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Wicked problems are scenarios where the complexity of the situation leads to difficulty in providing resolution due to lack of information, opposing perspectives, or just plain too many moving parts. Natural resource management is a field riddled with wicked problems, where proposed solutions cross many social, economic, and environmental stewardship perspectives. The complex linkages between social systems and economies, as well as the environmental resources that they rely on are inseparable and often require tradeoffs between and among social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

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So, can agroforestry be a tool for enhancing ecosystem processes that better achieve economic, social and environmental goals and reduce tradeoffs between them? In this field, we often find ourselves at the interface between conservation and agriculture or forestry, choosing between environmental or economic tradeoffs for achieving the prioritized resource goal (ie. riparian buffers for water quality and/or pheasant habitat). However, with intentional design, agroforestry is a land management framework that creates multifunctional landscapes, meeting multiple objectives reaching across the socio-ecological divide that can play a major role in addressing wicked problems at the field and landscape scale.

By definition, agroforestry is a multi-functional approach, installing tree and shrub crops with understory production or management systems in order to enhance economic diversity by vertical stratification of harvest regimes, pulling multiple crops from the same acreage. But what if we expand this framework from multiple economic crops to multiple ecosystem processes, thus opening the potential for agroforestry to approach land management not just from an economic lens but as a systems approach to considering cultural and environmental tradeoffs as well.  

Through intentional design, adding complexity by considering species selection and the targeted placement of them in the landscape for achieving additional outcomes may be easier than one thinks and can have a multitude of long term social and ecological influences. Perennial cropping systems may find new value for native species, thereby increasing their prevalence in the agricultural landscape while enhancing economic outcomes. Pawpaws, aronia, elderberries or saskatoons may become the centers of new cropping systems, increasing the prevalence of these species and their ecological functions may provide a wealth of environmental services. But their presence is only half the story. By understanding their role as wildlife habitat or water quality enhancing attributes, we can design these species as windbreaks, hedgerows, or alley cropping systems that provide the economic and environmental needs of the landscape while providing opportunities for remembering localized cultural resources.

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These benefits are not limited to environmental and economic ones. Agroforestry systems that use historically important economic species are inherently diving into the world of traditional ecological knowledge. Thus presenting an opportunity to collaborate with and conserve the indigenous knowledge, language and the practices employed by first nations communities, thereby opening doors for cultural reconciliation at the interface of cultural, economic, and environmental conservation. These systems too can provide unique opportunities for tribal and private lands to reprioritize cultural foods and resources through traditional land management practices. One hope is that agroforestry resources developed prioritize their educational offerings and resource accessibility by first nation tribal groups, whose worldview is often associated with and helped to inform systems thinking perspectives currently discussed.  

These systems are information intensive; they draw on the complexity of system components and their interactions to discover a pathway forward that creates the most good. Through their information-intensive approach, they allow tradeoffs between components to be reduced and become transparent. Agroforestry is a tool to combine perennial cropping systems into the current agronomic, recreation and natural lands management paradigm and may be one substantial method towards achieving a wicked solution.

If you have a success story applying agroforestry as a multifunctional landscape approach to natural resource conservation, let us know! Either through a Temperate Agroforester Newsletter article (contact…), sharing your story with your regional working group (www.aftaweb.org) or by contacting the author at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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