Collaborative projects are scaling agroforestry
by Maya Glicksman, senior policy advisor
Last week, USDA celebrated the one year anniversary of the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities program’s selection of 141 climate-smart projects to advance agriculture’s role in mitigating climate change. Demand for these grants proved overwhelming, transforming the initial $1 billion investment into a whopping $3.1 billion program and establishing unprecedented support for working lands as climate solutions. Notably, the awards included historic targeted support for practices that integrate trees and shrubs into agriculture — a suite of practices known as agroforestry.
Catalyzing support for agroforestry
Seven projects selected by USDA focus specifically on enabling agroforestry at scale, from practice establishment to market development. These projects span 38 states and Puerto Rico, with grant funding totaling over $150 million. Project leads represent a diverse range of organizations, such as 1890 land grant universities like Tuskegee University, regional organizations like Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, and national NGOs like The Nature Conservancy.
These projects will take a variety of approaches to address key challenges in bringing agroforestry to scale including providing technical assistance to producers, supporting scientific research, and developing strong regional supply chains. Through investments in the education, research, and infrastructure needed to scale agroforestry, USDA is catalyzing broader support and facilitating agroforestry’s expansion. These projects could shape the future of agroforestry in the US and lend valuable insights into how these practices can enrich, fortify, and ultimately transform our agricultural system.
Agroforestry projects in action
We spoke with two organizations that received funding on how they plan to make agroforestry more accessible to producers. This work is just the beginning, and these projects underscore the need for ongoing investments to support working lands as a climate solution.
Pasa Sustainable Agriculture
Today, not all farmers have equal access to information about agroforestry, and Pasa Sustainable Agriculture wants to change that. The group plans to establish opportunities for small, mid-sized, and historically underserved farmers to access agroforestry education, technical assistance, and marketing opportunities. The biggest project outcome, according to Pasa’s Climate-Smart Program director, Andrew Currie, is for “farmers who have not historically had access to these resources [to] gain access to these resources.”
In partnership with 20 organizations and spanning 14 northeastern and mid-atlantic states, Pasa’s project arose, in part, from farmer surveys that indicated strong interest in agroforestry, but few accessible resources. “We know that our farmers want to be planting trees on their farms, but maybe don’t have the capital to do that,” says Currie. The project also aims to better understand the environmental impacts of agroforestry, collecting regional data and carbon-specific metrics to bolster technical assistance for farmers. By prioritizing a holistic understanding of each farm, Pasa hopes to bring together tailored resources to best serve farmers.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC)
The highest-funded project, at $64 million, is led by TNC and regional partners in 29 states across the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. The project aims to build foundational regional support for producers interested in implementing agroforestry practices through a new network of specialized Technical Service Providers (TSPs). In the upper midwest, the Savanna Institute will act as a regional support hub, connecting producers with TSPs that best fit their needs — at no cost. According to Barbara Decré, the Savanna Institute’s agroforestry programs manager, funding this technical assistance will enable producers to access specialized services like site visits, specific tree recommendations, and connections with local nurseries that can help get agroforestry practices off the ground but are usually prohibitively expensive.
TNC’s project will also provide direct payments to producers to establish agroforestry practices and develop markets for agroforestry crops, constructing pillars of support for a burgeoning agroforestry industry at each stage of the process. “Agroforestry can feel like a really risky thing to do, when, in looking at the long view, you’re actually setting yourself up to be resilient, build markets, build diversity, and protect your land,” Decré says. This project will provide the baseline support that interested producers need to get started incorporating trees and shrubs into their operations and, in doing so, invest in their future.
Continued policy support is needed
USDA investment in these projects signals the potential and value of agroforestry as a climate solution to store carbon, build environmental resilience, and boost producers’ bottom lines. This foundational support is timely as policymakers negotiate both annual appropriations and the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill. With agroforestry getting some attention amidst these two powerful policy mechanisms, we have a critical moment of opportunity to drive necessary policy improvements and secure further federal support for these practices. Carbon180 has some ideas for how to embed agroforestry support across both appropriations and the upcoming Farm Bill. Here’s a rundown of our recommendations:
The National Agroforestry Center (NAC) is the only government agency dedicated to the advancement of agroforestry through on-the-ground research, technical assistance delivery, and demonstration projects across US landscapes and operations. However, NAC capacity has been constrained due to insufficient funding. In order to ensure NAC can deliver the technical assistance and information needed to scale agroforestry adoption in the US, Congress should:
- Provide at least $3 million for NAC in fiscal year 2024 for salaries and capacity to meet increasing producer demand for specialized, region-specific technical assistance. We applaud the House Appropriations Committee for including $2 million for NAC and the Senate Appropriations Committee for recognizing the need to keep NAC adequately staffed in their drafts of the bill. (Find our community support letter for this request here.)
The 2023 Farm Bill
Within the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) already supports some agroforestry practices, but with two key restrictive barriers: it only supporting a small subset of agroforestry practices and prohibits harvesting and grazing within these systems (except in emergencies like severe drought). Agroforestry can be a win-win for natural resource conservation and producer bottom lines if Congress makes targeted adjustments to CRP to address these barriers. Specifically, Congress should establish a new CRP Agroforestry Initiative to support agroforestry adoption on marginal lands through the program’s Continuous Signup. Under this new initiative, Congress should:
- Allow non-emergency harvesting and grazing on agroforested acres, so long as conservation outcomes are maintained. This includes harvesting of high value agroforestry products like fruit and nuts to offset high upfront investments in trees, and excludes harvesting of wood products. In the event that conservation benefits are not maintained, payment rates would be reduced commensurate with conservation outcomes lost.
- Ensure eligibility for all widely recognized agroforestry practices and dedicate at least 1 million acres to their adoption under the initiative. Eligible practices should include alley cropping, forest farming, riparian buffers, windbreaks, shelterbelts, living snow fences, silvopasture, and other productive perennial agroforestry systems.
We’re excited for this newfound momentum behind agroforestry and look forward to seeing these practices elevated in the upcoming Farm Bill and in appropriations text.
Edited by Ana Little-Saña