Trees have traditionally been an integrated part of European farmlands and bringing them back could be part of an answer to some of our pressing environmental challenges.

Join Asger Mindegaard and Celia Nyssens on a walk through the forest of opportunities for more agroecological farming provided by agroforestry in Portugal.

‘Agroforestry’ describes systems where agricultural activities (crops and/or livestock) are combined with growing trees and woody shrubs. Agroforestry is applicable no matter the farm size, main crops and produces, farm design and management. It also varies according to local climatic conditions, culture, and farmers’ personal preferences. 

Agroforestry is not agroecological by default, but it is in many ways a natural part of agroecological farming because of the many advantages trees bring to a farm. A good example of vibrant agroforestry production is present on the plains of Alentejo, Portugal.

Family trees 

Herdade do Freixo do Meio lies about an hour’s drive east of Lisbon. The 500 hectares of farmland have belonged to the same family for six generations and since Alfredo Sendim took over the land in the 1990s agroecological agroforestry has been the goal. The approach combines traditional knowledge of the ancient Portuguese ‘montado’ system with state-of-the-art agronomic practices and research.

Agroecology and community are the main values driving production at Freixo do Meio and, in January, the farm began a transition from private enterprise to a cooperative of 35 partners. The cooperative produces a wide range of organic grains, vegetables and permanent crops (fruits, nuts, olives, acorns), not to mention traditional breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs and hens. The cooperative is divided between seven different production zones, including a bakery, olive oil, as well as various meat and vegetable products. The site features a restaurant, an open library, an eco-hostel and a solar cell park. The cooperative also collaborates with several national research institutions.

Products are mostly sold through a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme but also through a webshop and in two shops on the farm and in Lisbon. The coronavirus crisis has triggered an explosion in consumer interest in buying food from smaller-scale sustainable producers across Europe. Freixo do Meio is no exception. It has experienced a surge in demand for its products and several co-producers have joined the project over the past month.

Working with trees requires both long-term vision and a lot of patience, and luckily, these are abundant at Freixo do Meio. “We invest now, and the next generation sees the real benefits,” Alfredo Sendim explained to the Guardian last summer. 

Trees are essential to the project. They are part of the local cultural heritage, of the farm’s local nutrient management, of biodiversity conservation and pest control, of the farm’s resilience, of the cooperative’s production and of its climate commitments. During the first four months of this year, the cooperative planted more than 20,000 new trees, divided amongst 15 mostly native species. The trees will capture carbon, help regenerate soils degraded by past management practices and contribute to food production.

Branching out 

Freixo do Meio is in many ways a good example of what an agroecological future could look like in Europe. A diversified agriculture guided by a comprehensive knowledge of ecological processes and with deep roots in the local culture, community and environmental conditions.

“The montado is tremendously valuable, both culturally and for the numerous ecosystem services it provides, contributing to the protection of natural resources, climate change mitigation and the conservation of biodiversity. It also provides a diversity of potential financial revenues for the farmer, improving economic resilience,” says Eduardo Santos, a conservation biologist with Portuguese EEB member Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (LPN).

Agroforestry is not only a relevant approach in the south of Europe but has a large potential across the continent as well as elsewhere in the world, including in Africa. Alley cropping (rows of trees on crop fields), productive and non-productive hedgerows, forest grazing of livestock, trees on pastures and permanent crops (orchards, berries, olive groves and vineyards) combined with livestock/crop production are some of the many possible systems receiving increasing attention from farmers, researchers and decision-makers across Europe.

Solid roots

The benefits gained on a particular agroforestry farm depend on a myriad of different factors. One meta-analysis of studies on European agroforestry found that agroforestry in general improves soil erosion control, soil fertility and biodiversity compared to both conventional agriculture and forestry.

When it comes to soil, trees function as wind breaks that reduce wind erosion. They also tend to improve the soil’s capacity to absorb and hold on to water, reducing water erosion. Less erosion means less nutrient loss which, combined with circular farm-level nutrient management, can reduce the need for external fertilisers. Roots and decomposing leaves and pruning residues increase the soil’s organic matter content which is beneficial for soil stability, soil biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

As for biodiversity, agroforestry is particularly beneficial when part of a diverse farm managed without pesticides and with plenty of ‘landscape elements’ (such as hedges and flower strips). Richer biodiversity increases the presence of natural enemies (including birds and predatory insects) which enhances biological control of pests. Finally, trees often act as physical barriers to the spread of diseases and fungi.

Additionally, agroforestry affects the water supply to the farming system. While agroforestry systems must be designed cleverly to avoid the trees competing with crops for water (and light and nutrients), it is widely recognised that trees often increases the availability of water. Both because they provide shadow which cools the local micro climate, thereby decreasing evaporation, and because they enhance the water retention capacity of soils, as described above. 

Sword and shield 

There is a large body of evidence that agroforestry can play a key part in climate mitigation and adaptation.

One study found that agroforestry can sequester between 1.5 and 15 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year through carbon sequestration below ground (roots and increased soil organic matter) and above ground (trunks, branches and leaves). Another European study found that converting the 9% of European agricultural land suffering the highest environmental pressure to agroforestry could sequester enough carbon to offset up to 43% of agricultural GHG emissions. This comes on top of the possible reduction in synthetic fertiliser use explained above, which is associated with 37% of the EU’s agricultural emissions.

It is widely acknowledged that climate change will bring more frequent and more severe extreme weather events (droughts, heavy rainfall, etc.) and changing climatic conditions, which will negatively affect agriculture, particularly in Southern Europe. Agroecological agroforestry enhances the resilience of farms as trees protect soils and crops, retain water, cool the micro-climate and break strong winds. In addition, diversifying production makes the farm business and regional food security less dependent on a few crops and thus less vulnerable to weather events affecting some crops in particular.

Shaded from view

Agroforestry has for many decades been a farming system largely associated with tropical regions. But in the past years, agroforestry in temperate climates has gained increasing attention, with an explosion in academic studies. One study found that, in 2015, 15.4 million hectares (or 8.8% of the total agricultural area) were under some form of agroforestry system in the EU.

There are numerous reasons why agroforestry is not more widely present in the EU. One Belgian study found that the main barrier to agroforestry was grounded in farmers’ cognitive belief systems about how best to farm. Another study, interviewing 183 farmers in eight European countries, found that the desire to continue family or regional agricultural tradition, and knowledge of existing successful practices in the region, were key decision factors.

Another essential question is the necessary access to specialised knowledge. Integrating trees means increasing the complexity of the farming system, as knowing which trees to plant where and when to get the desired environmental benefits while producing plenty of crops is no simple task. Combined with the fact that agroforestry is largely unknown in agricultural education and farm advisory services, it is often perceived risky for a farmer to transition from industrial monoculture to agroecological agroforestry.

Money trees

A final factor is the way eligibility for direct farming subsidies is determined under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Currently, trees on farmland above a certain (rather low) threshold render the land parcel ineligible for direct payments. This has encouraged farmers to cut down trees rather than plant them. The CAP is being reformed, however, and with agroforestry increasingly recognised as a valuable approach, these eligibility rules should change. In addition, EU countries will have the option to set up schemes to support farmers who decide to embark on the agroforestry journey. This could well be an opening for agroforestry to become more mainstream in Europe. 

“This is a crucial time for agroforestry in Europe,” observes Patrick Worms, president of the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF). This and next year, the details of the new CAP will be decided by national authorities in CAP strategic plans, he explains. “EURAF is in dialogue with member state officials to remind them of the crucial importance of agroforestry in meeting environmental, social and economic objectives in a time of climate change.”  

Eduardo Santos of LPN agrees. “It is fundamental that the post-2020 CAP adequately acknowledges the natural, economic and social value of agroforestry,” he emphasises. “It must actively promote agroforestry with high natural value through investments that respect the principle of ‘public money for public goods’ and simultaneously benefit the farmers, the quality of the products and of the food produced.” 

Through education and knowledge sharing, more European farmers will be able to switch to agroforestry, but they cannot do it alone. EU and national policymakers can provide the proverbial acorns from which these mighty oaks will grow by reforming the CAP to enable the transition towards more trees on EU farmlands. 

Inspiration for an agroecological Europe

As Europe battles COVID-19 the EEB is committed to continuing our work towards a better future where people and nature thrive together. Getting the future of our food and farming system right is a crucial part of it.

This article is the third in a series telling the story of agroecological farms throughout Europe. We hope to show what an agroecological future for Europe could look like, and why it’s a desirable path. 

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