or non-stop rain.

There are many ponds on the property now and I want more.

My back is feeling well and my heart still says go forth and plant.

For several years, I was always happy working way more acres than someone should with basically no machines. I had always been athletic and loved to challenge my body as well as my mind. Three hard summers in a row, a handful of years working in the bush while farming, and two kids later, I am no longer 25.

I sat on an advisory committee on climate change adaptation for farmers a few years ago and the models were stark. As soon as I saw the models, what was predicted to happen in 10 years started happening now. And we felt it.

The shake up in the world’s food system and transportation system over the past few years was jarring to most individuals within reach of a satellite dish or radio wave. We were no different.

Glorious tomatoes. Credit: Andrew Adams.

I had a local friend and restaurant owner come to me during the beginning of the pandemic and say, “It’s happening just like you said it would with food shortages. I thought you were crazy.” I likely am crazy, as it runs in my family, but I think it’s been obvious to many that our system of growing and transporting food is a bit broken.

There was nothing like facing record-breaking weather events, disasters, a pandemic, and supply chain disruptions—and now having two kids—to spur me into thinking long-term a bit harder.

Two things became apparent to me: we needed to expand our greenhouse side of the farm to mitigate the effects of our already harsh environment (we are on class 7 land), and we needed to make plans for long-term resiliency and move quickly because I am not getting any younger, as they say.

We expanded our greenhouse operations with loans, sweat from friends and family members, and lots of studying. Now, we can grow large volumes of annual vegetable crops relatively safe from the major challenges of the season. Basically, we reduced our risk on our annual income.

It was time to start the long-term project.

The soil is alive. Credit: Andrew Adams.

We had read of Indigenous food forests being found in what is known to many as British Columbia and standing the test of time.

We had dabbled over the years in trialing various varieties of berry plants, fruit trees, etc., just by placing them in our clay soil and watching them year by year. We watched some die and we watched some thrive and we watched some just exist in a state of almost cryogenesis in our gleysolic clay and we knew their native cousins in the forest.

We watched native species of fruit-bearing shrubs and nut-producing trees provide nearly every year to our family and to the wildlife despite the type of season it was weather-wise.

A good dear friend who I would call an adopted mother and mentor in the world of local botany and growing in difficult climates had a library and then-some of all the information we needed to pursue this adventure.

We began studying more often about trees and shrubs and visiting my mentor every week to soak up as much information as I could, and then we made the decision. This past year, I purchased prodigious amounts of seed, shrubs, flowering plants, and equipment.

The field will be laid out with wind breaks of willow and red osier dogwood to provide not only wind break but food for wildlife if they out-sneak the guard dogs. A wall of dessert to keep them from browsing the more valuable human-destined crops. It will encircle the field like a horseshoe with the open end facing the south.

A forest of food starts with good intentions and seed. Pictured here are butternut seeds, related to walnuts and pecans. Credit: Andrew Adams.

The next interior layer will be flowering shrubs for pollinators and nesting song birds, followed by apple trees and small “thickets” of butternut trees. The next layer of the agroforest will be the Saskatoon and then Haskap berries. And within the all layers, various native plant species will be reintroduced within the population for more diversity.

The orchard will take a few years to begin bearing fruit physically but it will continue do so with minimal input—as opposed to our annual vegetable crops—once established. Much of the maintenance of the field can be done with our implements and tractor which is a huge bonus, because apparently you can’t work 18-hour days on the farm and be the best dad in the world.

I hope my boys and the community (which includes the local ecosystem) will benefit from the orchard but like all projects, only time will tell, and the time will be marked in the rings of lignified carbon.

If it works financially once up and going, we have plenty more acres that will receive the same silvicultural prescription based on local ecosystem observation.

Is this regenerative agriculture? Is this permaculture? I really don’t like to place labels on anything and some folks are down right cultish about some of those words. How about we call it a slow dance with the ecosystem in which we are all in step.

Transportation disruptions. Credit: Andrew Adams.

hopefarmorganics.com


Andrew Adams is the co-founder and farmer at Hope Farm Organics in Prince George. Andrew has a Bachelor’s of Science in Agriculture from Kansas State University and his partner Janie has a Bachelor of education. After seeing the state of food security and agriculture in the north the two felt obligated to make real change in the form of organic food production and thus created Hope Farm in 2011.

Feature image: Walking through the potato patch. Credit: Andrew Adams.

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