Vermont’s 4.465 million acres of forest cover around 73% of its territory. If we are to address the critical moment facing Vermont agriculture, sustainable agroforestry should be among the solutions considered and implemented. Done well, it can enhance Vermont’s working landscape, supporting farmers’ livelihoods, local economies, and our natural ecosystems. This short, medium, and long-term strategy can provide additional food, fiber, timber, carbon sequestration, water quality, habitat restoration, and increased livestock comfort and yields, but will need institutional support to provide farmers with sufficient capacity, expertise, and financing. Further, agroforestry can be part of an effective payment for ecosystem services system for Vermont’s agricultural working lands and economy.
Agroforestry (agriculture and forestry) is the deliberate, integrated management of trees, crops, and sometimes livestock within the same area. It can enhance agricultural lands and complement natural forests, and produce food, feed, fiber, fuel, and timber products. Five agroforestry practices are recognized by the USDA including riparian forest buffers, alley cropping, windbreaks, forest farming, and silvopasture. Agroforestry provides multiple environmental benefits and is an effective climate change mitigation strategy. Agroforestry can sequester thousands of tons of carbon annually, at a conservative rate of one ton per acre per year.
Existing cropland and pastureland production can be ecologically and economically enhanced with appropriate agroforestry implementation. Agroforestry can increase farm business revenue when farmers complement feed, food, or fiber production by adding timber and/or other forest products as another crop from the farm. Agroforestry helps farmers adapt to climate change by integrating more trees and more diverse tree crops that can tolerate new climate conditions, for example grazing animals in well-managed marginal forest lands converted to silvopasture. Agroforestry products can include mushrooms and maple syrup, nuts, fruits, and wood products. Using management-intensive grazing, silvopasture may increase viable grazing capabilities. Silvopasture is one of the agroforestry practices done in Vermont, with 4.6% of Vermont’s woodland acres grazed.
Vermont officially encourages two practices, riparian buffers and windbreaks, through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) payments. Windbreaks can increase crop yields 5% to 45%, and reduce climate stress in livestock, increasing their performance. Energy savings in buildings sheltered by windbreaks range from 10% to 40% annually. Adding additional practices to NRCS programs would benefit the sector.
Open fields (left) versus silvopasture (right).