Outside/In[box]: Are farmers practicing agroforestry in New England?
Every other Friday, the Outside/In podcast team answers one listener question about the natural world.
This week’s question came from Rich in Deerfield, Massachusetts.
"Project Drawdown lists agroforestry as one of their top solutions to climate...what is the potential for agroforestry here in New England? Are there traditional practices we could revive? Are there people out there doing cool and interesting things in agroforestry?"
First of all, let’s define agroforestry.
“Agroforestry can mean a lot of different things. But the definition we like to use is that it's the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic and social benefits,” said agroforester Kate MacFarland. She works with the National Agroforestry Center, run by the US Department of Agriculture.
Agroforestry offers a lot of potential benefits to both ecosystems and farmers. When trees and shrubs are integrated with farmland, they can provide shade to both livestock and crops.
Trees also create microclimates, so it tends to be cooler and more humid underneath their canopy. Plus, agroforestry systems incorporate multiple species and even multistory cropping, which by definition means more diversity than a field planted as a monoculture.
In theory, agroforestry mimics a forest.
“It is one of the oldest land-use practices, second only to ‘shifting cultivation,’” said Meghan Giroux, a farmer and the director of Interlace Commons, an agroforestry research and outreach organization. She’s based in Vermont and farms in New York.
“When people say, ‘Oh, you're looking to implement these innovative land use practices,’ I say, ‘no.’ The Indigenous have been practicing these for thousands of years. And I think we lose track of that… that these practices are Indigenous,” said Meghan.
Agroforestry in practice in the northeastern U.S.
Kate noted that some associate agroforestry with tropical climates, partly because those regions have been the focus of a lot of research about agroforestry. For instance, coffee is a tree traditionally grown in the shade. But agroforestry is practiced all over the world, including in New England.
"At Interlace Agroforestry Farm, we’re implementing both ancient and modern forms of agroforestry,” said Meghan.
On her farm, Meghan practices a technique called silvopasture. In one "lane," for instnace, she grows a tree called Tilia cordata, or littleleaf linden, which they prune using a technique called pollarding. This results in a flush of new branches and creates a living scaffold — almost like a grape trellis.
“Imagine grapes growing on a living tree trellis with sheep grazing underneath. So, we're combining one, two, three crops in one land unit,” said Meghan.
Agroforestry and climate
Our listener Rich read that agroforestry is potentially a climate solution, since growing trees is a method of carbon sequestration. But both Kate and Meghan pointed to another benefit: climate adaptation.
“In the Northeast...we're already experiencing longer periods of drought…but more intense precipitation over shorter periods of time,” said Meghan.
Trees can mitigate heat by creating shade, prevent soil erosion, and reduce the impacts of wind speed and flooding. Plus, increased species diversity could help reduce the impact of pest insects.
So, what’s the potential for agroforestry in New England?
According to the USDA's 2017 Census of Agriculture, only about 1% of farms across the country employ agroforestry practices. In New England, rates are a bit higher, and Vermont is number one at 7 percent.
Either way, it means a lot of room for growth.
“In New England, we live in a forested area of the world, so trees and shrubs will naturally grow in this neck of the neck of the woods, so to speak. The potential is very high for it to be successful,” said Meghan.
Farmers don’t necessarily have to begin with pruning techniques or multistory cropping. Kate explained that farmers can incorporate agroforestry practices they’re already doing. For example, farmers can start grazing livestock in areas where trees are already growing. Other techniques include planting trees as windbreaks, or maintaining a riparian buffer: trees and shrubs along a waterway.
“But maybe you're planting them with fruit trees or nut trees or shrubs, so you're able to get some income from that riparian buffer as well,” said Kate.
If you’re not a farmer, you can still try your hand at elements of agroforestry in smaller outdoor spaces.
“I have mushroom logs in my backyard,” said Kate. “And a lot of fruit trees and berry bushes, which I’m excited about. It’s really fun to experiment at home.”
If you’ve got a question about the natural world, call the Outside/In[box] hotline at 1-844-GO-OTTER. You can also send a voice memo to our email, email@example.com.
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Editor's note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Meghan Giroux's farming practices, and referred to a pruning technique by the wrong name. Both text and audio have been updated.