Agroforestry is gradually gaining ground – New Harvest

Agroforestry has many forms and, if we are to believe the experts, just as many benefits. It is still far from common among farmers and gardeners, but the deliberate mixing of perennial tree crops with food production is gradually gaining ground.

ZLTO director Hendrik Hoeksema and ZLTO project expert Tijmen Hoogendijk from Vitaal Platteland also see this development. ‘It is fantastic that agroforestry is becoming a serious part of Dutch agriculture and horticulture. And rightly so,” says Hoeksema. “For far too long, this has stood in the extremely pioneering organic corner, far from the usual farm bed. Unknown makes unloved, and this is unjustified, because agroforestry can be a valuable addition to a business.’

That sounds good, but what do we really mean by agroforestry? According to Hoogendijk, who advises many entrepreneurs on the possibilities of agroforestry in their business operations, it is a form of agriculture where woody landscape elements are combined with the production of food or animal feed. ‘For example, rows of nut or fruit trees in combination with annual crops or fodder hedges in combination with grassland.’

Who knows more about this is Wilco de Zeeuw from Boer In Nature. The entrepreneur from Brabant has a joint business in Uden with cows, sheep, egg-laying hens, arable farming and fruit growing. He has planted about 11,000 trees and shrubs on the 23 hectares he uses for this purpose. And that in five years. He bets all his balls on agroforestry.

This becomes big, especially in the combination of fruit growing and arable farming

Wilco de Zeeuw from Boer In Nature

‘Produce food, capture biodiversity and carbon. Those are our three main goals with this type of farming,’ De Zeeuw begins. ‘Every year we plant new trees and shrubs. The goal is at least 50 percent vegetable production. The cattle are important for financially bridging the first years. And we use the manure for compost on new plots.’

De Zeeuw swears by grassland in combination with agroforestry. “Before I came here, it was mainly corn for eighteen years. I drilled five hundred holes and found two earthworms. The first thing I do is sow grass. This improves soil biology very quickly. Only when the soil has recovered will there be enough food for the field crops’.

According to the entrepreneur, the combination of grass, crops and trees is only logical. “Trees have a much more stable production despite the increasing heat and drought. And there is a lot going on underground. You create a mold dominance instead of bacteria. Fungi are very important for soil fertility. I cultivate the soil very superficially to leave the mushrooms alone as much as possible.’

De Zeeuw says he is still in the middle of the experimental phase. “We get soil samples taken every two meters every two months. For example, we look at how quickly the mushrooms grow from a tree edge into the ground. Wageningen University & Research is involved in this because it is an intensive and precise process.’

Lots of experiments

And then there is lots of experimentation and knowledge gathering. This is necessary because agroforestry is still in its infancy. Therefore, the Agroforestry Network Netherlands was established, in which LTO Nederland, the Dutch Enterprise Agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality and many other parties are represented.

Hoogendijk explains that the network facilitates the collection and dissemination of knowledge and the bringing together of parties interested in or involved in this. ‘In addition, I am involved in the practical Agroforestry network, which is led by LTO and Rombout’s Agroecology. This practical network supports the parties in establishing provincial agroforestry networks.’

The art is to involve the chain, believes Hoeksema. ‘To organize and secure all sales up front, so that you don’t run a risk yourself as a pioneer. Think of catering companies, wholesalers or restaurants.’

Good story

Entrepreneurs involved in agroforestry have good cards in Hoogendijk’s eyes. ‘At least you have a good history in relation to climate resilience. Trees bring up groundwater, provide shade for surrounding crops and animals and increase dew formation.’

De Zeeuw is convinced that agroforestry has a future. Even in the intensively cultivated Netherlands. ‘This is going to be very big, especially in the combination of fruit growing and arable farming. The possibilities of control disappear, so the farmers are forced to keep much more distance between the rows of trees. Then you automatically get a form of agroforestry. The coast turns the ship due to the rules in the EU. You have to do that on the worst soils’.

Crop codes count for eco-regulation

Crop codes for agroforestry have been included in the new common agricultural policy, which comes into force on 1 January. These count towards the eco scheme. As a farmer, you can receive 60 to 200 euros per hectare in compensation in this way. ‘In addition, our role is more of an advocate’, says ZLTO director Hendrik Hoeksema. “You could stack such an eco-scheme with, for example, the PlanetProof quality label. As LTO, we must deal with this properly. It’s not either or, but and and. There is still work to be done there, because we don’t have a strategy for it yet. But we will definitely participate.’

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