Farm Transitions: Valuing Sustainable Practices—Agroforestry

Agroforestry means growing woody species — trees and shrubs — together with crops, livestock, or both in a farming system. The woody plants can help maintain air, water and soil quality; diversify income sources; conserve energy (see Energy Savings from Windbreaks text box); improve wildlife habitats; and improve total productivity of the farm.

The National Agroforestry Laboratory calls agroforestry plantings “working trees” and defines them as “The right trees planted in the right places for the right reasons. (1)” Some types of agroforestry systems (1,2) :

  • Silvopasture: This is a system of growing trees for various purposes, and managing the space between the tree trunks for grazing by livestock. One example is fruit or nut orchards where cattle or sheep graze between the trees. It also applies to woodlots or other types of forests where cattle graze.

  • Alley cropping: An agricultural crop that produces annual income is grown in the alleys between widely spaced rows of trees, while the trees themselves are an investment that will produce revenue over the long term. The trees might be Christmas trees or nut trees or fruit trees; or trees grown to eventually produce lumber or firewood.

  • Windbreaks: Planting rows of trees and shrubs strategically to block wind is an agroforestry strategy that can be applied in several useful places on the farm. Along roadways, they act as living snow fences to reduce drifting soil or snow. Around the farm buildings they provide energy savings and around livestock feeding areas they reduce environmental stress on livestock by blocking cold winds in winter and providing shade in summer. Planted in crop fields, windbreaks reduce soil erosion due to wind and protect young crops from wind damage. The trees and shrubs used for windbreaks can include fruit or nut trees or trees with high-value lumber, which generate income for the farm as well as provide the benefits of a windbreak. (See Yield Gain/Loss from Windbreak text box)

  • Buffer strips, filter strips, riparian buffers: These types of plantings are given different names depending on where they are placed on the landscape and their specific intention. As a broad group, these types of agroforestry practices are used to achieve soil and water conservation goals. They may not produce a crop that can be harvested or sold, but they have a benefit to the farm system as a whole. Buffer strips and filter strips, or “block” plantings that are wider than strips, can be used between crop fields or livestock areas and surface waters like streams, rivers and lakes to reduce the soil and chemical runoff that reaches the water.

  • Forest farming: Tree plantings are managed for lumber or other wood products, and the ground between the trees is planted to a harvestable crop such as ginseng. This is different from alley cropping because the trees are not in rows with annual crops between the rows. The appearance of the area is like a forest and the crops grown are specialty crops that grow in woodlands.

  • Agroforestry also includes plantings of woody species that are intended to be the sole crop from those planted acres. Hybrid poplar and hybrid willow plantings, for example, are done with the intent of letting the trees grow for one to several decades, and then harvesting them for industrial uses like biofuel or paper production. These types of plantings are often called “plantations.”

Considerations for Landowners

Agroforestry practices can be very beneficial to the farm as a whole and to the environment, but the up-front costs to establish agroforestry plantings can be high and they do take some land away from row-crop or livestock production. If you want to see agroforestry practices happen on your land in the future, here are some things to consider:

  • Correct placement of these practices on the landscape is important to achieve maximum benefits. You may be able to put them on acres that are not the most productive for row crops. Either you or the future farm operator needs to do some research and planning to figure out where to plant the trees, and you may want to enlist help from your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. Find your local office:

  • The NRCS encourages agroforestry and has cost-sharing available for establishment and upkeep of many of the practices (2). This is another good reason to work with your local NRCS office.

  • Establishment cost-sharing and annual payments may be available from agencies other than NRCS for some agroforestry practices. For instance, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MN-DOT) pays for living snow fence establishment along some roadways affected by blowing snow (3).

  • The new farmer on your land can put “sweat equity” into getting these practices established and then maintaining them. Consider valuing that effort as part of the purchase price of the land or finding another way to credit it in a long-term lease.

  • Establishment is a major effort that involves site preparation; planting and installation of a weed barrier; and then about three years of fairly intensive mowing, watering, spot spraying, and replanting of dead trees (3; see Establishment & Maintenance Costs for a Living Snow Fence text box).

  • Since agroforestry practices do remove land from annual crop production, that loss of potential cash-crop income needs to be figured into the overall lease or sale price of the land. The benefits of the agroforestry practices go to the farm operator, the landowner, and to society, so your plan for determining the sale or lease price should similarly divide the cost of the practice. As mentioned above, cost-sharing from the NRCS can help with establishment and upkeep costs.

Some agroforestry practices have the potential to generate income for several years to several decades, and there should be a plan for who will profit from that in the future. If establishment costs and risks and upkeep costs are shared between landowner and farm operator, then the income rewards should also be shared.

Use the Agroforestry Cost/Benefit Table to estimate the value of agroforestry practices on your farm.


(1) Working Trees. USDA National Agroforestry Center and United States Forest Service. (accessed 8/12/13).

(2) Sustaining Agroforestry Systems for Farms and Ranches. USDANatural Resources Conservation Service. (accessed 8/12/13).

(3) Economic and Environmental Costs and Benefits of Living Snow Fences: Safety, Mobility, and Transportation Authority Benefits, Farmer Costs, and Carbon Impacts. February 2012. Gary Wyatt, University of Minnesota Extension; Minnesota Department of Transportation Research Services. (accessed 8/12/13).

(4) What does it take to earn a living on the farm?April, 2013. Gary Hachfeld, University of Minnesota Extension. (accessed 8/06/13)

(5) Energy and Economic Returns by Crop Rotation. September 2012. Ann M. Johanns, Craig Chase, and Matt Liebmann. Iowa State University Extension. (accessed 8/12/13).

(6) Economic Budgeting for Agroforestry Practices. 2012. Larry Godsey. Center for Agroforestry, University of Missouri. (accessed 8/12/13).

(7) Hazelnut Production Potential in the Upper Midwest: A Report on Hybrid Hazelnut Yields. 2011. Jason Fischbach, Lois Braun, Mike Demchik, and Don Wyse. University of Wisconsin Extension. (accessed 8/12/13).

(8) Fruit and Tree Nut Yearbook. 2011. USDA Economic Research Service. Table E-10: Hazelnuts: Production, Price, Value, U.S. 80-to date. (accessed 8/12/13).

(9) Setting a Yield Goal for Hazelnut Breeding in the Upper Midwest. 2012. Jason Fischbach and Lois Braun. University of Wisconsin Extension. (accessed 8/12/13).

Further Resources:

Agroforestry: An Overview. Appropriate Technology Transfor for Rural Areas (ATTRA)
Integrating trees and shrubs with other enterprises on a farm can create additional sources of income, spread farm labor throughout the year, and increase the productivity of those other enterprises — all while protecting soil, water, and wildlife. This publication presents an overview of common agroforestry practices, evaluating and planning considerations, marketing opportunities, several case studies, and an extensive list of further resources.

Mid-American Agroforestry Working Group (MAAWG)
The purpose of the Mid-American Agroforestry Working Group (MAAWG) is to provide an organization for advancing the science, practice, and adoption of agroforestry by landowners and natural resource managers in the Midwest region of the U.S.

Profitable Farms and Woodlands: USDA National Agroforestry Center and Tennessee State University, 2012.
Manual (108 pages) to help landowners develop best management technologies in managing agroforestry projects.

Tree as a Crop: Rodale Center
A major project of this well-known research center, “Tree as a Crop” offers a way to put trees to work to improve ecosystems while helping to create a healthy prosperity for farmers and small forest landowners. “Tree as a Crop” shows farmers and other landowners how to maximize the potential of trees to improve biodiversity on forested and agricultural land, to capture carbon and to provide a diversified income stream for landowners.