Agroforestry and Drawdown

In this second post of our BRASA series, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into the carbon drawdown implications of agroforestry. Why? Because they are massive!

“The widespread adoption of agroforestry practices in the United States could sequester 530 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, thereby transforming agriculture into a carbon sink.” — (I highly recommend reading this whole article)

Before we get into agroforestry as an instrument for carbon-farming, let’s get clear on what agroforestry means. It is important to distinguish it from “forestry” as a both a practice and area of study.

“Forestry is the science and craft of creating, managing, using, conserving, and repairing forests, woodlands, and associated resources to meet desired goals, needs, and values for human and environment benefits Forestry is practiced in plantations and natural stands,” according to Wikipedia. Agroforestry, on the other hand, is a land management approach that integrates trees, shrubs, and/or other woody species into existing annual crops and/or livestock systems (FAO 2015). Said otherwise, it is the intensional and intensive integration of trees into agricultural systems.

There are five practices commonly classified as agroforestry in the U.S.:

1. Silvopasture

The intentional integration of tree crops and/or timber trees in grazing systems. Silvopasture can also include allowing livestock to graze in existing forest, but that version is often poorly planned and managed, which results in significant damage to the ecosystem.

2. Forest Farming

The production of non-timber forest products, such as mushrooms or medicinal herbs, within a closed-canopy forest. “Multi-strata agroforestry” is another name for forest-farming.

3. Tree-Intercropping

Also known as “alley cropping,” tree intercropping is the practice of alternating rows or strips of perennial and annual crops. This practice can be planned so that the yields from the alleys subsidize the delayed yields of the tree crops.

4. Windbreaks and Shelterbelts

Strips of perennial crops planted to reduce wind stress on annual crops or livestock. These breaks can block a majority of the wind for up to ten times their height (30’ trees can protect 300’ of crops). This strategy is also used for reducing the impact of blowing snow, odors, and soil from wind erosion.

5. Productive Riparian (river) Buffers

Forested buffers along waterways that reduce agricultural runoff into these waterways. Depending on the size and species mix of these buffers, additional benefits can include reduced bank erosion, improved fish habitat and wildlife corridors, and the production of salable products.

In each bio-region, each agroforestry practice has specific species that are most appropriate, and specific eco-social niches that it can fill. For example, silvopasture investment might be focused on timber production and the future economic viability of dairy farming in the northeast, but in Central California, it might be focused on creating fire resilient landscapes through the guided migration of oak species in response to climate change. What remains true across all regions is that the ecologically appropriate use of agroforestry practices represents the most potent agricultural drawdown strategies.

As illustrated in the chart below, Eric Toensmeier’s meta-study of carbon farming data showed that while Annual Cropping and Grazing can drawdown carbon, integrating trees into these systems has proven to increase the potential carbon stock by 200–900%.

*Carbon Farming Solution-Sequestration Rates and Stocks

When Project Drawdown released their comprehensive list of solutions for reversing climate change, 3 of the top 17 solutions listed were specifically agroforestry practices: Silvopasture, Tropical Staple Trees, and Tree Intercropping. Their analysis projected that these three practices alone could contribute to a net operational savings of over $1.3 trillion while drawing down nearly 70 Gigatons of CO2 equivalents. So, clearly agroforestry plays an integral role in the human response to climate change.

Where to Next?

The Drawdown report has told us what solutions to work with, the next step is to identify, finance, and implement the regionally specific versions of these solutions across the country. Groups like the Savannah Institute, Main Street Project, White Buffalo Land Trust, and Propagate Ventures are already demonstrating this work on the ground, and with the BRASA process we are excited to support the expansion of their efforts and more!

To give you a sense of what this can look like, here are a few examples that we are exploring:

  • Mapping the re-design of California almond production. We are doing this in support of Andrew Langford and other farmers proving the potential of reduced irrigation almond production. We’re excited to be exploring this with our partners at Kiss the Ground
  • Identifying the suitable landscapes for wild-simulated ginseng production in healthy forest systems. Our friends at Agroforegen are modeling how wild-simulated ginseng production can generate sufficient revenue to replace timber-harvesting as a revenue stream, reduce the associated the habitat loss, and maintain the carbon stocks of these forests.
  • Modeling the multi-capital value of integrating agroforestry into northeast dairy production. Can we use agroforestry to create long-term diverse revenue streams that increase the viability of dairy production in the northeast? Agroforestry systems have the potential to increase from timber yields, fruit and nut production, increased animal health, improved nutrient management, pollutant reduction credits, and carbon sequestration. We’re aiming to effectively model these systems and outcomes to drive funding to this important work of regenerating landscapes and rural communities.
  • Developing regional cooperatives among municipalities, counties, and other entities subject to water quality and stormwater regulations. This is a huge opportunity to use water quality oriented funds to support the establishment of agroforestry. We’ll be exploring this much more deeply in the coming blog posts. More soon!!

Despite the regional specificity of these projects, they still might also sound HUGE and unrealistic — but they truly are realistic. A reminder:

“The Plains State Forestry Project provided thousands of jobs for unemployed workers through the CCC and the WPA and it produced nearly 19,000 miles of disconnected shelterbelts on 33,000 separate farms between 1935 and 1942…a cooperative program between private landowners and government … its final cost was less than $14 million, mostly emergency relief and WPA funds.” — Leslie Reed

If that project was feasible through largely manual labor 80 years ago, what can we accomplish now? Please comment below to share the use cases that you want to explore.

If you want to understand how GIS analysis can support this work in your region, post your questions below and we’ll get back to you.

Learn More

Read our first case study, learn how to get involved, and receive access to the full BRASA report on our website.

Recommended Reading:

The Carbon Farming Solution