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Agroforestry Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why agroforestry?

The key concept in agroforestry is putting the right tree, in the right place, for the right purpose. Agroforestry practices can be designed to:

  • protect soil, animals, crops, and homes from extreme weather
  • improve water quality
  • produce jobs and income
  • produce products (food, fiber, bioenergy, wood, floral and medicinal/botanical products, and more)
  • improve pollinator habitat
  • trap snow and prevent it from piling in roads (living snow fences)
  • provide habitat for wildlife, and create corridors for their travel
  • sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases
  • mitigate odor
  • create beautiful places

For farmers, ranchers, woodland owners:

Agroforestry is an important tool for healthy, long-term agricultural production. Agroforestry practices provide opportunities for landowners - both large and small - to diversify their production systems in order to be more profitable and to mitigate risk - all the while, enhancing their environmental stewardship, and benefitting their neighbors and nearby communities and towns.

For communities, landscapes, watersheds:

Agroforestry can provide jobs and increase wealth in rural communities.

Within a landscape, agroforestry can reduce conflict between rural and urban areas by creating transition zones that help "reconnect" agriculture, people, and communities, creating a multi-functional and more sustainable landscape.

Within a watershed, agroforestry practices can resemble a living patchwork quilt that connects headwater forests through agricultural lands to urban areas and on to the sea; providing cleaner water for communities - both locally and downstream - and other public benefits, such as those mentioned above.

2. How does agroforestry address the Secretary of Agriculture's priorities?

Increasing the amount of agroforestry on America's farms, forests, ranches, cities, and community lands supports the Secretary's priorities by:

  1. providing jobs and increased wealth in rural communities;
  2. supporting sustainable production of food, fiber, and bioenergy; and
  3. ensuring cleaner water, climate-resilient landscapes, increased carbon storage, and improved wildlife habitat.

Agroforestry systems also fall into the category of "multi-cropping systems" that the Secretary supports as key ways for farmers to mitigate risk - whether due to market volatility or weather extremes.

Agroforestry can help farmers, ranchers, and woodland owners mitigate the risk of sharp price spikes or drops in one commodity - since they will have at least one other product to sell. Additionally, if a flood or drought threatens an annual crop, farmers will still be able to rely on their longer-term timber, fruit, or nut crops.

3. What is the purpose of the USDA Agroforestry Strategic Framework?

The department released the USDA Agroforestry Strategic Framework (PDF, 885KB) in June 2011, to create a road-map for advancing the science, practice, and application of agroforestry throughout the country. Historically, USDA's agroforestry efforts have been mostly associated with the USDA National Agroforestry CenterThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., which has a small staff. The new Strategic Framework strengthens coordination about agroforestry across the Department.

The Strategic Framework outlines three overarching goals to increase agroforestry throughout the United States:

Goal 1: Adoption - USDA aims to increase use of agroforestry by landowners, managers, tribes, and communities.

Goal 2: Science - USDA aims to advance understanding of agroforestry and develop tools to expand its use.

Goal 3: Integration - USDA aims to integrate agroforestry into the way it does business. It started to do this by establishing an interagency Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee, publishing a USDA Policy on Agroforestry(Departmental Regulation 1073-002), and releasing the first-ever reports on how people are working with USDA to advance agroforestry across the country.

4. Where does agroforestry work happen at USDA? What is the difference between USDA's National Agroforestry Center, Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee, and Interagency Agroforestry Team?

The USDA Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee is a high-level steering committee that meets twice a year to coordinate and set priorities for USDA-wide implementation of the Strategic Framework. Most of USDA's agencies have at least one branch, office, program, or project relevant to agroforestry. Some agencies have many. For example, the Agricultural Research Service conducts research at 100 locations across the country, and at least seven of them have agroforestry activities currently underway.

The Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee is comprised of senior executives from the following eight USDA agencies:

  • Agricultural Marketing Service
  • Agricultural Research Service
  • Farm Service Agency
  • Forest Service
  • National Agricultural Statistics Service
  • National Institute of Food and Agriculture
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Rural Development

The USDA Interagency Agroforestry Team includes staff from the eight agencies listed above. This team is responsible for day-to-day activities that implement the Strategic Framework at the direction of the USDA Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee.

The USDA National Agroforestry Center (NAC) in Lincoln, Nebraska is a long standing partnership between two arms of the U.S. Forest Service, Research & Development and State & Private Forestry, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NAC's mission - "to accelerate the application of agroforestry through a national network of partners" - is accomplished by conducting research and training, developing technologies and tools, and supporting demonstrations. NAC was authorized in the 1990 Farm Bill and began in 1992 as a coupled FS research and technology transfer effort with NRCS joining as a sponsor in 1995. NAC's technology transfer products include Working Trees brochures and displays, Inside Agroforestry newsletters, Agroforestry Notes technical papers, and services include training/workshops, presentations/webinars. NAC's current research activities focus on riparian buffers and water quality, conservation planning and design, carbon sequestration, climate change strategies, silvopasture systems, forest farming and non-timber forest products.

Though NAC has a small staff, USDA's agroforestry efforts have historically been associated with it. Under the new Strategic Framework and USDA Policy on Agroforestry, however, agroforestry is being strengthened within many more agencies across the Department. So while the importance of NAC's work continues to grow, its activities will be bolstered by the programs and activities of at least eight USDA agencies, Department-wide coordination and priorities set by the USDA Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee.

5. Is agroforestry relevant everywhere, including temperate and tropical environments?

Yes!

Agroforestry techniques - those of integrating trees with crops and/or livestock - have been utilized by indigenous communities for centuries.

Additionally, today agroforestry practices are being promoted to respond to issues that are common around the globe - increasing food and energy price volatility, the need to diversify to mitigate risk, problems of erosion, loss of wildlife habitat, decreasing plant and animal biodiversity, impaired water quality, and more.

Agroforestry systems are flexible and can be designed to meet a wide range of economic, environmental and social objectives. While agroforestry may look different in tropic and temperate environments, it is relevant both places.

6. What is the history of agroforestry in the U.S. and with USDA?

Agroforestry-like practices have been in use in North America for a long time but were not called agroforestry. Native Americans had many complex management systems to produce their food, baskets, homes, clothes, fuel, medicine, and more, and early European settlers followed a style of agriculture that integrated trees, crops, and livestock as they worked with the native woodland vegetation and agriculture crops. However, this approach essentially disappeared during the 20th century with advances in separate research programs in agriculture and forestry that led to our current separate approaches and disciplines. There are still examples of integrated approaches being used by independent farmers, however, and a rising interest in agroforestry from people around the country.

Periodic agricultural and weather disasters, such as the Dust Bowl era in the 1930's and more recently, Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, have prompted renewed focus on agroforestry techniques in certain regions of the country. After the Dust Bowl, windbreaks and shelterbelts became more common across the central U.S., and increased interest in water quality in the 1970s and 1980s brought greater attention to riparian forest buffers as ways to mitigate agricultural runoff of both sediment and nutrients. Thus, the linear agroforestry practices of windbreaks, shelterbelts, and riparian forest buffers have been promoted and supported through USDA conservation programs, and researched by USDA-supported scientists for a couple decades.

On the other hand, agroforestry production systems such as silvopasture, forest farming, and alley cropping are newer areas of focus for USDA. While NRCS conservation practice standards have been created for silvopasture, alley cropping, and multi-story cropping (forest farming) at a national level, they have not been adopted and adapted by all state and local offices. To see which states have adopted these practices into their Field Office Technical Guide, see Appendix H of Agroforestry: USDA Reports to America, FY 2011-12 - Comprehensive Version.

Additionally, while a handful scientists and practitioners across the country are exploring these production systems, much work remains. For more, see the next question.

7. Who is doing agroforestry research and extension and where are they doing it?

There is a continuing need to assess the amount of agroforestry research and extension work occurring across the U.S. However, for a start, Agroforestry: USDA Reports to America, FY 2011-12 - Comprehensive Version has an extensive list of agroforestry research and extension projects that USDA supported in fiscal years 2011 and 2012. The report also contains a list of 200 publications written by USDA-supported scientists during those two years.

Regional and practice-specific agroforestry working groupsThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website. (PDF, 426KB) are forming across the country. These groups of university personnel, extension advisors, USDA and state agricultural and forestry employees, producers, students, and business owners are serving as catalysts for agroforestry expansion across the country.

These groups include but are not limited to the Chesapeake Bay Agroforestry Team, the Mid-America Agroforestry Working GroupThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., the Pacific Northwest Agroforestry Working GroupThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., the 1890 Agroforestry Consortium, the Forest Farming eXtension Community of PracticeThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., the Pacific Islanders Agroforestry Working Group, the Northeast Forest Mushroom Grower NetworkThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website., and the Northeast Silvopasture ForumThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website..

8. Who & where are the likely adopters of agroforestry practices?

Landowners adopting agroforestry vary from small farms using agroforestry practices to diversify their product line, to larger farms using agroforestry practices to maintain their resource sustainability (e.g., windbreaks for crop protection and riparian forest buffers to filter runoff or reduce flood impacts) and manage their risk.

Windbreaks and riparian forest buffers are applied widely in many states. Some non-timber forest products, such as decorative florals or edible fruits and nuts, are also being incorporated into windbreaks and riparian buffers, and so are bioenergy crops.

Silvopasture is applied mostly in the Southeast but interest is beginning to expand to other regions including the Northeast and Northwest. Forest farming is used in many forest environments with diverse plant communities that have the potential to produce non-timber forest products. Much of the forest farming activity occurs in the forests of the East, Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest.

Alley cropping has potential in many regions of the country, and can be designed to fit machinery used to cultivate crops grown between the trees. To see maps of where the five agroforestry practices have been applied across the country, read Objective 1.1 of Agroforestry: USDA Reports to America, FY 2011-12 - Comprehensive Version.

9. How widespread is agroforestry currently? What kind of data is available?

No national inventory or survey has regularly measured the extent to which specific agroforestry practices are used across the country. While previous Censuses of Agriculture have asked producers to report the amount of woodland grazed, it is not clear how much of this may be silvopasture, which involves managing the trees, livestock and forages together in a system that is integrated, intensive, intentional, and interactive (known as the four "i"s of agroforestry). Other agroforestry practices have not been the subject of Census of Agriculture questions.

To properly target Federal, state and local resources and to identify potential barriers to adoption, however, it is vital to know where the different practices are used by landowners. For that reason, USDA included the first-ever agroforestry question in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, and results are expected in 2014. This new question asks producers whether they practice alley cropping or silvopasture.

To estimate the levels of agroforestry adoption without this information, USDA has to rely on the number of acres of agroforestry that landowners established with USDA technical and financial assistance through its conservation programs. This is currently the only source of data on how much agroforestry has been applied across the Nation.

From that information, we know that between 2008 and 2012, USDA assisted landowners-both financially and through technical guidance-to establish about 336,000 acres of windbreaks, riparian forest buffers, and alley cropping, which accounts for less than 1 percent of cropland in the United States. During that same period, USDA helped landowners apply about 2,000 acres of silvopasture, which is an even smaller fraction of the amount of pasture and grazed forest land in the United States that may support this practice. Combined, the acres on which USDA has helped apply agroforestry practices are 1 percent or less of land that may be capable of supporting such practices (see table below).

10. What are priority areas of agroforestry research?

There are numerous agroforestry research needs, but one challenge for researchers is that few schools have dedicated agroforestry programs, so students, professors, and other scientists have to be creative in bringing together interdisciplinary teams and acquiring funding.

With that said, a couple over-arching needs are to develop optimal agroforestry systems to address the needs of different regions of the country and to evaluate the economic performance of agroforestry practices against traditional forestry and agricultural cropping alternatives. Profitable and economically sustainable agroforestry-based systems that produce market goods are possible and will increase interest and adoption.

Research is also needed to evaluate and expand our understanding of agroforestry systems and their ability to restore and expand ecological services such as soil and water quality. Another emerging research need is examining the capability of agroforestry systems to create diversity and build landscape-level resiliency to climate change impacts.

Finally, the role of agroforestry practices in providing innovative and sustainable bioenergy production systems also needs more examination. Coordinating and prioritizing agroforestry research needs across the department is a key focus of the USDA Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee.

11. Where can I learn more?

USDA recently released its first-ever technical report on USDA's role in agroforestry: Agroforestry: USDA Reports to America, FY 2011-12 - Comprehensive Version. It provides a comprehensive view of the ways people advanced agroforestry in fiscal years 2011-12, how USDA supported those efforts, and 15 key next steps. This report is organized around the Strategic Framework's three goals: (1) Adoption, (2) Science, and (3) Integration; and also has a section on (4) Next Steps.

Highlights of the report include:

  • 15 case studies that highlight the enterprising ways people are advancing agroforestry;
  • maps of agroforestry demonstration sites, research locations, and on-the-ground applications;
  • a list of nearly 200 peer-reviewed agroforestry publications;
  • a list of which states adopted which agroforestry practice standards into their Field Office Technical Guides (FOTGs), and
  • a guide to agroforestry-relevant USDA resources and funding opportunities.