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Agriculture and forestry can provide mutual benefits

May 7, 2019

May is Arbor Month, but it isn’t just foresters who get to celebrate! Did you know that trees can be incorporated in many agricultural systems? The intentional integration of trees or shrubs with crops and animals in the same area is called agroforestry, and it results in a more diverse agricultural operation, increased profits, and conservation habitat improvement.

Agroforestry requires putting the right tree in the right place for the right reason. When you get the formula right the rewards can be tremendous, including: protected topsoil, healthier livestock, increased crop yield, better wildlife habitat, reduced energy and chemical inputs, improved water quality and increased water-use efficiency. These are just a few of the potential benefits of agroforestry.

If you’re interested in agroforestry, there are five agroforestry practices that can be considered for your working lands.

Windbreaks are single or multiple rows of plantings that provide shelter from wind, snow, dust, or odors. Windbreaks save energy and cut home heating costs. They also net big gains in carbon storage, improve income by increasing crop yields, and protect livestock from heat and cold stress.

Riparian forest buffers are plantings located next to waterways that help protect aquatic resources by filtering farm runoff and preventing soil erosion. Buffer areas can support wildlife habitat, produce crops, improve water quality and reduce flood damage.

Silvopasture is the intentional management of forage, livestock, and trees on the same acreage. The trees in a silvopasture provide shade and shelter for livestock while benefiting forage production and improving carbon sequestration. This combination can also bring in extra income from timber, livestock, and other non-timber forest products. There are even opportunities for income from recreation.

Alley cropping is a system in which crops are grown between rows of widely spaced trees or shrubs, called alleyways. This practice diversifies operations by creating both annual and long-term income streams. It can also protect crops, improve water quality, improve nutrient utilization, and enhance carbon sequestration.

Forest farming grows and protects high-value specialty crops under the forest canopy. Existing forest is thinned to leave the best canopy trees for continued timber production while creating ideal growing conditions for the understory crop. Non-timber forest products grown using forest farming methods don’t just provide an additional source of income, they also help conserve habitat for wildlife.

The USDA supports agricultural producers through a new five-year agroforestry strategic framework, which is a roadmap to advance agroforestry resources and provide assistance to landowners for productive and healthy farms, ranches, woodlands, and communities.  The strategic framework document plus more information about agroforestry is found at the USDA National Agroforestry Center and the University of Minnesota Extension Agroforestry website.

Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office to learn more about state and federal resources and programs to support agroforestry practices on your working lands.

Gary Wyatt is an Extension educator based in Mankato, MN. 

Related topics: May Natural Resources News
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