Agroforestry: a win-win for the future of farming?

If we’re going to tackle climate breakdown, we need more trees. 72% of UK land is currently used by farmers for food production, but combining trees with farming could suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and make farming more profitable, productive and sustainable.
  Published:  03 Jun 2020    |      6 minute read

More trees in the countryside doesn’t have to be a case of forests or farmland. There’s a third option – agroforestry – which adds trees to traditional farming systems to make them more productive. While agroforestry may sound a bit radical to some, it’s been around for centuries and is still very common in parts of Spain and Portugal. It's also being championed in France, which has a national plan for agroforestry development.

What is agroforestry and what are the benefits?

Trees can be grown in fields (not just round the edges!) among arable crops like wheat and barley, horticultural production of vegetables; or on grazing land for sheep and cows. The trees themselves can provide a huge range of products - food in the form of fruit or nuts, fodder and bedding for farm animals, timber, and biomass for heating.

In addition to these "harvestable" products, trees provide a host of other benefits: they shelter livestock from harsh winter weather so animals can be left outside for longer (lambs have better survival rates). By acting as a windbreak, trees can improve crop production as there’s less water evaporation, and they help protect against extreme weather, such as storm damage.

Then there’s the huge number of other "public goods" trees deliver: storing carbon is clearly top of the list for many people, but they also increase biodiversity, help in flood prevention, clean up our rivers by reducing nitrates and other pollutants, and encourage natural pest control. By replacing monocultures with a more complex system, agroforestry can make farming more resilient and sustainable.

Trees = increased productivity

With agroforestry you use more vertical space so that farming becomes 3-dimensional. Also, many agricultural crops start growing in the autumn and get off to an early start the following spring, while trees take longer to come into leaf – so they’re using sunlight at different times of the year - and effectively harvesting more of the sun’s energy. And if you’re growing crops like wheat, competition with the crop, as well as ploughing the land which "prunes" the tree roots, makes them search for water and nutrients hidden deeper in the soil.

Scientific evidence from multiple countries shows that adding trees to farming can make it more productive than farmland alone.

We need greater ambition for agroforestry

The Committee on Climate Change has advised government to aim for agroforestry on 10% of cropland and grassland as part of the UK’s efforts to tackle climate breakdown. But when a system can yield so many benefits, surely we should be more ambitious? Cambridgeshire farmer Stephen Briggs has studied agroforestry systems around the world and is now a leading advocate. He converted almost 50% of his 112 hectare farm to agroforestry and would like to go higher.

All of us [farmers] could easily plant trees on up to 20% of our farmland –Stephen Briggs, farmer

A 2016 study [PDF] showed that while almost 9% of Europe’s agricultural area is devoted to agroforestry, the UK lagged behind with only 3.3%. Many European countries, including Wales and Scotland, support agroforestry with grants, but no support is available in England despite farmers making repeated requests to Westminster.

We hope this will change. A new system of farm payments is being developed by the government which will pay farmers for delivering “public goods” such as increasing wildlife, flood mitigation or cleaner water. It’s clear that agroforestry delivers a multitude of benefits, has the potential to radically transform agriculture for the better by creating an agro-ecological farming future and could be a financial lifeline for many farmers.

But the new scheme will have a soft start in 2024 and won’t be fully introduced until 2027. If we’re serious about tackling climate change, there’s no time to lose. Agroforestry must be prioritised by revised farming policy and farmers properly rewarded.

Friends of the Earth is calling for a doubling of UK tree cover to tackle climate breakdown. If we’re going to hit our targets, then farmers need to be part of the solution. They’ve been managing our land for centuries and should be at the forefront of its transition.

Pioneer farmers are already demonstrating that agroforestry is a highly productive way of growing food, and working with nature to make their farms more sustainable is also part of the solution to climate change.

Meet the farmers

Stephen Briggs

Stephen Briggs, farmer

Cambridgeshire arable farmer Stephen Briggs likes to joke that he produces all the necessary ingredients for apple pie on his farm. He’s an arable farmer growing cereals. His original motivation for tree planting was to combat severe soil erosion as he watched his topsoil blown away across the flat Cambridgeshire fens.

After some serious research into agroforestry systems, Stephen decided it was the way to go and planted trees on half his farmland. 4,500 of them to be precise, all of them apples, in 13 different varieties, for eating and juicing. His trees are grown in rows (with wildflower pollen and nectar strips beneath), wide enough apart so his combine harvester can go down the middle to harvest his wheat crop.

While some may argue that the role of farmland is to grow food and not trees, the slight decrease in production of cereals is outweighed by the fruit crop. The overall productivity of Stephen's land is increased, as is his profitability. After five years, his annual apple yield had risen to 25 tonnes, and the apples earn more (per hectare) than the annual crops.

Peter Aspin

"Shelter is one of the biggest benefits trees provide – with the impacts of climate change they’ll be even more important in hotter, drier summers, and increased stormy weather.”
Credit: Peter Asplin

Peter Aspin is a Shropshire farmer who has been rearing cattle since 1982. For him, trees and livestock are a perfect match.

Peter's cattle often choose to feed on Elm and Ash over pasture, and by allowing hedgerows to grow thicker and taller his livestock are provided with food and shelter, which has a positive effect on profits. Plus, a more varied diet produces healthier animals.

And that’s not all Peter's done – he’s redesigned his fields, planting 500 trees in rows 20 metres apart, with grazing in between. His tree strips run north to south across 20 acres (half his farm) to allow the maximum amount of sunlight to reach the grass between the tree rows. He’s trying a wide variety of tree species, and is keen to point out that late-leafing tree species are essential in agroforestry systems as they allow the ground cover crop to grow well before the partial tree canopy is formed.

The tree canopy is also beneficial to his cattle. Previously on hot summer days, the cattle would spend more time in the farm buildings, but now they are much more content outside thanks to the shade provided by the trees – better for their wellbeing and growth rates.

Dartington Estate

Elderflower tree on Dartington Farm
Credit: Luscombe

Dartington Estate in Devon already has 25% woodland cover, but saw the many benefits of agroforestry and decided to incorporate it as a key principle on their farmland.

One of the big problems facing agroforestry is that it needs to bring the widely different skills and knowledge of farming and forestry together. They’re tackling that problem by encouraging innovative partnerships between farmers and tree growers. On their Broadlears project, tenant farmer Jon Perkin, who grows wheat and has a dairy herd, rents out strips on one of his fields to three different tree growers:

  • The popular Luscombe Drinks brand is based locally and has planted 1,600 elderflower trees to help meet the increasing demand for its Wild Elderflower Bubbly.
  • Marina Brown-O'Connell and her team from the Apricot Centre have planted 600 edible and juicing apple and pear trees.
  • Salthouse & Peppermongers is growing the UK’s first ever commercial table crop of Sichuan pepper, starting with 150 trees.

Charles Tebbutt

Charles Tebbutt at work in a hazel orchard
Credit: Charles Tebbutt

Charles Tebbutt runs Food and Forest, a community interest company growing and distributing Kentish cobnuts (a large type of hazelnut), English and French walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds to bakeries across the UK (as well as running a market stall). He’s keen to promote the benefits of growing nuts, given the increasing demand for meat and dairy alternatives.

Some walnut varieties are great sources of timber – which is a high value wood and could be a great source of revenue for farmers – so growing a mix of varieties would give farmers more options. Charles recognises agroforestry represents a big up-front financial commitment for growers, but says:

There’s huge potential for farmers to adopt agroforestry and harvest a range of new products such as nuts and timber.  But they need to be confident there’s a market for their crop and this is what we’re providing as a community interest company.

Charles is championing a 3-point plan:

  • he’s calling on government to offer grants for agroforestry planting in England;
  • he’s offering farmers contracts for their future nut production to stimulate the market; and
  • he’s looking for investors such as pension companies who will work with farmers to invest in trees by paying up-front for the rights to harvest their timber in years to come.

Take action

The UK government will soon be publishing a consultation on a future English Tree Strategy, which you can feed back on. Please call on the government to ensure agroforestry is properly supported by the Strategy.

Farmers are custodians of the land – with the right finance, advice and research they can incorporate trees onto their land and make a significant contribution to cutting carbon and making farming more sustainable.