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Agroforestry: what is it?

A goat grazing area in a green oak wood
Credit: Flickr (Gregory Sajdak)
A goat grazing area in a green oak wood
Agroforestry: what is it?

When we think of agriculture, we often imagine fields stretching as far as the eye can see. That vision could soon change thanks to a method that combines ecology and economy: agroforestry.

Agroforestry consists in the intentional partnering of trees and shrubs with crops or animal breeding, the goal being to harvest economic, ecological and social benefits. And it’s being practiced in many countries around the world.

Certain approaches have existed in Québec for a number of years, whereas others are more recent. Here we see agroforestry hedges more than anything: extended stands of trees alongside fields or streams. Intra-plot agroforestry systems – where growths of trees intermix with crops – and silvipastoral systems – where trees are placed in meadows devoted to pasturing – are still rare, but are likely to become more popular as a way of tempering the effects of climate change.

And indeed, many experts believe that we should be moving more towards this practice. The important benefits associated with it explain why.

First, for the quality of the soil and water. Trees slow down the wind and hold the earth in place, which limits wind and water erosion in fields and on banks. Their roots will also pick up fertilizer deeper in the soil than plants, which protects the groundwater.

Next, it’s profitable. Savings on various costs are realized quickly: the cost of heating buildings, for example, of clearing snow from driveways and of maintaining drainage ditches, which can be damaged in episodes of heavy rain. In addition, agroforestry shelters crops against extreme climate conditions such as violent winds and drought by helping maintain the humidity level. Trees can grow rapidly, and are a source of high-quality wood, while some of them produce fruit or nuts, which makes it possible for farmers to diversify their sources of income.

And above all it mustn’t be forgotten that these silvicultural plantations promote biodiversity that is beneficial for crops (birds, pollinators, other predatory insects) and the quality of life in rural areas.

In the face of all these benefits, we have every right to ask why the practice is not more widespread. The reason is, whereas the benefits are clear in the long term and for the community as a whole, those for individual businesses, especially with regard to annual profitability, are less certain. We therefore have to keep offering support programs to farmers designed to encourage the adoption of agroforestry practices, and take advantage of all the dividends those may create.

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