Agroforestry in Action

Agroforestry is a technique which is being promoted by those advocating more sustainable​ ​farming systems. The basic idea is​ ​planting trees and getting the spacing right so that you can​ ​use the space between. At scale the simplest way of managing this is to plant​ ​in lines. The​ ​species selection in these lines can be more targeted at functions; for example they could be​ ​fruit or nut trees, trees which are​ ​edible for livestock, or for timber. The strip of land between​ ​each line of trees can then be used either to grow a crop or grow grass which can be grazed.​ ​The trees are planted small and so in early years the gap between the trees is the yielding part​ ​of the system. As the trees grow and mature they become the primary crop. Two years ago we planted an area as a test patch for which species worked well here. The​ ​layout was planned as a food forest in​ ​development. A food forest is less structured than​ ​agroforestry; it is looking to make use of a wider variety of plants to mimic a forest​ ​structure in​ ​making use of light at different levels from the ground. The​ ​experience of setting up the food​ ​forest has shown that when farming at a larger scale, something of that complexity has higher​ ​labour​ ​requirements to manage and a greater loss of yield in early years. It​ ​wouldn’t be as​ ​worthwhile to plant a really large area of land in that way, compared to an agroforestry system. Last spring we made a start at planting out our initial agroforestry​ ​system. We planted a variety​ ​of fruit and timber trees in lines, following the natural contours of the field. Over the course of​ ​last summer we rotated our rams on the paddocks which were formed between each row. We​ ​even added a golf course built into the system so that we would have something to do in​ ​lockdown. We have just planted an additional 40 fruit trees, many of which are perry pears​ ​grown from grafts taken from our genetically unique to the farm varieties ( Where many agroforestry systems are planted as single species we have used our​ ​understanding of permaculture principles to diversify our planting arrangement. We have used​ ​multiple varieties of each fruit species, fodder trees and timber species; diversity reduces the​ ​risk of damage from pests and can aid pollination. We have also​ ​included an area of willow on​ ​the wettest patch of ground. This willow can then be coppiced and used as mulch for the fruit​ ​trees. The species of willow selected were those with the highest salicylic acid. As the wood​ ​breaks down the vapours released by high salicylic acid containing material​ ​reduces rust and​ ​mildew problems in fruit. Plus, when fed to livestock, willow has anthelmintic properties​ ​(wormer). Back in 2019 we as a team visited Tim Dowdes, a Nuffield scholar and​ ​dairy farmer, where we​ ​were able to observe his test agroforestry area​ ​he has planted as part of his dairy system. He is​ ​using willow,​ ​sycamore and hornbeam for their fodder quality. He was using a​ ​permanent​ ​electric fence to protect the trees from the cows; when the​ ​trees were established he would​ ​remove the fence and allow the cows to directly browse the trees. He had also planted walnut​ ​trees around his milking parlour on the theory that walnuts repel flies. It takes a number of years for trees to mature and produce a yield. So, ​i​n theory, we could take​ ​the agroforestry idea further. The trees have a 5-7.5 metre spacing along a line; to allow space​ ​for them once mature, but not create a closed canopy which could provide too much shade.​ ​Knowing that they will take 5+ years for the fruit trees to reach a​ ​significant size and start fruiting​ ​we can fill in the gaps using soft fruit ​ ​bushes (red / white / black currant, gooseberries etc).​ ​These will be productive immediately, and their productivity will naturally be reducing as the​ ​trees reach heights where they will begin to shade the bushes. Within the lines we have​ ​included timber trees, these will take​ ​significantly longer to reach a height at which they could be​ ​harvested;​ ​their final size will be approaching a height where they begin to shade​ ​the fruit trees. If you’re thinking of planting and you’re interested in fruit trees, we​ ​would recommend Tom the​ ​Apple Man (@Tomtheappleman ). Having​ ​visited a number of potential growers, he clearly​ ​showed an understanding, and actual implementation of permaculture principles.​ ​He also has a​ ​wide variety of heritage varieties.

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