Old tradition rediscovered
The smart way of using land is ancient: in the past, people depended on the fertility of the soil, so agroforestry was widespread. Then we developed pesticides and fertilisers and gradually mechanised agriculture. Monocultures were supposed to increase efficiency. Slowly, however, the advantages of using the land in a diverse way are being appreciated again. Adapted to the modern form of agriculture, we can even use agroforestry on a large scale.
Monocultures refer to areas where one and the same plant species is cultivated over a long period of time. This simplifies the farmers’ work and saves money, as they can concentrate on one species. At the same time, monocultures are harmful to the environment. The plants always draw the same nutrients from the soil, which damages the quality of the soil. Monocultures are also more susceptible to pests and weeds. Therefore, more pesticides have to be used, which in turn harm nature.
Agroforestry: An aggressive forest?
The meaning of agroforestry (in short: agroforestry) is already in the term: it is a mixture of agronomy (agriculture) and forestry (the management of forests). It is noticeable that agroforestry does not mean the cultivation of a single plant species, but combines different plants on the same area. In this way, the plants can benefit from each other.
This is exactly what is meant when agroforestry is described as a “multifunctional type of land use”. The simultaneous cultivation of trees and / or shrubs with crops and / or livestock leads to interactions that can be used consciously. Indeed, the plants (and animals) can take advantage of each other’s presence. As a result, the areas offer greater yields: 100 hectares of agroforestry give the same harvest as 140 hectares of monoculture. Thus, an agroforest is a small, man-made ecosystem.
This diagram shows you the proposal of a controllable definition of agroforestry, a model template for planning agroforestry areas, so to speak. Such a definition is important because it creates a standardisation, taking into account the huge diversity of agroforestry. Accordingly, land areas can be controlled and recognised under funding law.
Diversity #1: Agroforestry species
Several features make agroforestry diverse. The first reason is the multifaceted ways in which we can practise agroforestry.
So-called silvoarable systems combine trees with crops. Often the trees are arranged in strips so that the fields in between are easily accessible for cultivation. In this way, combine harvesters, for example, can still fit on the farmland. The trees are a helpful addition to the arable crops, as they provide important wind protection, among other things.
Silvopastoral systems link trees to animal husbandry. A common example of this is orchards with animals, like the one in the photo. The chickens can benefit from the shade of the trees here, for example.
The third type of agroforestry are agrosilvopastoral systems that combine trees, arable crops and animal husbandry. Here, among other things, it is helpful that the animals fertilise the soil directly.
Apart from the many possible combinations, agroforests also differ by region. For example, aquacultures for fish farming can be agroforested in mangrove forests.
Other subspecies are also differentiated by their characteristics. For example, there are numerous possibilities for arranging woody plants or including water bodies.
Diversity #2: Agroforestry product range
Of course, the cultivation of diverse (plant) species also offers diverse products. Let us therefore turn to the most common products from agroforestry.
Wood can be obtained through the widespread cultivation of trees and shrubs. If used sustainably, the trees can continue to grow after harvesting, so that they can be harvested several times. The wood can then be used as wood chips, energy wood, construction wood, carving wood, etc. use.
If they are fruit trees, the harvested fruits can become juices, jams, fruit brandies or dried fruit. In addition, the trees provide a food source for birds, insects and wild mammals. By the way, orchards are the most original form of agroforestry!
If animals live on the land, in Germany they are mostly chickens, geese, ducks, goats, pigs, cattle and bees. Their products then stand for species-appropriate husbandry.
Cereals and other plants grown in agroforests can be used, for example, for baked goods or edible oils. Another possibility is to cultivate fibre plants from which textiles can be produced.
Diversity #3: Advantages of agroforestry
The benefits of agroforestry are manifold for the environment, the economy, farmers, consumers, biodiversity and communities.
The most obvious is the biodiversity that the diverse habitat in agroforests promotes. On land used for agroforestry, (farm) animals can live in a species-appropriate way and plants can grow in an environmentally friendly way. In this way, sustainably harvested wood meets the increasing demand for renewable energy from bio raw materials.
In addition, yields from agroforests exceed those from monocultures. This is due, for example, to the fact that the soils build up humus and thus improve in quality. In this way, greater yields are made possible over longer periods of time, even on previously lower-yielding soils. It is also important that humus-rich soil stores more carbon and can thus relieve the climate. Learn more about the process here.
In addition, agroforests have a more stable microclimate. This means, among other things, that the trees intercept wind and thus give the plants more stability. This increases yields. The trees also provide shade. At the same time, the trees protect the soil from drying out and erosion.
In addition, much less fertiliser and pesticides are needed: on the one hand, the nutrients of the soil are used more holistically, and on the other hand, the plants exchange nutrients with each other. Because of the different plant species, pests cannot spread as quickly as in monocultures. If animals are kept, they eat pests and additionally fertilise the soil.
Competition with other plants is also good for the trees. They are then forced to let their roots grow deeper in order to get enough water. In this way, they strengthen themselves additionally. The quality of the groundwater also improves.
The cultivation of diverse plants also makes year-round use of the land possible, as the harvests vary seasonally. This also spreads the work over the whole year.
The diversity of products leads to regional expansion and creates local markets. At the same time, awareness and appreciation of nature is growing in more people. This can of course also be justified by the fact that agroforestry aesthetically enhances the landscape.
By the way, agroforestry could help to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Here, an estimated 60 % of the land is burnt down so that it can be used for livestock farming. Agroforests, such as those organised by Klimaretten e.V., combine agriculture and rainforest. Read more about the Amazon rainforest here.
Challenges of agroforestry
After all these benefits, you are probably wondering why agroforests are only slowly reclaiming our fields.
This is partly because the beginnings are comparatively expensive. In the beginning, the plants grow rather slowly and the planning and implementation must be well thought out. However, these costs are long-term investments, because the yields are worth it in the short or long run.
The creation itself is also a challenge. If it is done unwisely, the management of the land becomes very costly. Moreover, if the plants have to compete for light, water, space and nutrients, this negates some of the benefits.
However, these disadvantages can be reduced and usually even avoided by planning agroforests well and laying them out expertly. Then the areas can be managed as well as you see in the photo (grain harvest between walnut trees). That is why we always have the expertise of Triebwerk and other agroforestry planning agencies at our side in our agroforestry projects. In the future, we plan to implement agroforestry projects throughout Germany in order to turn conventional agriculture upside down and transform it in a sustainable way.
On this map you can explore where agroforests already exist in Germany.
In addition, advice on agroforestry is offered here for farmers, politicians, NGOs and anyone else who is interested!
Let us summarise: Agroforestry is a tradition that we are currently rediscovering. It combines different plants and sometimes animals on one area, as this creates helpful interactions and increases yields. There are many types of agroforestry, it creates different products and brings some advantages. Despite higher costs at the beginning, agroforestry is lucrative in the long run and, last but not least, it does important work for environmental protection.
Do you find the concept of agroforestry as interesting as we do? Or do you have any questions? Feel free to contact us via the contact form.