The International Centre for Research in Agro-forestry (ICRAF) defines agro-forestry as a dynamic, ecologically based, natural resources management system that, through the integration of trees on farms and in the agricultural landscape, diversifies and sustains production for increased social, economic and environmental benefits for land users at all levels.
Characteristics Governing the Agro-forestry System
Agro-forestry can be either Intentional or Interactive.
- Interactive Agro-forestry is designed to minimize negative and maximize positive interactions between trees, other crops, livestock and humans. The goal is to enhance the production of more than one component at a time while providing for environmental benefits.
- Intentional Agro-forestry is designing and and managing combinations for a planned result. Intentional Agro-forestry can be intensive or integrated. In the practice of Intensive Agro-forestry, components are managed to maintain production and environmental benefits. Integrated Agroforestry is a blend of agriculture, forestry and environmental science.
Types of Agro-forestry
- Agrisilviculture is a system that involves simultaneously growing of crops and trees on the same piece of land, providing the benefit of both food and forest.
- Silvopastoral is a system which involves raising livestock on pastures grown in association with trees. The trees are grown for harvesting purpose and provide shed, shelter, food, etc for the livestock.
- Agri-silvopastoral is a system that involves a three-way mixture based on a combination of crops, trees and livestock. Such a system requires skillful management, and can be sustainable even in harsh environments and fragile soils.
Popular Agro-forestry Practices
The type of agro-forestry techniques that are practiced depends on factors such as the region, type of crops, soil, climatic conditions etc. A wide selection of tree species and woody shrubs can be used for agro-forestry systems. Some of these trees are suited for acid soil conditions and others for erosion control and some are more appropriate as forage trees. The choice of appropriate species is critical to the success of agro-forestry system. In addition to the intended use, the choice of tree and associated crop species also depends on cultural and ethnic factors, which is of social importance. Some of the most popular agro-forestry practices adopted worldwide are outlined below.
- Alley Cropping- In this practice agricultural crop is grown along with long term tree crops. It involves growing crops in-between trees planted in rows. The spacing between the rows is appropriately designed to accommodate a matured tree size while leaving plenty of space for agricultural crop to grow and receive sunlight. This requires skillful management and careful planning. The agricultural crop provides the annual income while the tree crop matures. Hardwoods like oak, walnut, ash etc are generally preferred in alley cropping system.
- Forest Farming- This practice involves cultivation of exotic and high value forest products, along with high quality trees for wood products. Crops like mushrooms, fruit, nuts, berries, herbs and medicinal plants are just few of the many wonders forest farming can produce. These types of forest products can yield high value while the tree matures.
- Riparian Buffer Strips- This practice is popularly also known as “filter strips”. The purpose of riparian buffer strip is to catch soil, nutrients, pesticides etc from flowing into the water bodies. The trees and shrubs are planted along the river, lake etc which in turn also prevents stream bank erosion. Buffer strips can be planned to provide habitation for wildlife and also production of exotic forest products as in the case of forest farming.
- Windbreaks or Shelterbelts- In this type of agro-forestry practice multiple or a single layer of trees and shrubs are planted along edges of the fields. This shields the crops or the livestock from the effects of the wind, snow or extreme temperatures. They protect the fields from soil and water erosions as well, therefore creating a more favorable environment for the crops to grow. This system can also be designed to specifically build natural shelter for livestock; this reduces feed costs, odor, animal stress, mortality etc, while pleasing the eyes aesthetically.
Advantages of Agro-forestry
The farmers benefit in many ways with a well designed, well planed and well executed agro-forestry system. The presence of trees and shrubs aid the crops in making better utilization of the soil nutrients and light, hence resulting in better production as compared to monocrop method. Enhancement in the nutrient cycling capabilities of the soil reduces the cost for weed and pest control.
Agro-forestry systems provide an option of earning extra income to the farmers. Diversification between forest and agricultural crops reduces labor and resource costs along with the risks undertaken by farmers. Mixing long term forest crops with yearly agricultural income makes the overall system more profitable. Lastly forest provides food and shelter for the livestock which is beneficial in many ways.
On an environmental point of view, the advantages of agro-forestry are many, since it is an improved version of traditional farming and ecologically it is extremely compatible. The property of trees to prevent Soil erosion and conserve nutrients in the soil is known to all. In case of legumes crops, trees fix the nitrogen content of the soil and improve soil fertility. Wall of trees and shrubs protect the crops and livestock from harsh climatic conditions in the likes of; vicious winds, snow, extreme hot or cold. They also function as “bio filters” on dusts, noise, odor, and also prevents pesticide contamination of the water. Many birds, insects and wild life find a natural habitat in these forests boosting the ecological diversity of the area.
Agroforestry and the Future
With the modern day crisis of shortage of agricultural and forest land, agroforestry is well positioned to provide a perfect balance and a solution. However agroforestry is not a modern man's contribution, this system of farming as been in practiced by our ancestor’s since centuries. History of agroforestry dates back to almost 1700 years ago in parts of China.
With improvement in technology and development of agroforestry as a new branch of science, a ray of hope seems to have emerged for our planet. Agroforestry today seems as a sustainable method to manage forest and agriculture together, while being economically and environmentally viable.
The future of agroforestry lies in abiding by its fundamental characteristics and further investment in research and development in this “new science”.
- Uses of Agro-forestry
- What is Agro-forestry
- Tenets of Agro-forestry
- Agro-forestry and its Significance
- Methods of Agro-forestry
- Tools for Agro-forestry
- About Agro-forestry
Useful websites and further reading
- Dissemination of agroforestry information through the internet
- Agroforestry Database Development Programme