The UK has been slow to embrace agroforestry, fearing trees compete for valuable space and water. In fact they can increase crop diversity as well as profits, as two pioneering Cambridgeshire farmers have found
Most people round here think it’s pretty normal for the earth to just blow away,” says Lynn Briggs. “They seem to think it’s what happens and you just have to live with it. It’s even got a name – they call it fen blow.”
But when Lynn and her husband Stephen moved on to their Cambridgeshire farm in 2012 they had some radical farming notions. Against all precedent, the Briggs planted rows of fruit trees at 21-metre gaps in their cereal fields to provide both windbreaks and alternate crops. “Our neighbours thought we were absolutely crazy,” says Stephen. His soil, however, began to stay put.
They were helped in their plan by plant pathologist Martin Wolfe, who had devoted his retirement to experimenting with an innovative technique called agroforestry. The theory is fairly simple; trees are integrated into agricultural landscapes to create microclimates and shelter for animals or crops, also improving biodiversity and water and soil conservation. The trees also produce crops in their own right in the form of timber, coppicing or fruit.
At first glance, the idea seems to run counter to farming common sense – many farmers regard trees in fields as a waste of space. Won’t the trees take up valuable land and risk reducing your productivity – and your income? Don’t they compete for water resources? Don’t they cast shadow, when you want as much light as possible?
In fact, say Wolfe and Briggs, agroforestry farms can be more productive than a monoculture; the farm benefits from a diversity of crops which, taken together (oats plus apples, for example) can actually be more profitable. You’re harvesting at different times, capturing more resources (sun, water) and hedging against blight or pests by diversifying your crops in a way that can, says the Woodland Trust, be as much as 40% more profitable.
A number of studies have backed this up: a European research project between 2001-05, for example, found that farm profitability can actually increase by 10-50% with high-value trees such as walnut.