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 reduce 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 economic well-being in rural communities.
Within a landscape, agroforestry can create 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:
- providing jobs and economic well-being in rural communities;
- supporting sustainable production of food, fiber, and bioenergy; and
- 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 provide 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, 562 KB) to create a road-map for advancing the science, practice, and application of agroforestry throughout the country. USDA's agroforestry efforts have been mostly associated with the USDA National Agroforestry Center. 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: Reach out - Ensure all landowners and communities have access to the latest tools and information that support agroforestry adoption.
Goal 2: Investigate - Conduct applied and basic research to advance the science and technology that supports the use of agroforestry.
Goal 3: Integrate - Facilitate the integration of agroforestry information, research, tools, and technologies to meet the goals and objectives of USDA agencies.
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 coordinates and helps to 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
- U.S. 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 works together to share information about agroforestry opportunities and resources that are available to the public through USDA programs.
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 technical assistance and education work includes developing general interest and technical agroforestry resources, supporting agroforestry networks, and providing technical and program support to USDA Agencies. NAC's current research activities focus on understanding the drivers effecting agroforestry adoption, mapping agroforestry systems across the U.S. (trees outside forests), developing economic calculators for various agroforestry practices, and better quantifying the ecosystems services that agroforestry systems offer (climate mitigation and adaptation, wildfire fuel reduction, pollination, water quality and quantity impacts, and more).
Under the new Strategic Framework, agroforestry is being strengthened 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. How are agroforestry practices aligned with the USDA Strategic Plan?
Agroforestry practices help accomplish many goals in the USDA Strategic Plan (PDF, 9.6 MB), including:
- Job and entrepreneur creation;
- Bioenergy production;
- Resilience to floods, droughts, and other effects of climate change;
- Local and regional food system development;
- Carbon sequestration;
- Clean and abundant water; and the
- Economic revitalization of rural communities.
6. Is agroforestry relevant everywhere, including temperate and tropical environments?
Agroforestry techniques - those of integrating trees with crops and/or livestock - have been utilized by indigenous communities for centuries.
Additionally, agroforestry practices are being promoted to respond to issues that are common around the globe - increasing food security, reducing risk and improving income opportunities through diversification, promoting wildlife habitat, and providing critical ecosystem services.
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.
7. 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 farmers and forest managers, including Tribal members, 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 many 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 forest farming at a national level, they have not been adopted and adapted by all state and local offices.
Additionally, while a handful scientists and practitioners across the country are exploring these production systems, much work remains. For more, see the next question.
8. 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 (PDF, 7.0 MB) 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 groups 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.
9. Who & where are the likely adopters of agroforestry practices?
Because of how diverse agroforestry systems are, there is no one-size fits all. Agroforestry systems are implemented on farms and ranches across the U.S. and on all farm sizes and types. Currently, the most comprehensive statistic for agroforestry adoption in the U.S. is from the 2017 Census of Agriculture, which found that 30,853 farms use agroforestry. The USDA National Agroforestry Center is conducting a national survey to better understand the census statistic, which aggregated all five agroforestry practices together. National-level statistics will be available in 2023 for how may farms practice agroforestry by practice type, acres in that practice, establishment methods, management practices, crops and products sold, and more. These data will be made available on the USDA National Agroforestry Center website.
10. Where can I learn more?
More information about agroforestry can be found by visiting the USDA National Agroforestry Center.