Agroforestry is a collective name for all land use systems and practices in which woody perennials are deliberately grown on the same land management unit as crops and/or livestock with the aim of obtaining output on a sustainable basis. It is a land-use approach that yields both wood products and crops, as it integrates tree growing into farming systems. The main premise in its practice is that woody perennials in the landscape can enhance the productivity and sustainability of agricultural practice.
In agroforestry, land is used for agriculture, forestry and/or animal husbandry, simultaneously. Thus, one can have agri-silvicultural agroforestry, where agriculture and forestry are carried out simultaneously, agri-pastoral agroforestry, where agriculture and livestock are maintained on the same land or agri-silvi-pastoral agroforestry with all the three co-exisiting. Trees and crops may be grown together on the same tract of land in various patterns and cycles. The trees may be planted around the perimeter of a small farm to provide fuelwood and to serve as a windbreak. The foliage may be removed for livestock fodder. Trees may also be planted in rows that alternate with crops or they may be planted more densely with interplanting of crops. For instance, the ‘Alley cropping’ method in Nigeria cultivates arable crops between rows of planted trees and shrubs. Another method is the ‘Garden’ technique in Sri Lanka, which is practised in small farms, and yields a wide array of crops including coconut, maize, banana and other fruits. These farms have been very efficient in preventing soil erosion. Many similar methods are being attempted in the tropics to include intercropping with coconuts as the woody component and mixing tree legumes with annual crops. Although these practices are used more as a part of subsistence agriculture, their use in large-scale production systems is becoming increasingly common.
Successful introduction of agroforestry requires co-operative efforts of experts from various disciplines such as agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, ecology and meteorology. It also demands that due consideration be given to the local culture and heritage during both the design and implementation stages.
Benefits of Agroforestry
- Sustainability: Despite being an intensive process it is sustainable and therefore does not put any pressure on the future resources.
- Biodiversity: Agroforestry can help return true biodiversity to the farmland. Forests or tree stands provide natural cover for animals and allow them to regain their lost habitat. Higher diversity can also prevent the build up of diseases and pests.
- Erosion Control: Agroforestry provides an easy and inexpensive means to help keep land around water sources intact, without having to resort to environmentally dangerous and costly artificial structures, like walls or shore dams.
- Pollution Control: Intensive agriculture results in the build up of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which cause pollution of water and soil. Agroforestry can use trees to filter out many of these pollutants and keep them from further contaminating surrounding environments.
- Climate Moderation: Growth of trees may bring about some degree of climate moderation making the area much more liveable for all creatures.
- Income generation: Combining agriculture, forestry as well as livestock into agroforestry maximizes one’s potential earnings while making best use of the resources at hand.
- Diversification: Agroforestry allows the biological and economical diversification of the land as well as the rural community. By combining forestry and agriculture, the farmer/forester can diversify their holdings and get a better overall value on their property. Diversification can stimulate rural economic development by creating additional and more stable income for the community.
- Government Control: Agroforestry can help reduce the need for overbearing and costly governmental regulations aimed at protecting forest and land resources by law.
Agroforestry can halt and may even reverse the damage caused by existing practices since it uses techniques that combine production of both food and forest products. Therefore, this approach is especially pertinent in tropical and sub-tropical areas where improper land management and intensive cropping of land have led to widespread devastation. However, it still remains largely unpopular in the industrialized countries because it does not easily permit mechanization. Current agroforestry practices are individualized for each site and are labour intensive.