Our Chairman and immediate past Chairman of the Rural Professional Group, John Lockhart, attended the recent Agroforestry conference at Cranfield University.
The event, which had been organised by the Soil Association in partnership with the Royal Forestry Society and The Woodland Trust, had been brought together to showcase the current best practice in agroforestry from around the world and bring together innovators and academics to highlight the opportunities that agroforestry offers, in particular as a real way to increase agricultural productivity in conjunction with genuine environmental sustainability.
What is Agroforestry?
There was much debate on this issue not least during the discussions ahead of the event where certain sectors felt a need to tie the definition down to production of both agricultural and tree and woodland products. However, during the event it became clear and was accepted by all sides that it is simply “Where trees interact positively with agriculture” – we need to throw away our image of simple alley cropping. As such, agroforestry is already a significant element of agriculture in the UK embedded in our historic landscape, but much of the historic understanding of natural interactions have been lost and need to be re-understood.
Farming and traditional agriculture have rarely faced so much uncertainty and change. With Brexit now in train and inevitable changes to agricultural support on the near horizon, with flooding, soil erosion, nitrogen leaching increasing and new challenges from pests and diseases and pressure on the use of traditional chemical solutions, there is a real need to work more closely with nature to protect our critical land assets and maintain, if not improve, agricultural productivity.
Productivity and economics are key and one of the key statistics from Patrick Worms (World Agroforestry Centre) was that, through more efficient use of both sunlight and water, agroforestry systems are demonstrated to be some 40% more productive than traditional farming, with significantly higher figures in some cases.
We all know that soil erosion is an issue, but are we aware that, across the EU, the mean rate of waterborne soil erosion amounted to 2.46 tonnes per hectare per year? The total annual soil loss is estimated to 970 megatonnes (stats). We are literally seeing our most important land asset being washed away in front of our eyes.
On the livestock side we heard that agroforestry was having a direct and positive impact on egg production, and that by reintroducing hedgerows and traditional shelterbelts to on-hill livestock farms, lamb mortality has decreased by up to 50%. In all the examples there was a clear message that trees on farms have had a positive impact on productivity and profit.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges is how the “products” from agroforestry can be marketed. Markets for wood and wood products are traditionally not the most exciting, but innovation and active marketing are paying dividends and in particular we heard of strategies for the economic use of low value fuel wood, and for harvesting and adding value to fruit and nut crops, including cobnut balm marketed direct to Harley Street. Social media remains an important marketing channel, raising the profile and provenance of added-value products.
However, the really untapped potential lies in new markets for ecosystem services and this is an area where RICS Rural Surveyors are at the fore. The recent publication of the Insight paper “Value of natural capital – the need for chartered surveyors” is extremely timely and could well provide the key to unlock the value and create markets for the products and services that agroforestry can provide.
Beyond the relatively straightforward markets for products and services, there is also the wider issue of asset values. Historically, planting trees was seen as having a negative effect on capital value: however, taking a more holistic approach to land assets and looking across estate or landscape scale, where do the values lie? What might be the impact of greater tree cover on the landscape?
- We should not get tied up with definitions, but consider the evidence of where trees can interact positively with agriculture.
- Agroforestry provides a real opportunity for sustainable intensification of productivity and returns.
- There is a wealth of real tangible evidence from around the world to demonstrate that agroforestry can be an integral part of the solution to the increasing problems of flooding, soil erosion and soil degradation.
- Grants and subsides can and have stifled innovation in the UK. Policy and regulation need to facilitate opportunities.
- As Rural Surveyors we need to be at the heart of the decision making process to encourage and embrace innovation and develop new markets.
- Copies of the presentation slides and details of the conference and links for additional information can be found here https://www.soilassociation.org/farmers-growers/agroforestry-conference/
This article was originally prepared for the RICS website and can be located here.