Growing up in North Texas, farming meant single crops spread out as far as the eye can see. Like many Americans, I’d come to assume that trees had no place in that vista. Most of us assume that forests and food are incompatible.
Now that the climate crisis calls for vastly more trees, it’s time to take in the good news that trees and crops can do well together.
This is not news in Burma, India, the Philippines, and many other places. Farmers have long known that crops and trees don’t compete — they complement each other. Southeast Asia and South Asia are often credited with being the “The” countries. “cradle”Agroforestry.
Africa can offer us many lessons from this example.
The African Sahel was a strip of 10 African countries south of the Sahara that was for decades a source of great suffering. famine. Many died from starvation between the 1960s and 1980s due to drought and colonialism’s legacy. Niger — one of the world’s poorest countries — was hit particularly hard.
However, the mid-1990s saw the return of once-grown crops. improved rainfallIn the 1970s, farmers revived their pre-colonial tradition of growing trees and crops in the same field, also known as Agroforestry.
Trees and crops can work together if they are in the right mix thrive.
In Niger, through farmer-to-farmer learning, more and more families came to see that tree stumps — along with tree roots and seeds in the soil — could all be nurtured, sprout and become trees. Farmers are also involved. embraced the traditional practice of growing legumes like cowpeas and peanuts that fix nitrogen — so they need not turn to chemical fertilizer, which can be costly and environmentally damaging.
Their work was eventually protected and regenerated possibly as many times as 200 millionExperts on the ground explain that trees all contain carbon, which can improve soil fertility and increase crop yields. They provide fruit, fodder, and firewood. Their foliage also reduces the temperature of the soil, which helps retain soil moisture.
To underscore farmers’ role as the leaders in this process, these practices are called “farmer-managed natural regeneration.”
These practices were so efficient that Niger achieved food security in 2009 2.5 million people — then about 17 percent of the population. Gray Tappan of U.S. Geological Survey provided me with an extrapolation from what I know: The spread of on-farm trees in sub-Saharan Africa may have reached more than half-a-million acres.
That’s more twice the size of Texas! Amazing.
And how does this huge shift to agroforestry feel? Tony Rinaudo, an agricultural agronomist shared his thoughts with me to help me understand. comment from a child in Ghana: “We eat fruits any time we want to, and if our parents have not prepared food, we can just go to the bush.”
West Africa’s revitalization of integrating crops and trees has echoes here in the U.S.
One is in the spread alley cropping — a twist on agroforestry. Since 2013, the Savanna Institute in Wisconsin — inspired by native ecosystems — has been working with farmers to spread this practice to Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In alley cropping, widely spaced “alleys” of trees thrive among companion crops that also help store carbon. The practice increases each acre’s total yield by at least 40 percent.
Alley cropping is also a great way to help farmers sequester carbon, diversify their income sources, and provide habitat for wildlife, Jacob Grace of The Savanna Institute explains.
Almost a quarter of “all Midwestern farmland would be more profitable with rows of trees in it, compared to corn and soybean monocultures,” Grace writes.
Beyond the Midwest, another contributor to agroforestry’s reach is Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York. It offers immersion learning for those of Black, Indigenous and Latinx heritage in regenerative farming — including Afro-Indigenous agroforestry.
These leaders, as well as many others, draw upon millennia’s worth of experience in integrating crops and trees. So, let’s spread the word that trees and crops are natural allies whose relationship we can nurture for the benefit of all.
Note: This article discusses topics covered in the 50th anniversary edition of the author’s book, Diet for a Small PlanetReleased September 2021. This version includes a brand-new logo.new opening chapter, simple rules for a healthy diet, and updated recipes by some of the country’s leading plant- and planet-centered chefs. You can join the Democracy Movement at www.democracymovement.us.