More than ever, farmers, ranchers and forestland owners in this country are being challenged to meet food, feed, fiber and fuel demands in the face of uncertain and changing climate conditions, including the volatile weather-related conditions – tornados, drought, flooding, wildfires – that come with them.
Agricultural producers are constantly looking for land management practices that can help them deal with these often-unpredictable conditions. USDA and the U.S. Forest Service have recently released a report – “Agroforestry: Enhancing Resiliency in U.S. Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing Conditions” – that addresses the concept of intentionally integrating trees and shrubs into crop and livestock production systems, a move that can enhance not only the resiliency, but also the productivity and profitability of agricultural operations and lands.
Among the practices cited in the assessment is alley cropping, in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops, to reduce wind velocity, decrease erosion and improve soil health. Silvopasture, the sustainable production of livestock and trees on the same plot of land, allows trees to be managed for timber or other tree crops, while providing shade and shelter for livestock.
Riparian buffers – vegetated areas along streams and other water bodies – stabilize banks, reduce nutrient runoff, and provide shade that helps keep rising stream temperatures in check. Forest farming, or the cultivation of high-value crops like ginseng or shitake mushrooms under a forest canopy, is another agroforestry tool used to diversify farm portfolios and provide economic stability for landowners.
As highlighted in the new USDA report, research suggests that in addition to helping mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, agroforestry provides production and environmental benefits by:
- Modifying the climate around production fields (microclimate) in ways that can enhance livestock productivity and well-being and improve crop yields from 6 to 56 percent, depending on crop type.
- Reducing soil erosion from water and wind, improving soil physical conditions and fertility, and thereby protecting future soil productivity.
- Protecting streambanks and infrastructure, moderating runoff, and ameliorating high stream temperatures, thus protecting water quality and aquatic ecosystems.
- Creating habitat refuge areas and connectivity across highly fragmented agricultural landscapes, protecting biodiversity, including pollinators and beneficial insects.
- Generating innovative food-producing systems that diversify farm portfolios and increase economic opportunities and stability for the landowner.
Regional perspectives offered by the document on the status and potential future role of agroforestry include the Midwest, where more than two-thirds of the land is in agricultural use, with corn and soybean constituting 85 percent of crop receipts. The report also points out that increased heat stress, alternating flooding and drought cycles, and higher populations of harmful insects are major climatic challenges faced by producers in the region.
However, the report also cites that riparian forest buffers are already being used in the Midwest to reduce water-quality concerns, and the practice is expected to grow as extreme rainfall events increase. Furthermore, the expanded use of windbreaks and alley cropping there will buffer the effects of warmer temperatures on crops and livestock and help boost populations of beneficial insects.
The report states that the range of climate-related threats to U.S. agriculture may exceed those generated by the 1930s Dust Bowl. But so is the potential for agroforestry to address them.
Solutions from the Land urges producers to look over this assessment and take advantage of the technical assistance offered through federal and state conservation programs, which provide planning and design processes for implementation. Agroforestry can be a “win-win” solution in increasingly uncertain times and conditions.