The agroforestry revolution

Large open crop fields with few trees and hedgerows, like these fields on the Downs at Bekesbourne, are prone to depletion and may soon be a thing of the past. Image © Copyright 2018.

Those of us who have grown up in the British countryside within the last century or so have become accustomed to seeing large rectangular(ish) fields of one crop growing between thin, widely dispersed borders of hedgerow: it seems the sensible, efficient way to organise areas of agricultural crops, particularly when using modern farming equipment. But this, so called monoculture, is not the only way to manage land, and it is certainly not the most environmentally friendly. Britain’s fields are approaching exhaustion: they have been overworked and undernourished; our wildlife has been decimated; there is a critical shortage of farmland; something has to change.

Governments, farmers and environmentalists are all looking for new ways to increase production and maximise farming efficiency, while, at the same time, enhancing the biodiversity of farmland. One astonishing system, which is gaining credence in EU farming and government circles is called agroforestry, and it is an entirely different agricultural system from the big field monoculture which many British farmers are used to. The idea is to plant crops in strips, perhaps sixty feet or so wide, between rows of fruit, nut or wood producing trees. Livestock meadowland can also be planted with rows of trees in this way.

It all seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but the secret of the system is that with careful crop and tree selection and management a micro-climate can be created between the trees, which is of benefit all round: trees take water lower in the ground than crops, so they don’t compete; trees can provide refuge for the creatures that eat crop pests; trees can protect arable crops (and animals) from adverse weather, while careful positioning of the rows north to south (or otherwise to suit the local topography) and regular harvesting of new wood growth allows plenty of sunlight for good growing.

One might assume that when managing a farm in this way production is reduced and profits lowered, but farmers who have switched to this system say that is not necessarily so: planning for smaller land strips means they are more diverse, more able to be flexible and adaptable in what they grow. The rows of trees also produce a valuable crop themselves: fruits like apples and plums, nuts like hazel and walnut, or coppiced wood for bio-fuel chips; all of which tend to become available when the arable harvest has finished. As a consequence, farmers say their profits have increased, sometimes by up to 50%.

While this system can be beneficial to the farmer, tests indicate it is significantly better for the rural environment too, with huge biodiversity enhancement, less water run-off and evaporation, less soil erosion and, if the system became widespread, massive capture of carbon pollution. Of course agroforestry is just one new option in farming: we will have to wait to see if it takes off; but with our government promising a new ethical stance on farming grants which will favour those farmers who practice environmental farming policies, agroforestry may prove a popular and exciting new feature of our countryside in years to come.

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