When it comes to sustainable farming, the philosophy prevails that every type of plant can contribute to an overall ecosystem – even those you wouldn’t normally expect to see on a farm.
And that extends to the old wooden sentinels that tower so high above all other plants.
Of course, orchards have been cultivated for thousands of years, but there are so many other ways trees can be – and increasingly are being – integrated into a sustainable farming system.
The concept, broadly, is called agroforestry.
Agroforestry has a humble definition: “agriculture with trees.” But its practice is anything but simple.
As its name may suggest, the concept combines aspects of both agriculture and forestry in its overall philosophy of land use. It focuses on creating a biodiverse ecosystem of plants that all give and take energy, nutrients, minerals and other essentials to and from each other in a way that essentially creates a self-sustained system. This includes everything from different tree species to shrubs to mushrooms and underground plants to more “traditional” farming fare like fruits and vegetables.
At its most highly developed, an agroforestry system will be able to produce much more – naturally – while simultaneously reducing or eliminating the need for pesticides, herbicides and other synthetic fertilizers, allowing a farmer to not only get more out of their land in the present, but preserve much more of its natural abundance and regenerative properties for the future.
Still, as a whole, “agroforestry” is a pretty broad term. Within the land use management philosophy, there are a number of more specific ways the technique is used, including:
Every farm starts with a single seed – even those guided by the agroforestry philosophy.
Many farmers utilize this concept when their trees are still young and growing. Alley cropping entails planting rows of more profitable crops – including everything from fruits and vegetables to grains and flowers – in between rows of trees, in order to continue generating income while the trees reach their maturity.
Also called multi-story cropping, this method of growing plants is pretty true to both of its names.
Forest farming is, literally, farming food under a forest canopy. It’s deployed to grow everything from herbal and botanical crops to more traditional food staples and even decorative plants.
The concept is to utilize the best of both worlds, growing plants that may help feed the forest itself while simultaneously benefiting from the shade and protection offered by the trees as well as the complex soils borne of such biodiversity.
Not all agriculture is focused on plants.
Indeed, many farmers are also – or exclusively – in the business of raising animals, whether for livestock or other purposes. And some of those farmers have turned to the system of agroforestry called silvopasture.
Briefly, the idea is to create a forest-like environment on a field, for animals to benefit from all the trees – and their surrounding ecosystem – has to offer, including foraging for food or using them for shade or shelter. Some studies have shown that this type of farming also reduces stress on the animals, which helps reduce the amount of less-than-pleasant chemicals that may come across in their meat.
Still, there are myriad ways these towering timbers may help increase a sustainable farming environment, including:
Mostly, this naturally results from trees shedding their leaves. As the biodegradable plant parts hit the ground and start to rot, they’re slowly absorbed back into the soil, returning all their energies, nutrients and minerals into the ground – and making them available for the living plants around.
Clipping small – or sick – branches is fairly routine in tree maintenance. But those branches don’t have to – nor should be – put to waste.
Prunings make optimal fodder for compost piles, which often require a woody element in order to properly set. And, like their leafy cousins, these small tree parts are also good on their own, rotting into the soil and giving away their nutrients in the process.
Trees themselves can directly give us foods such as fruits and nuts – and, indeed, have been used this way since time immemorial. But there are a number of other crops that can be grown on or around trees, including many different varieties of delicious mushrooms.
One of the qualities the plants are most known for is their oxygen-generating capabilities. But trees are also known to sequester carbon, which helps reduce the amount of the stuff in the atmosphere overall and helps combat climate change. (That’s a good thing not just for farmers but anyone who appreciates living on this planet!)
Another traditional way trees are used in farming practices is as a windbreaking wall.
If you’ve ever drivin past a field that had a seemingly random row of trees in the middle of it, you’ve witnessed this concept in practice. The idea is to stop wind from whipping up too fast – especially across the long, low, flat plains of the Bread Basket – and uprooting or otherwise damaging other crops.
The poet Joyce Kilmer once compared them to the ultimate poem – and there have been endless words, paintings, drawings, songs, sonnets and all other manner of art attempting to capture their true beauty before and since.
At the end of the day, trees truly are one of the most powerful, beautiful images on this planet: They are watchers of time, givers of food, shade and air, and protectors of so much of our shared natural inheritance.
Truly, one doesn’t need a sustainable farm to appreciate how magical they can be.