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Learn more about Agroforestry and Mixed Farming

Within the framework of the EURAF conference in May 2022, the AGROMIX project organized a “Questions and Answers” session to try to answer the most frequent question about agroforestry gathered through AGROMIX’s social media channels from the project’s followers with the support of four experts on the field:
Patrick Worms (Senior Science Policy Advisor at ICRAF)
Anastasia Pantera (Professor at Agricultural University of Athens, Greece)
Dagnija Lazdina (Senior Researcher at "Silava" Institu, Latvia) 
Bohdan Lojka (Professor at the Czech University of Life Sciences, CZ)

The session recording can be freely watched and shared openly and also was transcribed into a FAQs text format for an ease access and consultation.
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AGROMIX #AskAScientist Q&A Session

What is agroforestry? And how is it related to permaculture? How does agroforestry compare to other practices that we hear about like regenerative agriculture, permaculture, etc.?

Patrick: In an agroforestry system, the trees work for the living. You don't just wait for them to grow and then cut them to make some money. You exploit the ecosystem services that the trees provide to do something else while they grow. You may do that to help your crops to grow. You may do that to help the grass to grow to deal with livestock. You may do it in a simpler system to feed pollinators to make honey. Agroforestry is just the combination of trees, shrubs, and perennial species (permanent species, if you like) with shorter-lived species, such as annual crops, or sometimes permanent systems, such as grasslands. All of these things—agroforestry and permaculture—are part of the broad family of agroecology. What they have in common is a way of looking at agricultural landscapes, not as a blank substrate into which you pour inputs and seeds to gain a single product but to look at them as an agroecosystem that you can help fructify, grow, and work better so that you can glean some of those benefits. The beautiful thing about both permaculture and agroforestry is that if you do them well, you don't just do something that helps your own bottom line, but you also do something that provides services to the planet and the world will be thankful for it, whether it's better biodiversity, whether it's more resilience to extreme weather events, slowing soil erosion, or putting carbon in the soil.

Dagnija: For example, in Latvia, NGO Permaculture is very active to promote agroforestry because they found that those are very close relatives.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Anastasia: Regenerative agriculture is a philosophical way of looking at the land. As a general definition, you can say that regenerative agriculture is a holistic land use management practice. In this management, you're looking to close the carbon cycles in your field and at the same time, you get the best and the healthiest soil possible and the optimization of your crop. So you're looking for the minimum inputs and the maximum outputs. It's practiced with a variety of uses. One of them is minimal or no tillage at all. One of the expressions of agroforestry is the intercropping of plants. Because agroforestry is so diverse, regenerative agriculture is, in many ways, agroforestry as well.

Patrick: In regenerative agriculture, the focus is on the soil. At the end of every season, the goal is to have the soil in a better condition than it was last season. So it's an objective without an end. You try to make the system better and better and better as you progress.

Can agroforestry make a meaningful food contribution to a growing population? Nowadays we're thinking about population increases. In 2050 we're estimating 10 billion people on the planet.

Dagnija: I think agroforestry is for small farms because it's a way to manage land and it's not your main income. If it's your passion and your hobby, or when it's an additional system to deal with then it fits with these things. Agroforestry on a large scale is usually alley cropping or hedgerows or things like that. But when it is a very complex system, it's more like a hobby and more like a lifestyle.

Anastasia: Some time ago I was visiting Guadeloupe and I saw amazing types and a number of combinations of species on the same piece of land. So, I'm confident that yes, agroforestry is a land-use system that can be used and can meet the demands to feed the growing population. That is why we're here. This is our duty to provide insight, provide guidelines, and tell people how to practice it. We're always respecting the environment. And as Patrick also said, we have to respect the soil. Always keep soil in our minds because I think that soil has been neglected, but it's getting more and more attention. So, to answer again, I support Dagnija's statement: yes, it can be an answer definitely.

Dagnija: I would like to add that it's going parallel climate change mitigation and increasing populations. Those are related and agroforestry is solving those problems.

Patrick: In increasing parts of the world, you cannot grow food unless you do agroforestry. Just thinking back to the Sahel here, we have more and more areas of desertification, more and more areas of drylands. And in those areas, unless you have a lot of capital and can afford to dig wells that are hundreds of meters deep to tap the little remaining groundwater there is, your trees are your only way of actually providing the ecosystem services to shade the nutrients that will help your crops to grow. Without agroforestry, there will not be any food security in the future.

Bohdan: Most of the studies prove that agroforestry is more productive per unit of area than if you grow crops or trees separately, so the simple answer is yes, of course. Most politicians think that agroforestry is about extensification, but it's not. It's a very intensive land use system and it can produce much more than classical conventional agriculture.

Anastasia: Just one last thing: the land equivalent ratio that has been proven many times is much higher in agroforestry systems than in monocrops.

What is overyielding / land equivalent ratio?

Patrick: The land equivalent ratio is an arrestingly simple tool to understand the productivity of an agroforestry system. Picture one hectare of monocrop farmland, and one hectare of tree plantation. Now, picture one hectare of agroforestry. How much land do you need to achieve the same productivity? One hectare of agroforestry through mono crop field or monocrop wood plantation? Typically, in the temperate zone, that figure would be 1.3 or 1.4. So, to have the same as one hectare of productivity of agroforestry, you would need 0.8 hectares of field and point six hectares of forest for example. So, 0.8 plus 0.6 is 1.4. In the humid tropics, that figure can go up to three or four five because the ecosystem services are stronger, and the growing season is 12 months long. But it's in the hot drylands of the planet, in the Sahel, for example, that the land equivalent ratio is the highest. You have climates in which without the trees, you are not going to get any crops. And since you have neither trees nor crops, your productivity is zero. With the trees, you're going to get the trees and the crops and if you divide something by zero, the result is infinite. So the land equivalent ratio in those environments mathematically is infinite.

Where can I find information and resources about intercropping flowers, veggies, and trees? Where can I find practical information about agroforestry?

Bohdan: I think to ask “where is the information?” is a little bit nonsense where everything is on the internet. However, if you would like to look, there are lots of studies. There are lots of handbooks that are available online about growing trees and crops together. But for growing trees and vegetables especially (in Europe), I would recommend the agroforestry handbook for the UK and there is a section for that. And from the U.S., there is a tree crop handbook, which I think is also very valuable. We also did one educational project which was called AGFOSY. The webpage is agroforestrysystems.eu, and there are a number of case studies, some of which also include growing trees and vegetables together. But what I would recommend mainly is to find your farmer. I think in every country there is a number of farmers that grow trees and vegetables together. I visited farmers in southern France, Spain, and the Czech Republic. When visiting those farmers and speaking with them, it is really amazing to see how they are able to produce excellent vegetables under the trees.

Anastasia: There are many leaflets and many innovative practices for agroforestry. People can find them on the websites of our previous research projects like AGFORWARD . The AFINET practice leaflets also have is information and examples. Last but not least, they can also advise the EURAF site and the local agroforestry networks.

Patrick: Broadly, I would recommend that you broaden your research terms. One of the problems that we have in our world is that we have so many different words to fundamentally the same idea, such as “Integrate perennials” and “think before you spray”. We have dozens of different expressions for that. We have "agroforestry", "climate-smart farming", "silvopastoral", and my favorite from Zimbabwe: "farming God's way". That means that if you Google any of these words, you're going to miss the texts and studies that are using a different set of words, so cast your net widely. For a textual reference that covers a huge amount of agroforestry systems, I would recommend Eric Toensmeier's book, The Carbon Farming Solution: a Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security. It's a long title, and it's a big book, but it's gorgeously illustrated. It's filled with good advice.

What economic analyses are most commonly used for agroforestry systems?

Patrick: It's extraordinarily difficult to make an economic analysis for agroforestry because trees take a long time to grow. For most agroforestry systems part of the economic return is going to be from the timber you get at the end, and it depends so much on the context. What are you intercropping? How are you managing your intercropping system? What trees are you using? Is there already a market for those trees today? Maybe. But maybe in 10 years' time, the sawmill will have shut and so when your trees are material, your transport costs are going to be much higher. For all of these reasons, people who ask for an economic analysis of an agroforestry system usually get the same answer: well, it depends. Beyond that, I hope that you participated in the session that we had on economics yesterday, and we had an interesting take on economics in the session on policy just this afternoon. There are a number of papers out there and there are a number of studies that have looked at it. But to my great sorrow, I must say that we don't yet have a definitive answer that we can simply slam on the table of the boss of a bank saying, “This works. Finance it”.

What are the main obstacles to its [agroforestry’s] widespread adoption and ways to overcome them?

Anastasia: I could use one word: fear. Fear or reluctance to use something new or old. There is a lot of proof right now that agroforestry works. It's a win-win situation, but people are reluctant to adopt it. And I'm quite happy that there is a lot of work being done lately. There have been some Erasmus projects, and there are a lot of agroforestry projects right now that employ the use of living labs. The basic idea of a living lab is that it is an experimental practical field where people can see if something works or does not work. So, in order to convince people and overcome these obstacles, I think it's quite important that they can see that agroforestry works in real life. So, one problem is the natural human fear we have of changing a situation or changing what we are used to doing every day. In some cases, you need a lot of technical training or technical information to apply an agroforestry system compared to a monoculture. In a monoculture, you just seed, plant, harvest, period. The beauty of agroforestry is that you have to think, and it provides the opportunity to think of how to get the most out of the same piece of land.

Bohdan: Mostly farmers' fear is long-term. So, they have to invest now, and a lot of the time they invest quite a lot of money, labor, and skills, and the results come in the longer term. So, in general, this longer-term investment could be an obstacle. In the case of Europe, and especially speaking of the Czech Republic, there is the obstacle of legislation and farmers fear that they will be penalized if they grow trees on their land. It is our job to break through those legal obstacles.

Patrick: I think that puts the onus too much on the farmers. The whole way agriculture is organized is against agroforestry. When a farmer is looking for advice, he's going to be advised by an agronomist working for the state or for a private enterprise that has been trained in the use of intensive high input agriculture, not in the use of trees. When a farmer wants to invest and he wants half a million euros from the bank to buy a tractor with GPS, artificial intelligence, whatever, no problem. If he wants half a million euros to plant trees in his field, people are going to look at him saying, "What, are you, crazy?". If a farmer has to do his financial planning, he only does it on a season-by-season basis. “I buy my seeds, my inputs, my diesel, my irrigation, I grow things for a certain number of months, and then I sell them”. That's the way the subsidy system works and agricultural insurance systems work. If he's planting trees, it's going to have a lot of costs today, and he's going to have reduced income because he's going to take some of his land out of production to put the tree lines down. He's then going to have to wait for those trees to start growing. Having a tree is like having a baby. When you plant it is when the job starts, not when the job stops. So, it's intensive in the first few years. You have to protect the trees from animals, and you have to water them if you're in a dry zone. Over that time, you have the costs accumulating. Then eventually, the ecosystem services kick in and you start having those benefits, so you have higher crop yields. But even later as the trees grow into big crowds, you're having a negative impact on your crops. And at the end, we get the lottery-winning moment when you can sell all the timber. It's a much more complicated financial planning process and most farmers are not able to do that. They are also not educated. Most farmers went to agronomic college. They spent far more time learning how to maintain a tractor and how to read the label on a bag of pesticides and how to plant trees. Since most of the public does not know what agroforestry is, slapping an agroforestry logo on a product in a supermarket does not allow you to raise products in most cases, although, in England, woodland eggs are an exception to that particular rule. So for all of those reasons, we need to commend and applaud the few farmers who, despite all these enormous problems, decide, “yes, I'm going to try to do this”. “I'm going to add some trees to my field”. They are pioneers. And these pioneers are more important than just to the land that they themselves are transforming because the one thing we know is that agroforestry spreads by social diffusion. When you have farmers doing agroforestry in your neighborhood, then you can see and talk to them. If you're a farmer not yet doing it, you may be interested in trying it out. If you have no one in your neighborhood doing it, then it's going to be much harder for you to start. For that reason, these pioneer farmers are probably the most precious asset we have as we seek to convince Europe, and more widely the world, to start adopting these extremely promising agricultural management systems.

Dagnija: Looking from the perspective of the farmer is different than looking from the perspective of a forester. For a forester, agroforestry is additional income in the beginning. And for farmers, it's the opposite in the long term. So, if I plant trees, I could not get income very in short term. But if I grow something between trees when I plant the trees, I could get income faster.

Is agroforestry compatible with intensive conventional agriculture?

Dagnija: It's compatible in the long run, but not in the short run. Some parts of the land are covered by trees which will give income in a later period, or which will improve traditional farming in a shorter period because trees need some time to grow up to make shadows. It takes some time to improve the soil by growing trees on agricultural land. So, in the long run, yes, but in the short run, it seems like not.

Are retailers ready to distribute agroforestry products and if not, what do we need to do?

Bohdan: I can tell they are not ready. I think most agroforestry farmers sell not through retailers, but in a niche market. They sell directly to consumers who they find through the specific schemes of supporting different families. They will sell directly to the luxury restaurant and so on. Those are probably the best way on how to make the best result of your very diverse agroforestry system because then the farmer does not produce the single two or three products, but he or she is producing a number of different products in probably high quality, but low quantity. Therefore, those specific farmers usually find direct consumers and direct selling schemes. Hopefully, if we raise awareness about agroforestry, probably in the future, there will be some certification of agroforestry like with organic farming. Then, we can also find a market and retailers that will value agroforestry products.

Patrick: I would tend to agree with that answer, but that nevertheless raises an ethical quandary. That means that for the moment, agroforestry is largely accessible only to the elites, the rich, those who are well educated, and those who know where to get agroforestry products. That is a foundational challenge that we have to tackle as we move forward, at least in the rich world. And as for supermarkets, they have to adapt their buying processes to purchase from regenerative agricultural systems including agroforestry rather than by price.

Bohdan: Okay, well that is true. But as you can find your farmer when you can buy in-store products, you can find your agroforestry farmer

Patrick: Sure, sure, but the average consumer has difficulty. We tend to think of Europe as a rich continent, and that’s true, but we have a large proportion of our population with little savings who has a really hard life just making ends meet. As you know, life is busy. Most people do not have the time to devote the energy to select and find better, higher quality food, so we have to help them get it by making it as easy as possible for them to find it in the supermarket.

How is the new CAP supporting (or not) the implementation of agroforestry?

Patrick: It is not. The new CAP is based on the principle of subsidiarity, which means that it's asking member states to decide broadly how it's going to spend the agricultural subsidies financed by the European Union. It's not giving these member states directions on things that we would consider agroecology. It's giving them a menu of things they can do, some of which only name agroecology. It's the member states who decide what they want to finance and what they don't want to finance. EURAF carried out a review of those. You can find it on the website as one of the policy briefs, and the results are pretty discouraging. The vast majority of member states either do not mention agroforestry in their strategic plans or mention it only once or twice in documents that are thousands of pages long. So, right now it's pretty discouraging. The policymakers have really fluffed this one.

Where can one learn more with workshops and courses around Portugal, Spain, and France?

Anastasia: The difference between nowadays and ten or twenty years ago is that there the information is available. If one wants to find some information, it's really easy to find on Google and YouTube. There is so much information about the resources. I think it's very easy for anybody to learn. Besides that, in most of the European countries, we have representatives of local agroforestry organizations. If you want to get more information about the events that have been organized, you can visit the EURAF site (or the AGROMIX Knowledge Exchange hubs) to find the local agroforestry organization in each country and then get in contact with the people of agroforestry people in this country. From there, you can get all the information about any type of activities they have. It's very easy to get this information nowadays, and it's realized through the living labs. And actually, I can say the opposite. We are trying to find people for whenever we have an event or we have a stakeholder meeting. We're spreading the word using all the media like Facebook and Instagram. We haven't used Tik Tok, but if we have to we will use it as well.

Bohdan: I would fully agree with Anastasia. In Europe, there were no education materials [on agroforestry] but during the last decades, the number of educational materials for farmers has grown. They are freely available online for lots of projects that we mentioned such as AGFOSY, and AFINET (or AGROMIX). In each country, I would first contact the EURAF branch (the National branch of EURAF) and ask them if they are organizing some workshops, conferences, and so on. That is the best way to get not only online information but probably the visit some workshops or conferences.

How should we share scientific knowledge with farmers?

Dagnija: Attend farmer meetings with invited lecturers. When I go into farmer meetings and I meet them, I talk with them like a normal person, not like a scientist, professor, or researcher. When I have coffee together with them, we can talk like normal people and it helps a lot. When I organized meetings and invited farmers, they thought, “it's organized by foresters, so it's for foresters”. But when I come in as an invited lecturer it works really well. Agroforestry is adopted for biodiversity and for habitats, but it's not yet adopted and accepted as a way of farming. I hope this will change. When something is invented in Latvia, for example, it takes 10 years to implement it in real life. We started to do agroforestry in 2015, so there are just three years left.

How can agroforestry solutions support vinyards?

Bohdan: I have fortunately visited agroforestry vineyards. They proved that historically, vineyards were intercropped. Vines are trailing so the trees were used as support for vineyards, but due to the focus on the intensification and productivity of vineyards, all trees were removed. We find out now that we can again plant trees and use agroforestry in vineyards. There is a number of studies that support the idea that trees can make a better microclimate to adapt to climate change. They can protect the vineyard from the early frost or in the hot summer they can protect from hot weather. There is, of course, a trade-off that the trees compete with vineyards for nutrients and water, so the highest competition is near the trees. However, the overall productivity usually is not compromised as studies confirm, and sometimes even the quality of the grapes and wine is better.

Are consumers interested in products from regenerative farming?

Patrick: A subset of consumers is interested in regenerative farming. That subset is growing as the impact of climate change becomes stronger and as people become more aware of the threats to our food supply. I haven't seen any studies looking at this question very recently, i.e. after the war and Russia's invasion of Ukraine started, but I would not be surprised if more and more people are now asking themselves how we are going to deal with the farming system if diesel inputs become more expensive and destroy the soil. Now we don't get our hopes up because I would be very surprised if more than 20% of the population was interested even in the richest, best-educated countries. It's probably lesser elsewhere.

Is there a competition between crops and trees in agroforestry systems?

Anastasia: I have the magic word that I teach my students to use: it depends. Basically, with agroforestry, the tools are the trees and the crops. The basic idea of agroforestry is to use a combination that does not impose any type of competition and that works together in a synergistic type of collaboration to get the most out of the land. So no, there shouldn't be any competition. That's also the basic idea of using the trees because we usually use deep-rooted species from the beginning of the establishment of the crop on the agroforestry plot. The trees are forced to use the deepest soil layers, so it's like they create a protective nest. All the nutrients that they leach from the upper crop have been trapped, and those nutrients can be recycled and used again for the crop. The point of agroforestry management is to make sure that you don't have any type of competition but on the contrary, you have the maximum and optimum type of collaboration between trees and crops. There is a lot of available literature on this. A lot of research projects are actually emphasizing this and trying to test this combination. The results are really amazing. As I said, it really depends where you are, what the climatic conditions are, what the species are, and what type of soil it is.

Bohdan: Yes, it's very site-specific. For sure, the trees and the crops will compete. They use the same resources. But it’s about the management, your design, how you care about the trees, how you care about the crops, and what crops you choose. It is about trial and error to minimize those conditions and maximize the benefit of growing trees and crops together. You could expect if you use alley cropping with cereals, that the yield will probably be lower for the lines near the trees. And we measured that. On the other hand, the bakery quality of the wheat that grew there was better. So those are the trade-offs in the tree lines. We also grew potatoes, and potato yields were better under the trees than outside the trees. It's very specific, and you cannot just generalize.

Patrick: There is a lot of work on that has been done which is simply not accessible. I’ll give you an example: we heard this morning about the windbreak systems in Ukraine. These windbreak systems were set up across the wheat-growing areas of the former Soviet Union (in Soviet times), so there were a lot of them in Central Asia. A huge number of studies were done in Central Asia and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan about the impact on yields, the impact on protein quality, (for) various tree species, the interaction between the wheat and different tree species. Now that research exists in Russian and on paper at the University of Tashkent. To the best of my knowledge, nobody's actually digitized it. Nobody has translated it and made it available on ResearchGate or Google Scholar. Because agroforestry is a system that had been in use for decades before the word agroforestry was even coined, that makes finding that old research even more difficult, but also even more promising because that research was done at a time when you did not have confounding factors of technology or chemistry, for example. I would warmly encourage those of you out there who actually have links in your universities and who are interested in the history of science to gather that data and those papers before the mice get them, and the mice are beginning to get them.

Anastasia: And this is a good opportunity, actually, to make a collection because this is our cultural heritage, and we need to preserve it for the future. It is our duty to do that.

How many tree species and how should they be organized on the landscape to optimize farm biodiversity?

Bohdan: The more species the better. The core of biodiversity is that the more species you have, the more diverse the system is. If you use more species with different structures, different heights, and different shapes, then the more heterogeneous and complex the vegetation is. Then it attracts biodiversity like insects, mammals, and birds. Of course, the more species the more biodiverse. But we are speaking about farmland, so it's usually much more simplified, and t's a question of whether the farmer is able to manage this really complex system. To do that, you need experience, you need practice, and you have to have knowledge. It's not easy, but I think the answer is that the more species you use, the more diversity you attract.

Bohdan: I don't want to answer this question because if we start to speak about percentages, and about how much percent of land should be covered by trees and how much by crops, we are falling into a trap. I don't want to avoid the question; however, it's very site-specific. It will be different if you're on arable land, and probably there will be intensive farming, and you want to replace monoculture of wheat with a relatively simple agroforestry system with alley cropping where you use three or four species where it will be very beneficial for the landscape. But if you are in a very beautiful landscape of southern France and you want to increase biodiversity, of course, you have to use a more complex agroforestry system.

Patrick: I think that's really crucial. It's actually a meaningless question. Because it depends so much on the context. If you're in the humid tropics, then in a hectare, you can have 40 different tree species, and it'll be great. If you're high up in the Andes or if you're in the Finnish Arctic, you have maybe three species you can work with. It's so context-dependent, and it also depends on the trade-offs you're willing to make, I mean, you can lose biodiversity, and up to a certain extent that biodiversity will boost your income. But eventually, the biodiversity takes over as it were and reduces the amount of useful stuff you can sell. There are also economic context issues. If in your neighborhood you only have a guy interested in buying oil palm, the fact that you also bring 15 different other products in your gorgeous oil palm smallholder agriculture system is not going to make you any money because you cannot find buyers for anything except the oil palm. The answer to that kind of question is always going to be extraordinarily dependent on the context of every single individual farm. So while I agree with Bohdan that, of course, the more species you have, the more biodiversity you have, if we look in the real world where people have to make a living, there is going to be some trade-off that every farmer is going to have to manage differently.

What materials can be produced for furniture manufacturing on an agroforestry farm?

Patrick: You could have resins. Wool and other animal products as leather to make the seats of chairs. Tinctures and coloring agents from a large number of species that you can intercrop between trees. A lot of products you can get out of an agroforestry system, nearly everything except screws.

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COORDINATOR
Dr. Sara Burbi - Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience - Coventry University, Ryton Gardens Campus, CV8 LG, UK
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