Agroforestry: The Future of UK Sustainable Farming

Agroforestry

Ever since I entered the world of farming and sustainability, I have been interested in agroforestry. When I first encountered it, I thought it was a new concept, but have since learned more about its historic origins and prominence in the past.

The Climate Change Resource Center defines agroforestry as "the intentional mixing of trees and shrubs into crop and animal production systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits." Thus, agroforestry is simply a land management approach that combines all the aspects of a farm, rather than separating crops, trees, and animals from one another with artificial items.

There are five common forms of agroforestry, each of which enhances crop and livestock production. Further, they each help our environment while improving the productivity and quality of the land. Despite these similar outcomes, the methods in which these goals are achieved, and further, the primary benefits of each practice differ.

The first type of practice is alley cropping. This method plants trees and shrubs in rows with other crops and forages. Producing high-value, long-term crops, this effort enhances microclimate conditions, improves soil quality, and provides a habitat for wildlife.

In comparison, windbreaks, the second form of practice, are simply rows of trees or shrubs that are planted as a hedgerow or windbreak for different areas of the land. They act as a natural fence and protect wind-sensitive crops. Further, they serve as a barrier to dust, odor, and pesticide drift, reducing the stress and mortality of the wildlife and crops.

The third form of agroforestry is riparian forest buffers. These are areas of trees, shrubs, and vegetation managed near bodies of water to stabilize streambanks and enhance aquatic habitats.

Silvopasture is the fourth practice of agroforestry. It combines trees with pasture and livestock production, improving livestock health and productivity while reducing the nutrient loss and fuel load related to farming practices. Further, this practice diversifies both the animals and crops over time.

The final form of practice is known as forest farming. With this method, existing stands of trees and/or shrubs are managed with other plants. Likesilvopasture practices improve crop diversity by growing a mix of compatible crops together. Further, it improves the quality of the soil, creating nutrient-rich, CO2-absorbing soil.

I am proud to announce that we actively practisewindbreak, silvopasture, and forest farming methods at Ewhurst Park, an estate-wide biodiversity project based in Hampshire. Last year, my team and I introduced our forest garden during the first stage of development at Ewhurst. As the founder of Ewhurst and an active environmentalist, I am thrilled that our forest garden has already greatly diversified our crops. As we continue introducing livestock to Ewhurst as a part of our rewilding efforts, we will keep up with our silvopasture and windbreak practices, returning the land to its natural, harmonious state.

These agroforestry practices are crucial to a sustainable future as, beyond their land management benefits, they help combat the effects and ramifications of climate change.

A study done by the Woodland Trust found that farmlands cover 72% of the UK's countryside. However, currently, only 3% of this land has farmers that engage in agroforestry practices. In the same study, the Woodland Trust found that if 10% of UK farmland included agroforestry practices, the UK could hit some of its main climate change targets. Thus, agroforestry plays a crucial role in the health of our environment and further with climate change.

This is because agroforestry practices create healthy, nutritious, un-tilled soil which can better absorb CO2. This reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere. Further, they provide natural barriers to crops, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides that emit harmful gases into our atmosphere. Finally, they can help UK farmers build a more resilient food system, as these practices will enhance the resiliency of the farmland.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to Devon, where I completed an accredited course with Martin Crawford in forest gardening. This experience further exposed me to the practices of forest gardening, providing useful tips for Ewhurst. Additionally, during my time in Devon, I was graciously hosted by Helen Kearney, a certified herbalist, on her farm Elder Farm. We explored her medicinal forest garden and discussed the importance of sustainable practices in the farming industry.

Shortly after visiting Helen's wonderful farm, I traveled further south to Cornwall. There I visited Simon Miles and his local forest garden, The Forest Garden. Focusing on educating local gardeners and landowners on organic, sustainable farming practices, Simon's efforts at The Forest Garden have made a profound impact on his local environment, along with the individuals he shares his knowledge with. I am very grateful for my time with these specialists, absorbing the knowledge they passed onto me like a sponge.

Moving forward, as Ewhurst continues to expand into the next phase of our forest garden, it is good to go back to the basics, reflecting on what the practice of agroforestry is and how it will benefit the environment at an academic level. Further, as I plan the future of Ewhurst, I hope to implement additional agroforestry practices, so I can better both the land and our Earth.

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