News release: Introduction to agroforestry

Tim Baker, MU Extension Horticulture Specialist
102 N. Main, Suite 1, Gallatin, MO 64640

Release date: Sept. 19, 2013

Title: Introduction to agroforestry

Agriculture, when taken as a whole, can be a very complex system. We tend to isolate our thinking in terms of our specialty.  I am a Horticulture Specialist.  We also have agronomy, livestock, Ag business, and Ag engineering specialists, all studying some concentrated aspect of agriculture.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I really like the specialist system. But sometimes we need to think in terms of agriculture as the system that it is.  Not only are we raising crops and livestock, we have environmental concerns that we must deal with. How does one practice affect another? At the same time, we have to make money, or the whole system fails for us.

I’ve always been interested in agroforestry, because it takes a systems approach to agriculture. Agroforestry involves the intentional integration of trees with other aspects of agriculture.  There’s not only a place for foresters in agroforestry, but also row crop, livestock, and even horticultural producers. They all work together in designing a system, depending on the needs and desires of the landowner.

There are five practices that agroforestry concentrates on.  These include riparian and upland buffers, silvopasture, alley cropping, windbreaks, and forest farming. For my next few columns, I will be going into depth on these practices, but for now, let me give you a short introduction to each of them.

Riparian  forest buffers deal with areas along stream banks and other waterways. They may be designed with trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs, to prevent erosion. There are good examples where farmers who were losing cropland to streams designed a good riparian buffer and stopped their losses. In extreme cases it may take some engineering practices to help stabilize the stream bank.

Silvopasture refers to the integration of livestock and pasture under trees. Note that this is not simply turning the livestock out into the woods. It is truly a well-designed rotational grazing system, benefiting both the trees and the livestock. I’ll go into more detail in a future column.

Alley cropping refers to the practice of planting crops in between rows of trees. Now it may seem counterproductive for a farmer to plant trees in a field, and in most cases this is not what a farmer wants or needs. However, sometimes it makes sense. In the early years, crops are harvested between the rows of trees. As the trees mature, nut or other crops and/or lumber may be harvested from them.

The practice of creating windbreaks brings engineers into our agroforestry equation. We are all familiar with windbreaks around the homestead to keep the temperatures a bit warmer and save on the utility bill. But windbreaks can also protect crops.  They can divert snow, or place it where you want it.

The final agroforestry practice is forest farming. This is where the horticulturist really comes into play.  There are many shade-tolerant crops which can be grown within a forest. Some of these are quite valuable. Many of us are familiar with the high dollar medicinal crops such as ginseng. But you can also grow mushrooms and other edible crops. Or, your entire planting may be of woody species that produce food, such as nut crops or elderberries.

Agroforestry practitioners may design a system working with woodland that already exists on your farm. Or it may mean planting trees to accomplish your goals.

You may only be interested in establishing a better environment for wildlife.  Or perhaps you have always wondered what to do with those woods on your property, other than harvest some firewood to stoke your stove with.  Maybe there’s actually a way to make money with that forested land you own.

If you are interested in learning more about agroforestry, I would recommend the upcoming field day at the MU Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center at New Franklin.  The date will be October 5, 2013.  Call me for more information at 660-663-3232.