What makes farming sustainable is a perfect understanding and implementation of practices that reduce the cost of inputs, maximize profits, and are ecologically beneficial. Every farmer’s goal is to experience a bountiful harvest so that there is enough farm produce to meet market demands. However, many smallholder farmers secure loans as a means of achieving this. They spend so much on acquiring farm inputs like good-quality seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and farm machines. The high cost of these inputs invariably affects the market price of various farm products. Monoculture systems are expensive. Farmers face a higher economic risk because…
What makes farming sustainable is a perfect understanding and implementation of practices that reduce the cost of inputs, maximize profits, and are ecologically beneficial. Every farmer’s goal is to experience a bountiful harvest so that there is enough farm produce to meet market demands. However, many smallholder farmers secure loans as a means of achieving this. They spend so much on acquiring farm inputs like good-quality seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and farm machines. The high cost of these inputs invariably affects the market price of various farm products.
Monoculture systems are expensive. Farmers face a higher economic risk because they rely so much on debt to get expensive equipment and other factors of production. When funds are inaccessible, farmers are forced to produce foods of lower quality, which are often rejected by consumers, thereby leading to food loss and increased food prices. Agroforestry enables farmers to significantly cut down on production costs as it requires fewer farm inputs compared to conventional farming systems. Inputs such as pesticides or fertilizers are not needed as agroforestry systems naturally curtail crop pests and replenish degraded soils. Also, farmers involved in monoculture practices stand the risk of severe pest damage due to crop uniformity. When such a thing happens, the farmer is likely to run into serious debt in order to pay up the initial loans secured for production.
Agroforestry promotes a harmonious interaction between trees, crops, and livestock by integrating the complex dynamics and structures observed in natural woody ecosystems. Agroforestry uses the ecological processes and diversity of forests to mimic their benefits, which include carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, soil conservation, water regulation, the provision of habitat for wildlife, and overall ecosystem resilience. This helps promote a resilient and regenerative agricultural landscape, which in turn improves the wellbeing of farmers.
So, how does agroforestry promote sustainability in farming?
Trees in agroforestry systems are capable of absorbing nutrients from deeper soil levels through their large root systems. This includes minerals that are inaccessible to annual crops. Through leaf litter and discarded branches, these nutrients are recycled back into the environment, where they break down into organic matter that improves the soil. The resultant nutrient becomes very useful for the growth and performance of surrounding crops. As a result, farmers that use agroforestry use less synthetic fertilizer, which could have added more cost and had adverse effects on the environment. Also, nitrogen is a crucial ingredient for plant growth, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are frequently used in conventional farming. However, through the nitrogen fixation process, agroforestry systems provide a sustainable alternative. Some tree species, such as leguminous trees, have the ability to capture atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a form that plants can use right away. For example, the black locust tree is known to naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen for nearby crops. Farmers can significantly reduce or even completely do away with the requirement for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers by incorporating nitrogen-fixing trees into their farms.
Nutrient pumping and cycling in an agroforestry system. (Source: Fahad et al. 2022)
In order to control crop pests and diseases, agroforestry systems encourage natural defenses rather than relying heavily on fungicides and pesticides. Trees serve as habitat for natural predators such as birds, insects, and other species that control the numbers of pests in a particular habitat. Agroforestry systems also have a better-balanced ecology thanks to the varied flora, which reduces the spread and severity of plant disease. Farmers that use agroforestry can greatly cut their costs and minimize any ecological harm by minimizing the need for expensive chemical inputs.
Agroforestry systems help farms manage their water resources better and more efficiently. The deep root systems of trees prevent soil erosion and help the soil retain water, which reduces the need for irrigation. Farmers can reduce irrigation expenses and the risk of soil erosion by minimizing water demand and preventing runoff. Agroforestry systems also provide adequate shade and tree cover, which lower evaporation rates and keep moisture content at ideal levels.
Agroforestry enables growth of agribusinesses
Scaling up any business enterprise requires strategies to sustain and grow the venture. According to Don Hofstrand, a business strategy should create and sustain a competitive advantage that enables you to consistently earn above-average returns. Agroforestry serves as the competitive edge for agribusinesses with a long-term plan for growth. Farmers can continue to grow their conventional crops alongside trees in an agroforestry system. Selling agricultural yields, such as grains, fruits, vegetables, or other marketable produce, allows these farmers to make a living. They can also make a long-term investment by adding tree species that are valuable commercially for the production of lumber.
As the trees grow older in an agroforestry system, they can be harvested and sold for use in building, making furniture, and other wood products. This enables farmers to have an extra source of revenue. Additionally, non-timber forest products can be harvested and offered for sale in both small- and large-scale marketplaces. Coffee, cocoa, rubber, honey, and herbal remedies are examples of non-timber forest products that can be derived from agroforestry. They give farmers the chance to diversify their sources of income.
In addition, trees give animals shade, food, and shelter, enhancing their welfare and overall productivity. Farmers can sell their livestock or the items they produce, such as meat, milk, eggs, or wool, in order to make extra cash. Integrating livestock within agroforestry systems increases land use and diversified revenue streams. Agroforestry systems assist farmers in reducing their reliance on a single source of income by diversifying income streams and strengthening their ability to withstand market changes and environmental threats.