Agroforestry for Sustainable Development

A National Strategy to Develop and Implement Agroforestry

Produced by a Workshop to "Develop a Framework for a Coordinated National Agroforestry Program," 
June 29-30, 1994 Nebraska City, Nebraska

Executive Summary

Agroforestry, the intentional integration of agricultural and forestry-based land-use systems, provides multiple benefits that collectively contribute to agroecosystem sustainability. Agroforestry addresses the nation's land stewardship needs by converting degraded lands, protecting sensitive lands, and diversifying farm production systems. As part of an ecologically-based land management system, agroforestry practices can maintain ecosystem diversity and processes that contribute to long-term sustainability and environmental quality.

This white paper identifies unique needs and recommends actions to develop and implement agroforestry nationally. The recommended actions for agroforestry are supported by a unified community of interest.

Although there is strong interest and potential for agroforestry to help achieve many sustainability goals, agroforestry development and implementation is impeded because it is non-traditional, lacks recognition, and cuts across agencies, programs, and disciplines. Present programs are neither designed nor funded sufficiently to deal with agroforestry. Specifically, getting agroforestry accepted and applied requires technology development and integration, application and decision-support tools, technology transfer to agriculture and natural resource professionals, and technical assistance to landowners. The immediate need is to get agroforestry o­n the ground through a concerted effort to get into practice what is already known and to coordinate and strengthen the development of new knowledge.

Recommendations for accomplishing these goals are: (1) Establish an agroforestry subtitle in the 1995 farm bill to address agroforestry's unique opportunities, needs and challenges; (2) Establish a USDA interagency coordinating committee and a national coordinator for agroforestry; (3) Establish regional agroforestry organizations to enhance linkages and information exchange; (4) Establish a national agroforestry advisory council; (5) Establish a national interagency agroforestry center and clearinghouse for agroforestry cooperation; (6) Provide focused funding for agroforestry research, development, applications, demonstrations, technology transfer, and training; (7) Increase emphasis o­n field and landscape buffer zones; and (8) Increase emphasis o­n international agroforestry technology exchange.

Agroforestry is an unprecedented opportunity for interagency cooperation. At this juncture, it is critical that national interagency leadership be provided from within USDA. A "Team USDA" effort is necessary for success.

What is Agroforestry?

Agroforestry is the intentional integration of agricultural and forestry-based land-use systems to provide tree and other crop products, and at the same time protect, conserve, diversify, and sustain vital economic, environmental, human, and natural resources. Four key principles in agroforestry are: (1) trees and/or shrubs are deliberately combined with crops and/or livestock; (2) land use is intensive; (3) biological interactions are increased; and (4) benefits are optimized. Agroforestry includes windbreaks planted into production agriculture systems, but it also includes the intentional growing of an understory high-value specialty crop of ginseng under the protection of forest cover. Agroforestry is "working trees"-the right trees and shrubs planted and/or managed in the right place to do a specific job. Agroforestry practices include windbreaks, alley cropping, tree/pasture systems, living snowfences, riparian forest buffers, tree/specialty crop systems, forest/specialty crop systems (forest farming), wildlife habitat, and fuelwood plantations.

In view of the environmental problems confronting modern agriculture, and the emphasis being placed o­n developing sustainable agricultural and natural resource systems, agroforestry can have lasting economic, environmental, and social impacts. As part of an ecologically-based land management system, agroforestry practices can contribute substantially to generating the ecosystem diversity and processes important to long-term sustainability. At farm, watershed, and landscape scales, integration of agroforestry practices can transform our agricultural lands into stable, resilient, diverse, aesthetic, and sustainable agricultural land-use systems. Agroforestry practices can increase crop production, control erosion and sediment, provide multiple crops including wood products, sequester and biodegrade excess nutrients and pesticides, moderate microclimates, and diversify habitats for wildlife and humans. Agroforestry systems sequester carbon and serve as a renewable energy source. By enhancing the production capabilities of rural lands, agroforestry can help revitalize rural communities that have become socially depressed due to recent "economic downturns".


Agroforestry offers the opportunity to address some of our nation's, indeed our world's, most complex problems, and thereby constitutes an arena in which a host of stakeholders can come together in developing a common agenda for conservation and land-use practices. A "first step" toward that common agenda was accomplished with the February, 1994 publication of the Soil Conservation Service's (SCS), Resource Conservation Act (RCA) appraisal for agroforestry entitled: "Agroforestry: an Intergrated Land-Use Management System for Production and Farmland Conservation". The awareness created by the RCA document resulted in a workshop held June 29-30, 1994 to assemble stakeholders to "Develop a framework for a coordinated national agroforestry program". The participants, representing federal and state agencies, universities, and non-government organizations (NGO) from across the U.S., and the Association for Temperate Agroforestry (AFTA), assembled to define and address the unique needs and challenges of agroforestry, and develop the recommendations in this white paper. With the unified support of this community of interest, and that of peers and other interested parties, it is hoped that together we can "make a difference" for agroforestry and the vitality of rural America. The American public is demanding new approaches to the management of our nation's farm and forest lands -- agroforestry offers a viable option to conventional approaches.

However, while factors that are important to its development are beginning to converge, the benefits of agroforestry will not be fully realized without focused policies, programs, funding, and interdisciplinary teams. Present programs are neither designed nor funded sufficiently to deal with a "cross-cutting" science and practice like agroforestry. The infrastructure required must be established with the ultimate user, the landowner, at the center, and be designed to promote a continuous process of innovation. This will require a concerted team effort o­n the part of many, including established agriculture and natural resource institutions such as USDA agencies and land-grant universities. At this juncture, it is especially critical that national leadership be provided from within USDA.

Furthermore, the formulation of the 1995 Farm Bill offers an important opportunity to institutionalize agroforestry development at the federal level as part of a strategy to reduce the, public cost of resource conservation, to provide better customer service, and to develop more environmentally and socially sustainable agricultural production systems.

Status of Agroforestry Development

There is a groundswell of interest in agroforestry, both domestically and globally. That interest is expected to escalate as increasing emphasis is placed o­n land stewardship and environmental protection in agroecosystems. The potential of agroforestry to simultaneously provide economic, environmental, conservation, and social benefits to agroecosystems is rapidly being recognized by federal and state agencies, universities, and conservation organizations. The need for and interest in agroforestry are national but specific needs and priorities vary by region and institution.

In spite of its potential, numerous barriers have impeded the development and application of agroforestry. The circumstances surrounding agroforestry are analogous to the challenges faced by urban forestry during its formative years -- it is unconventional, lacks recognition, and cuts across agencies and disciplines. Current agroforestry research and development (R&D), application, and extension activities are limited, unconnected, and minimally funded in relation to the need and interest. In response to these challenges, the community of interest for agroforestry has come together and is unified nationwide in support of the recommendations in this paper.

The needs are pervasive. Specifically, more emphasis is needed o­n technology development, systems integration, application and decision-support tools, technology transfer to agriculture and natural resource professionals, and technical assistance to landowners. A focused effort is needed to accelerate the development and application of agroforestry practices. The immediate need is to get agroforestry o­n the ground. This can best be achieved through a concerted effort to put into practice what is already known.

Improved technologies and information are o­nly part of the challenge. A determined effort is needed to strengthen partnerships and cooperation among federal agencies, and form alliances among federal, state, university, and private sectors to develop, disseminate, and apply agroforestry technologies. There is a need to overcome barriers and build bridges. Agroforestry is an unprecedented opportunity for interagency cooperation. A coordinated/cooperative "Team USDA" approach is necessary to efficiently/effectively implement agroforestry. Closer linkages are required between o­ngoing agricultural systems and natural resources R&D and extension programs in order to be successful and effective.

The Needs and Opportunities for Agroforestry

Water and wind erosion, excess nutrient and pesticide movement, and a lack of biodiversity o­n farms and ranches continue as major deterrents to sustainable agriculture in the U.S. The National Resources Inventory (NRI-1982) identified 143 million acres of highly-erodible croplands that are now under conservation compliance plans which could be enhanced with agroforestry practices. Included in that figure are 112 million acres with an erodibility index (EI) greater than 8 - lands with an EI equal to or greater than 8 and planted to an annual crop must have conservation compliance plans in place by January 1, 1995. Failure to comply makes participants ineligible for USDA benefits.

Agroforestry can address these needs in two ways: (1) rehabilitation of degraded lands by conversion to alternative production agroforestry practices like alley cropping, tree/pasture systems, and fuelwood plantations; and (2) protection of sensitive lands by integration of windbreaks, riparian forest buffers, and other conservation agroforestry practices.

Of the 36.5 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), o­nly 2.5 million acres (6. 8 %) are enrolled in tree planting options. Excluding the southeast, where most of the tree planting was for pulp production, tree planting under CRP was a disappointing 2 % . In the 12th signup, when a priority was placed o­n achieving water quality and wildlife benefits, the enrollment in tree planting options jumped to 11.4%. Thus, there is a clear relationship between tree planting and these desirable benefits. Moreover, trees have staying power. A 1991 Forest Service survey found that over 95 % of the trees planted under the Soil Bank Program are still at work today. In any extension of the CRP, more recognition and priority should be given to the long-term economic, conservation, and environmental benefits of agroforestry practices (e.g., windbreaks, filter strips, alley cropping, tree/pasture systems, tree/specialty crop systems, and wildlife habitat).

Agriculture is o­ne of the major contributors of non-point source pollution in the US. According to the 1982 Soil Conservation Service's NRI, there are 737,000 miles of streambank nationally without woody riparian vegetation. The 1993 NRC report entitled "Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture", recommends greater use of "field and landscape buffer zones" in concert with improved farming systems to maintain soil and water quality. An agroforestry practice with enormous potential is multistrata (multispecies-tree/shrub/grass) riparian buffer strips. Buffer strips are capable of removing 80 % of the sediment, nitrogen and phosphoruscontaminants in surface runoff. Riparian buffer strips also yield wood products, hold water during peak flows, reduce bank cutting, and enhance aquatic environments and biodiversity.

Windbreaks are the most common and widespread agroforestry practice currently applied in the U.S. According to the Soil Conservation Service's NRI, the existing 175,000 miles of windbreaks are in a steady-state condition, but overall health and effectiveness are declining. Data from a 1992 SCS windbreak condition survey indicate that about 75 % of these windbreaks need renovation to maintain their function. A concerted effort is needed to restore or replace aging and declining windbreaks, and establish new o­nes.

Of the 405 million acres of rangeland and 131 million acres of pastureland, 58 and 48 million acres, respectively, are rated as having high or medium potential for conversion to cropland. If that occurs, the conversion should be to sustainable systems that include agroforestry practices. The need for riparian buffer strips is equally strong o­n western rangelands and central croplands. In open lands of the northern states there is an acute need for tree/shrub snowfences to control drifting snow, and tree/shrub livestock shelters to protect animals from severe storms. In the southeast and northwest, tree/pasture systems can increase forage and livestock production, protect livestock, and provide tree products.

A complex issue facing rural communities in America today is the decline in profitability of the small family farm. More than 50% of farm family income is often derived off the farm. Especially in the Northeast, Northwest, and Southeast, substantial areas of cropland are reverting to forest cover. Through the intensive management of these lands, new industries are emerging based o­n alternative agroforestry systems that grow high-value understory crops (e.g., foliage plants, mushrooms, and ginseng) under the protection of forest cover. These forest/specialty crop systems can substantially increase the value of these lands and contribute to the economic revitalization of rural areas.

Urban expansion is continually encroaching o­n agricultural lands. Conflicts are particularly acute in the urban/rural interface. Agroforestry can effectively address problems like stormwater runoff and sedimentation, wastewater and sludge disposal, and control of noise, wind, dust, and snow. Increased emphasis is needed o­n these non-traditional applications of agroforestry as a part of the Urban Resources Initiative.

A pervasive barrier to agroforestry acceptance is a lack of information o­n the tangible and intangible benefits to the farmer, the environment, and the public. Like any other conservation/land-use practice, agroforestry must be justified in terms of costs and benefits. Three economic issues that need to be addressed for the benefit of the farmer are: (1) the up-front fixed costs from installing a multi-crop (tree/crop/livestock) production system; (2) the initial time period required to realize income from land devoted to tree and other crop production; and (3) the amount of income to be realized and the value of diversification of income sources. It is a simple case of developing and providing the needed information. From an operational standpoint, agroforestry increases flexibility in agricultural operations. Finally, agroforestry offers farmers economic options other than row crops.

Agroforestry provides opportunities for international exchange and cooperation. The issues that agroforestry addresses are quite similar domestically and internationally: soil depletion, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, economic diversification, pollution, and sustainable development. Interest in agroforestry is rapidly building because of its unique ability to simultaneously address these economic, environmental and social issues. Increased emphasis is needed within USDA's global mission to support the development and use of agroforestry.

Trends Affecting Agroforestry

Changing demands are being placed o­n agriculture. The issue is broadening to sustainable development in agroecosystems. The public's expectations are for agriculture to continue to be productive and profitable, provide adequate quantities of safe food, yet be in harmony with the environment. In the future, farm support programs will likely focus more o­n the infrastructure of the agroecosystem than o­n the actual crop.

In response to these trends, USDA agencies are committed to developing an ecosystem-based approach for planning and implementing programs at farm, watershed and landscape scales. Since agroforestry is a part of the infrastructure of sustainable agricultural land-use systems, foresters, wildlife biologists, agronomists, etc., need to participate in teams approaching the concept of sustainable development in agroecosystems. Ecosystem management is a process, not a product. Thus, it is paramount that multi-agency and multi-disciplinary teams be utilized to develop an ecosystem-based approach to planning and to provide assistance o­n private lands.

As natural resource management advances toward an ecosystem-based approach at a watershed scale, it becomes obvious that trees are an important part of the agroecosystem infrastructure. Trees in agroforestry practices are needed to provide long-term protection of soil and water quality, enhance the resilience of the system, improve wildlife habitat, contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity, and help provide for people's physical and economic vitality. The agroforestry component of the system is the single most important source of biodiversity and is essential for healthy ecosystems.

To develop an ecosystem-based approach, multi-agency and multi-disciplinary pilot projects are needed in priority watersheds to blend and balance technologies and expertise to optimize integrated production/conservation systems. These projects should have a strong emphasis o­n understanding the economic, environmental, and social interactions between agricultural systems and natural resources. The outputs should be: (1) a better understanding of ecosystem component interactions; (2) identification of alternative scenarios; (3) evaluation of the economic, environmental, and social consequences of each scenario; and (4) decision-support models/tools based o­n this information.


Establish an Agroforestry Subtitle in the 1995 Farm Bill to address agroforestry's unique opportunities, needs and challenges. The circumstances surrounding agroforestry are analogous to those confronting urban forestry in its formative years. Focused policies and programs are needed to obtain recognition and acceptance, and effectively accelerate the development and implementation of agroforestry.

Establish a USDA Interagency Coordinating Committee and National Coordinator for Agroforestry to: (1) build understanding, acceptance, and support for agroforestry across agencies; (2) coordinate existing and new programs; and (3) identify needs, priorities, and direction. Federal agencies need to cooperate and provide national leadership for agroforestry. Membership should include the Forest Service, Soil Conservation Service, Agricultural Research Service, Extension Service, Cooperative State Research Service and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. A national coordinator is needed to strengthen alliances across agencies and sectors, and NGO's. Better coordination and cooperation would increase overall efficiency and effectiveness and help achieve the goals of the National Performance Review. The associated costs would be offset by savings from increased efficiency. This option is recommended for immediate action using existing authorities.

Establish Regional Agroforestry Organizations to enhance linkages and information exchange among agroforestry practitioners, researchers, technology transfer specialists, and extension specialists throughout each region. Each regional organization should identify and recommend agroforestry development needs and priorities, and assemble task forces to evaluate emerging issues. There should be close linkages among the regional organizations, the National Agroforestry Coordinator, and the USDA Interagency Coordinating Committee. The cost of the regional organizations would be offset by savings from increased efficiency and effectiveness. It is recommended that the Association for Temperate Agroforestry (AFTA) take the lead in establishing regional organizations. No new authorities or action by USDA would be required to implement this option.

Establish a National Agroforestry Advisory Council to: (1) develop understanding, acceptance, and support for agroforestry; (2) identify national and regional needs; (3) identify research technology transfer, and training needs; and (4) recommend policies and programs required to ensure that future needs are adequately and efficiently met. Membership should include representatives of federal agencies, state agencies, institutions, and grassroots NGO's. The associated costs would be offset by increased efficiency in meeting USDA goals. The advisory council can be established with existing authorities, but a new statutory authority in the agroforestry subtitle that includes an exemption from the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) is recommended.

Establish a National Interagency Agroforestry Center and Clearinghouse for Agroforestry Cooperation. The existing Center for Semiarid Agroforestry/National Clearinghouse for Agroforestry Cooperation and Promotion was authorized in The Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA-Title XIIState and Private Forestry, Ch 2, Sec. 1243). It is recommended that the semiarid focus be dropped and adequate resources provided to meet the national needs for agroforestry. An interagency joint-venture is imperative to enhance partnerships, cooperation, efficiency, effectiveness, and accomplishment of goals. To be effective, the Clearinghouse should facilitate and cost-share demonstrations, applications, syntheses, assessments, development of tools, and training workshops. The cost to fully implement the Center/Clearinghouse is $5 million/year. An amendment of the existing authorization would be needed to make these desired changes.

Provide Focused Funding for Agroforestry Research, Development, Applications, Demonstrations, Technology Transfer, and Training. An agroforestry competitive research grants program through the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program is required. A provision for focused funding for agroforestry research and development through appropriate USDA agencies, including Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, Cooperative State Research Service, and the Economic Research Service will also be required. To attain the immediate need of putting what we know into practice, enhance agroforestry technical assistance by providing funding to the Soil Conservation Service, Extension Service and State Forestry Agencies to re-train professionals, hire new expertise, and establish watershed-level demonstration projects. Funding should be tied to cooperative/partnership and system-based efforts. The USDA Interagency Coordinating Committee, National Advisory Council, and the National Clearinghouse should play advisory/facilitative/coordination roles in the overall effort. Focused funding would result in an accelerated effort to develop and apply agroforestry technologies, information, and tools. Recommended funding is $25 million/yr. Specific language and authorities would be needed to establish focused programs.

Increase Emphasis o­n Field and Landscape Buffer Zones. In accordance with the NRC recommendation, more emphasis should be placed o­n the creation of field and landscape buffer zones that utilize agroforestry practices to protect soil and water quality, in concert with efforts to improve farming practices. This is an opportune area in which to develop, integrate, and evaluate appropriate technologies, and is a good example of how increased funding should be tied to cooperative/partnership efforts. Technical and financial assistance should be targeted to selected states for ecosystem-based pilot projects in high priority watersheds to demonstrate riparian forest buffers, windbreaks, alley cropping, tree/pasture systems, forest farming and other agroforestry practices. Funding to implement this recommendation should be provided in the other options previously discussed, the Sustainable Agricultural Research and Extension program (SARE), the Water Quality Incentives Project (WQIP) and other programs focused o­n water quality. New authorities would not be needed, but specific language is desirable to strengthen the emphasis o­n agroforestry and the tie between funding and cooperative/multidisciplinary efforts.

Increase Emphasis o­n International Agroforestry Technology Exchange. Agroforestry is an outstanding opportunity for USDA, within its global mission, to encourage the development and use of sustainable systems as an alternative to destructive agricultural systems. Furthermore, agroforestry is an area where the U.S. can benefit greatly from cooperation and technology exchange with other countries that have more extensive experience. The enhanced effort should be implemented through coordination between the International Forestry branch of FS, and the International Conservation Division of the SCS, and should be linked to the Interagency Center for Agroforestry/National Clearinghouse to facilitate interagency, university, and NGO participation. The cost associated with this option is approximately $1 million/yr. Specific language in the Global Climate Change Prevention Act (Secs. 2402-2407) is recommended to establish the increased priority for agroforestry international exchange, provide for funding needs, and provide direction.

Workshop Participants

Terry Johnson USDA-SCS
Arthur W. Allen USDI-National Biological Survey
Fred Deneke  USDA-FS, S&PF
Bill Farris (representing NASF)
Bruce Wight USDA-SCS
Gene Garrett (representing NAPFSC)
Jack Slusher (representing USDA-ES) 
Michael A. Gold (President, AFTA) 
Deborah Hill (representing AFTA)
Louise Buck (representing AFTA)
John Rosenow National Arbor Day Foundation 
Henry Pearson USDA-ARS
Mike Majeski  USDA-FS 
Gary Hergenrader (representing CWSF) 
Bill Rietveld USDA-FS 
Jerry Bratton USDA-FS
Kerry Herndon  EPA - Region VII
Dick Schultz (representing AFTA)