How to do regenerative agroforestry in a temperate climate
Cocoa, bananas, coffee, mangos, and pepper… When talking agroforestry, we tend to think about lush tropical systems in the global South and around the equator. As do I, many of you might not live in these regions. So, is there something that we can do right here in a temperate climate as well? In this article, I will show you four examples; from lush food forests to happy pigs.
Desertification, degraded soils, water scarcity, and deforestation are detrimental phenomena commonly linked to regions such as the Amazon, the Sahel zone in Africa or the Islands of Indonesia. And rightly so! Regions with hot and dry climates are known to be particularly vulnerable when losing vegetation and forest cover. Ancient rainforests, for example, grow on very poor soils. The forests only maintain themselves by living from their own organic waste. Dead plant or animal material becomes compost for the soil which then nurtures new plants. This is what we call a circular system. When a rainforest is felled, this system collapses. What is left behind is very poor soil with hardly any life.
Conventional agriculture that is mainly characterized by monocultures – imagine a plantation of only one crop and bare soils – can only survive on those soils by adding loads of fertilizers, pesticides, and/or herbicides. These are very energy intensive, costly, and bad for biodiversity. On the contrary, regenerative agroforestry has the power to restore such systems by natural means. It mimics the rainforest’s circular structure. That is why – thankfully – it is becoming increasingly popular in those areas. Ernst Götsch – give him a google in case you have not heard of him or watch this video – has revolutionized this practice in Brazil and became an inspiration for a whole movement.
Alright, got it! But what does that mean for the rest of the world? In temperate climates zones – such as Central Europe – desertification, soil erosion or water scarcity do not really seem to be a thing, right? The Netherlands, for example, with its highly productive agriculture and seemingly endless water availabilities will never be affected by those problems, right?
Unfortunately, that is not true. While many of us – me included – might have thought that phenomena such as droughts would never reach us up here, science now tells us differently. Even a country like the Netherlands that is infamous for its constant rain and moderate summers is now increasingly facing the threats of global warming. The temperatures are rising while rainfalls in summer are becoming scarcer. Extreme weather events such as floods (rainfalls in winter are increasing) and droughts in summer are becoming much more likely. Even fertile soils like ours suffer from those conditions.
Last year’s summer (2018) has seen a drought unprecedented in Europe with detrimental outcomes for the agricultural sector. Denmark’s farming industry, for example, reported losses amounting to $944 million according to its Agriculture and Food Council. This summer already witnessed record temperatures again. Unfortunately, these developments are not expected to stop anytime soon and put enormous pressures on our soils, water resources and vegetation.
But let’s depart from drowning in doom scenarios and rather look at the brighter side of things: Regenerative agroforestry as a solution.
Regenerative agroforestry offers a potential that is as relevant here than it is in any other part of the world. For instance, a recent study has analyzed the potential of global reforestation in counteracting climate change. Trees have the amazing ability to take out CO2 – the major greenhouse gas – out of the air and store it in their biomass and the soil. The findings reveal that planting more trees in the cold and temperate climate zones such as Russia, the US, Canada, and China would have great impacts. The lab has developed an online tool – you can find it here – displaying where trees could be possibly planted. Following the tool, even the densely populated Netherlands offer considerable spaces for tree planting.
The study even excluded agricultural spaces as they are seen as not suitable. Farming and reforestation are seen as competing land uses. That is where agroforestry provides the solution: It allows us to combine the two on the same piece of land! If done right, current agricultural spaces could at least partly be transformed into agroforestry systems that capture CO2, increase biodiversity, AND produce an abundance of food. And it doesn’t stop here. Agroforestry systems are much more resilient to the impacts of climate change – droughts and floods – than monoculture farms. This will become more and more important in the future. They can cope well with poor soils and are less vulnerable to pests, wind- and soil erosion than monoculture farms.
So, how can it be done? What does a temperate zone agroforestry system look like? Is it really profitable enough to make a living from it in expensive countries like the Netherlands?
Despite the rising temperatures, copying Ernst Götsch’s tropical cocoa plantation in Europe will obviously not do the job. A temperate climate requires temperate zone agroforestry solutions. And there is an abundance! In recent years the agroforestry movement has grasped Europe and many people have started to adopt its principles in one way or another. In the following, I will present four exemplary projects from the Netherlands and Germany to showcase how it can be done. Each of them is special in its own way. So, please sit back and enjoy the ride!
Four Examples of Temperate Climate Agroforestry;
Project 1 – Food forest Haarzuilens
A flourishing ecosystem which is full of life and beauty: This project right next to the city of Utrecht showcases the environmental and societal benefits of a food forest.
This year’s June has been exceptionally hot and dry, especially its second half. In early July when I cycled out of the urban landscape of Utrecht towards the more rural town of Haarzuilens the impacts of that heatwave became visible. The soils were dry and started to show cracks while the vegetation had begun to turn yellow. However, at the end of my bike ride, I arrived at a totally different scenery: 5 km from the city center of Utrecht I encountered a lush and green biodiversity paradise seemingly untouched by the challenging weather: The food forest Haarzuilens. Although I had read a lot about the resilience of agroforestry systems to drought, the results really blew me away.
Founders Jan Degenaar and Maarten Schrama started the six-hectare food forest to utilize the ecological benefits of agroforestry while producing sustainable food. In particular, the benefits of a food forest for biodiversity have been a major driver. ‘The full potential and the amazing co-benefits, for instance for the climate, were actually things we only focused on a bit later’ says Jan. When they did realize these, the two set up a crowd-funding initiative specifically for trees to serve as carbon sinks. ‘Within one week, people had provided 150% of the money that was needed’! This shows the growing enthusiasm within society to support local climate projects.
While the first nut trees have been planted in 2015, the plot has now developed into a rich habitat with an abundance of different plants. These range from fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches over walnuts and hazelnuts to a variety of berries, herbs, vegetables, and salads. The plot contains more than 100 different edible trees and shrubs and a similar number of different herbs. Apart from species that are widely known in the Netherlands, Jan and Maarten have placed a special focus on cultivating neglected and underutilized crops: Examples are the honeysuckle berry or good king henry which is currently on the Dutch red list of rare plants. It is very tasty, full in flavor, and can be grown easily. ‘It mixes very well in a meal with spinach as its taste is stronger’ recommends Jan. Through regular tours, the two founders want to create more awareness for those forgotten crops – with success: ‘As our harvests are increasing, restaurants and also private consumers are increasingly excited about crops with special tastes. Unknown leafy vegetables, for instance, are becoming very popular.’
Apart from edible species, plenty of non-edibles round up the ecosystem. According to Jan ‘hedges, for example, play a very important role in shade provision, soil formation, and habitat building. Especially shadow is very important for our plants.’ Animals are coming to like the plot as well. In order to stimulate biodiversity, a pond was implemented in the center with amazing results: The number of breeding bird species has increased from a handful to 25 in just three and a half years. Same goes for insects and small mammals.
After three and a half years, the food forest already is an excellent space for recreation. Smaller and bigger paths surround and cross the area inviting visitors for a stroll. Tables and benches are scattered throughout the plot and provide opportunities for resting and picnicking. Close to the city of Utrecht, the plot is a wonderful place to relax to the sound of chirping birds after a hectic day at work. Jan finds that especially important: ‘Recreation sounds like a luxury, but I think it is absolutely necessary that you have that option. Especially in the Netherlands which are so densely populated, we do not have the luxury to keep our available landscapes boring. You have to provide for people to have an enjoyable life.’
One very important challenge that any project is facing is of course: money. How to finance such a project in a world where recreation or biodiversity are hardly financially remunerated? Yet, Jan and Maarten found a solution: A self-picking subscription. Against a yearly fee, people can come around to harvest crops themselves. As the system is so diverse and growing steadily there is little risk of running out of food: ‘We just have to make sure that there is enough for everyone. We will begin with few subscriptions and only slowly increase once the harvests grow exponentially.’ The first symbolic subscription has been issued to the Restaurant Héron from Utrecht by this year’s spring. More will be available by next year. For now, Jan and Maarten mostly expect restaurants and private consumers to take on subscriptions but do not exclude the opportunity to provide small supermarkets in the future.
For more information on the food forest, the self-picking subscriptions, or if you want to support the project, please visit http://www.lekkerlandgoed.nl/.
Project 2 – Eichelschwein
When thinking about modern pig farming, our image tends to be an unpleasant one. We imagine large-scale barns and pigs being held indoors in small cages with very few spaces to roam around. A project in Southern Germany now shows us an alternative.
What might seem like an innovative approach actually builds on a tradition that is hundreds of years old: Acorn-finished pork. The idea was simple. During autumn when the acorns are ripe and start falling of their hosts – oak trees – pig farmers would drive their pigs into the oak tree forests. Pigs love acorns and would gain important weight while feeding on them.
In 2003, Hans Hinrich Huss decided to reinvent this ancient tradition. While suffering from the painfully modest quality of his university canteen roasted pork, Huss was being told about the excellent quality of acorn-finished pork from Croatia. In comparison to the sloppy, watery, and tough taste of his current meal, acorn-finished pork would be an absolute delicacy. Huss started to do research. However, there was hardly any information to be found, apart from the sentence: ‘The best ham is growing on oak trees.’ So, he had to try it out himself. With governmental financial aid he set up a research project close to Iphofen in Bavaria. He wrote his diploma thesis on it and ultimately decided to make it his own company. And it works!
By now, Huss is holding 250 pigs in an oak forest of fifty hectares. While the land is leased, it is still commercially used by a forester which turned out to be a fruitful cooperation: ‘Through rooting, pigs open up the forest soil creating additional microhabitats for various forms of life. They are therefore beneficial for the forest ecosystem.’ Research on Huss’ forest has shown that biodiversity has increased by around twenty percent since the project was started. Their rooting activities also mix some acorns with the soil which creates excellent circumstances for them to grow.
Apart from the ecological benefits, acorn-feeding also increases animal well-being. While conventional pig farming allows the animals to live for about seven months, Huss’s animals enjoy a lifetime of twelve to thirteen months. The pigs roam freely and can therefore live out their natural instincts like they would in a wild environment. They can wallow in the mud, run, and sleep as much as they want to. In short, they live a life without stress. They can feed on worms, insects, small mammals and of course the acorns. The pigs devour about one and a half kg of acorns per day easily gaining around 300g per day.
Their lifestyle and their diet create animal products of exceptional quality. The best proof for that is the famous Iberian ham from Southern Spain which stems from acorn-fed pork as well. Often named ‘the best ham in the world’, it is known to be delicious and worth a fortune on the market.
Huss intends to make use of all parts of the animals and sells raw products as well as processed goods. His offers range from pork meat, bacon, and minced meat to ragout, sausage, and liver pâté. They have become increasingly popular on the local level. His clients mainly consist of high-quality restaurants and private customers who value the quality of the products. More and more, supermarkets are showing an interest, because people begin to appreciate local products again. As his corporations operates commercially, Huss is dependent on a viable business. This might seem tricky as he does not have the sales volumes of a conventional pig farmer. However, his products yield a higher price – about four times as much – on the market. According to him, that works: ‘We cannot complain!’
The project is unique in Germany and the Netherlands which raises the question: Is there more potential for other projects like this? Can animal-welfare, meat quality, and forest biodiversity be increased on a larger scale?
The answer is yes, but there are some challenges. Acorn-fed pork farming requires forests with – obviously – a lot of oaks and a lot of light reaching the ground. Mainly coniferous forests (e.g. with firs or pines) are therefore not suitable. According to Huss, it could also be possible to add fruit producing trees, depending on how they affect the meat’s taste. Another challenge is finding a suitable breeder of pigs. Common pig breeds as they are used in conventional farming would not survive the conditions in a forest. Instead, Huss is working with more robust breeds. As the demand for these is currently small, finding a breeder is not that easy. Huss found the solution in setting up a long-term cooperation with a breeder which ensures a solid business for both.
‘Pasture keeping in cooperation with structures such as trees or hedges is always beneficial for biodiversity. The more diverse, the better.’ According to Huss, the benefits of silvopasture – integrating livestock and trees – are clear. He provides us with a living example of how it can be turned into a viable business with happier animals and thriving forests. It is now on the rest of us to transform animal farming for the better.
Please visit his website https://www.eichelschwein.de/ to learn more the project, try the products or simply brighten your day with some happy pig photos!
Project 3 – Production food forest Schijndel
The youngest project in this special selection is the production food forest Schijndel. And it is in here for a reason: It is becoming the Netherlands biggest production food forest while covering twenty hectares (!) in total.
This project was designed and is currently being implemented by the Stichting Voedselbosbouw Nederland under the lead of Dutch food forestry celebrity Wouter van Eck. The organization is a driving force in the agroforestry movement in the country and already has a great portfolio of projects.
Now, what does that mean, a PRODUCTION food forest? Food forests may follow a multitude of goals: Recreation, subsistence food production, enhanced biodiversity, or education. While all of these play a secondary role here, the food forest Schijndel is implemented mainly to produce food for commercial purposes. It operates as an agricultural business. In contrast to the food forest Haarzuilens, it is not open for the public and can obtain agricultural subsidies. The aim is to ‘prove that the commercial development and use of large-scale food forests can, in practice, lead to great added value, both in economic and societal terms.’ (Buiter & Eck, 2018).
Yet, it mimics a forest ecosystem. That means that it includes tall and smaller trees, shrubs, herbs, ground cover plants, and all other vegetational layers that you would find in a natural forest as well. This way, the food forest Schijndel complies with the principles of the Green Deal, a policy instrument by the Dutch government that supports sustainable economic growth. In Schijndel, all plants will be perennials – plants that do not have to be replanted every year – which leads to healthier soils. Moreover, the system also benefits biodiversity and the climate. The diversity of planted species remains much higher than in a monoculture farm while creating habitats for an abundance of life. Also, all that biomass and untouched soil will make sure that a lot of CO2 is being taken out of the atmosphere and stored.
The greatest difference to a more romantic, but perhaps less economic food forest is the so-called alley cropping. In Schijndel, the plants are planted in structured rows with spaces in between them. This way, harvesting, and organization become easier. If wanted, machinery could be applied, for example, to facilitate the picking of fruits. Also, the number of edible species is narrowed down to around twenty crops per hectare. This allows for more efficient harvesting and marketability. Yet, market demand is not the main criteria for crop selection. It is the taste: ‘If a crop is tasty, we trust in that’ says the organization’s secretary Marc Buiter. ‘We stimulate local demand through tastings and cooperation with local chefs. That is how we introduce these products in the region.’
The project can be seen as a step towards a greater goal of Stichting Voedselbosbouw Nederland: ‘We believe that around forty percent (!) of our agricultural land could be transformed into food forests.’ What might not sound too realistic at first, actually bases on a solid fundament: Conventional agriculture in the Netherlands is not doing well, neither for people nor for nature. Every year more farmers are going bankrupt, biodiversity is decreasing rapidly, and the soils are degrading.
Buiter believes that the current system is outdated, and new ideas are needed: ’We tend to think too much within the realms of our system. When Henry Ford invented the car, people were reluctant. They argued that, instead, we needed faster horses. We all know how that story ended…’. Once one exits the common ‘box’ of thinking, opportunities are countless: Innovative ideas range from so-called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in which consumers become stakeholders of agricultural production to food forestry finance through carbon offsetting. The Stichting Voedselbosbouw Nederland is one of the major pioneers in that field and certainly worth to be followed. As the exploitation and development of food forests in the Netherlands are still young, expectations can be high on what the future has to offer.
To follow the organization, their other projects, and their remarkable progress please visit https://www.voedselbosbouw.org/. For more information on the food forest Schijndel, have a look at https://www.voedselbosschijndel.nl/.
Project 4 – Trees for Chickens
This Dutch project “Bomen Voor Buitenkippen” is literally EGGceptional. Bomen Voor Buitenkippen – which translates into trees for outdoor-chickens – has one major goal: Happy chickens.
In an attempt to apply the benefits of agroforestry systems, this project trails the combination of trees and chicken farming and the results are promising: Enhanced animal well-being, CO2 sequestration, increased biodiversity and simply a more beautiful outdoor space for chickens.
In cooperation with seven different poultry farmers, the Driebergen-based Louis Bolk Instituut started Bomen Voor Buitenkippen in 2012 as a demonstration project. The farmers planted trees – fruit, nut, and biomass trees – as well as Miscanthus, also called silver grass, which is a tallgrass species. Various institutions, such as the Dutch Ministry for Economic Affairs supported the farmers in obtaining the plants which now provide shade and a safe habitat for the chickens.
In general, farmers are not allowed to create an income from the trees. Poultry farmers with outdoor chickens face strict European norms on how to design their chicken pastures. These stem from a time in which agroforestry was not very well known in this part of Europe. They currently still pose a clear barrier for interested farmers. Monique Bestman from the Louis Bolk Instituut, therefore, hopes for an improvement of current regulations: ‘It is expected that these marketing standards will change and that profit-generating trees (walnuts, fruit, biomass) will be recognized as beneficial for animal welfare. However, it will take years for this legislation to be amended.’
Bomen Voor Buitenkippen was an exception to the rule because it only served for demonstrative purposes. As such it certainly portraits what the benefits of an amended legislation would be. Bestman who has studied chicken rearing combined with multi-functional planting for years clarifies how: ‘Chickens are forest birds and only really dare to go outside when there are trees in their spouts. Planting trees on the pastures costs money though. The investment in them is less substantial if some of the trees can be harvested and sold in the long run.’ Therefore, although selling fruits, nuts, or biomass would not make a lot of money, it could help to cushion the investment.
More potential is seen in the opportunity of so-called payments for ecosystem services. Similar to a food forest, trees in a chicken sprout provide benefits – so-called ecosystem services – for the society and environment, such as capturing CO2, cleaning the air or increasing biodiversity. In an ideal future situation, these services could be financially remunerated, for instance through carbon offsets. This is an approach that is already frequently done in tropical countries, yet, not very common in Central Europe. It would encourage farmers to plant more trees on their land. Other farmers who would see their neighbors making money while having happier chickens would certainly be more stimulated to do the same. Bomen Voor Buitenkippen’s approach could, therefore, be upscaled while being economically viable for participating farmers.
Monique Bestman and the Louis Bolk Instituut are currently working on several similar projects. Please visit http://www.louisbolk.org/nl/landbouw/dierenwelzijn to follow their research and progress.
So, agroforestry in temperate zones actually is a thing already! And it might yet become a bigger one.
These four projects give impressive and encouraging indications of what agroforestry can achieve in a temperate climate. And they are not alone in an increasingly growing movement intending to advocate for a wider application in Central Europe. Institutions such as the European Agroforestry Federation – you can check them out here– are currently driving the progress through lobbying, knowledge creation, and awareness-raising.
While the technical aspects and the environmental and societal benefits of temperate climate agroforestry are increasingly well understood, there is still a lot of research to be done on how to upscale it. To put it in Marc Buiter’s words: ‘We are still at the very early beginning of the learning curve’. Yet, projects such as Eichelschwein already provide promising examples of how temperate climate agroforestry can be viable on a large scale and be an effective alternative for conventional methods. If we want to achieve temperate climate regenerative agroforestry to be the future, we have to rethink current systems and legislative regulations, explore and test new approaches, and provide viable alternatives for farmers. We from reNature say: Let’s do it!
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