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 (https://www.threepools.co.uk/single-post/2019/01/14/heritage-fruit-conservation). 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, in 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.