Can Agroforestry Save the Food System? | Civil Eats

Can Farming With Trees Save the Food System?

Unprecedented funding is flowing into a broad range of agroforestry practices, which can pull carbon out of the atmosphere and build farm resilience as the climate changes.

Farmer Tim Crowhill Sauder with a cow on his land. (Illustration by Nhatt Nichols)

This article was produced in partnership with Edible Communities; a version of this article will appear in future issues of local Edible magazines.

Fiddle Creek Dairy sits at the top of one of the endless rolling hills in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. On the first day of spring, farmer Tim Crowhill Sauder looks from his sloped pastures out over the open fields that extend in every direction. A bright red barn interrupts the long horizon. An Amish farmer rides a plow behind a team of horses. It’s a bucolic picture that belies the landscape’s natural state.

“This was the great Eastern Woodlands,” says Sauder. “It wants to be a forest here.”

Centuries ago, Sauder’s Anabaptist ancestors arrived and, instead of learning from and alongside the Native peoples who had already developed techniques to farm within the forest, took the land and cleared the trees to grow crops and graze livestock. Now, Sauder sees its next chapter as both practical action and penance.

“I do it for the sake of my children’s future and for the sins of my ancestors,” he says, of the 3,500 young hybrid willow, honey locust, mulberry, chestnut, and persimmon trees that are now maturing slowly in neat rows across 30 acres of pastures.

Sauder’s system—where his cows will soon graze among trees instead of in fully open pastures—is called silvopasture. And it’s one of several practices that fall under a broader agricultural approach called agroforestry, or farming with trees.

Agroforestry includes planting trees and bushes in strips to prevent soil erosion and provide habitat for wildlife, along streams to stop nutrient pollution, or between rows of corn. These practices, long part of Indigenous farming, are taking root all across the country.

Farmers can plant trees and bushes in strips to prevent soil erosion and provide habitat for wildlife (windbreaks and hedgerows), along streams to stop nutrient pollution (riparian buffers), or between rows of corn (alley cropping). These practices are taking root all across the country.

In California, Rebekka and Nathanael Siemens graze sheep in their 2,000-tree almond orchard. On 18 acres in Wisconsin, the Midwest’s leading agroforestry nonprofit, the Savanna Institute, is growing chestnut, elderberry, black currant, and black walnut trees between rows of organic soybeans.

Whatever the approach, more abundant plant life that stays put year after year—i.e., perennials—lead to healthier ecosystems that support biodiversity and store carbon. Indigenous cultures around the world, including Native American tribes, have long practiced various forms of agroforestry. And, as researchers, policymakers, and governments look for effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build climate resilience on farms to secure the food supply, agroforestry is approaching a renaissance.

Funding Agroforestry as a Climate Solution

Project Drawdown ranks silvopasture and alley cropping among its top 20 climate solutions. In the latest round of reports published by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s top climate experts concluded that practices that store carbon dioxide are now critical to meeting climate goals. They found that scaling up agroforestry could make a meaningful contribution to carbon removal while also helping farms adapt to climate risks.

“Farmers are stewards of photosynthesis, one of our oldest and best technologies for getting carbon out of the atmosphere,” Keefe Keeley told policymakers, government officials, and CEOs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) biggest annual gathering this year.

Keeley, the executive director of the Savanna Institute, was invited to speak to highlight the USDA’s Climate-Smart Commodities program. The agency awarded $3.1 billion in two rounds of grants last fall, including $153 million to projects focused specifically on agroforestry. (Additional broader projects also include elements of agroforestry.)

The Savanna Institute is one of many organizations involved in a $60 million effort coordinated by The Nature Conservancy across 29 states. In the Southeast, Tuskegee University is leading two projects intended to help underserved farmers transition to agroforestry practices and to grow markets for their products. The Adirondack North Country Association will help women-owned farms measure the benefits of riparian buffers and cropland reforestation in New York, while Caribbean Regenerative Community Development will work with small coffee farms in Puerto Rico.

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An illustration of a silvopasture operation, with a cow grazing among trees. The illustration is captioned,

In recent months, the USDA started distributing funds from the Inflation Reduction Act designated for climate-smart agriculture—including agroforestry practices. Then, in late March, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) reintroduced the Agriculture Resilience Act. If included in the next farm bill, it would direct the USDA to establish three new regional agroforestry centers. As lawmakers prepare to write the 2023 Farm Bill, many are looking to continue to expand funding for climate-smart practices.

“When we did a pre-survey of farmers across the region, agroforestry was the No. 1 thing they were interested in doing. And the No. 1 practice they were interested in is silvopasture,” says Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, an organization that supports Mid-Atlantic farmers.

Pasa received a $50 million Climate-Smart Commodities grant to implement and expand agroforestry and other soil health practices on 2,000 small- and mid-size farms along the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to South Carolina. Through a network of partner organizations, it will subsidize the cost of tree planting and offer technical support.

The Nature Conservancy’s project will tackle the same two challenges in additional regions. And covering the upfront cost is key, said Joe Fargione, the group’s North America science director. Fargione compared getting started in agroforestry to organic transition. Initially, farmers have to invest money and time into going organic, they often see lower yields as they work out the kinks, and it takes three years before they can charge more for their crops. With agroforestry, trees are expensive, other costs often arise in setting up the system, and farmers won’t see benefits to their bottom line until the trees mature, which takes a minimum of three years—and usually more like six to eight. “But one of the things that’s exciting about agroforestry is that . . . it’s profitable,” Fargione said.

The Need for Local Agroforestry Expertise

At Fiddle Creek in Pennsylvania, Sauder is hoping the shade his trees provide will improve grass growth and reduce stress on his cows, which is not only good for their welfare but also for milk production. During the hottest months, when pastures dry up, honey locust trees will drop edible pods; Sauder can also use a technique called pollarding to drop branches from the willows, providing the cows with extra feed at no cost. That will all become even more helpful as temperatures continue to rise.

Still, on his own, Sauder didn’t have the cash to plant the trees until Austin Unruh made it possible.

“I would love to see every county have someone that can offer these kinds of technical services and consulting. It’s something that needs to be done locally.”

Unruh is the founder of Trees for Graziers, and he and his team have now completed about 20 silvopasture installations in Lancaster County, with more in the works. Key to his success has been access to public and private funds directed at reducing nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. (Pennsylvania is behind on its goals to reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution and is counting on 90 percent of future reductions to come from farms.) Unruh finds the funding for farms like Fiddle Creek and then brings his deep expertise to help farmers develop their systems.

“There’s a lot of experimentation, a lot of farmers comparing notes, but very few agroforestry technical support people out there advising farmers,” said Pasa’s Smith-Brubaker.

Unruh is the exception, and his knowledge of the local climate and landscape is crucial. He knows exactly how much shade is good for cool-weather grasses that thrive in the Mid-Atlantic, but that calculation would be very different if he were helping a farmer plant trees between rows of corn in Illinois. “I would love to see every county have someone that can offer these kinds of technical services and consulting,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be done locally.”

An illustration of an alley cropping operation, with a chicken pecking among rows of crops between trees. The illustration is captioned,

And while the Climate-Smart Commodities projects will train more experts and get a lot of farms planting trees, Unruh said agroforestry will only reach its potential if support for the approach is sustained over time. In his state, for example, silvopasture isn’t eligible for funding through existing conservation programs. But demonstrating and measuring the impacts over the next five years should help, he said.

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Smith-Brubaker agrees. “Alley cropping wasn’t approved before, but we were able to do these demonstration sites and then have NRCS [PA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service] agents come out, and now NRCS does fund alley cropping. We’re hoping the same will happen with silvopasture,” she said.

On its own, the acreage that will be affected by this new funding won’t be enough to make a huge dent in agricultural emissions, but Fargione says it will provide important data and tools that could spur future investment and growth, allowing it to scale up. The Nature Conservancy project, for example, will be measuring carbon stored in trees and soil on the farms while also working to develop an affordable measurement method. He said giving farms the tools to implement agroforestry practices and document the impacts will then allow food companies with net-zero commitments to buy from them.

An illustration of a riparian buffer system, with cows grazing on a field next to a tree-lined stream. The illustration is captioned,

Either way, says Unruh, “it’s a drop in the bucket compared to how big agroforestry should be and what the opportunities are.” Beyond dairies like Fiddle Creek, there are also pastured poultry and hog farms that Unruh sees as having even more potential. Those have barely been considered.

For now, spring is in full effect. Robins are flitting between grasses and still-thin branches speckled with buds. In about three weeks, Sauder says, the pastures will be ready for the cows. For the first time since planting, a canopy will start to provide shade for the animals. While it will be far from a forest, the farm will inch closer to its roots—and toward a resilient future.

Illustrations by Nhatt Nichols.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Spencer Hoyt
    Planting trees is an important way to benefit the environment and improve the resilience of a farm, but it should be noted that just as important is planting the right trees. Different trees provide different benefits, and if you want an optimized farm, planting a wide variety of food producing trees, optimally native to your region, is significantly better than planting non native or nonproductive trees. There is no use to planting trees that neither contribute to the diversity of the area or produce a beneficial crop, be it fruit, lumber, carbon sequestration, or shade.
  2. cathy
    This article is great! We need to learn more about the benefits of not only planting trees but how to take care of them after the planting so that we have an end product of a diverse forest.

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