In the gold brocade and fine needlework of the 14th century Queen Mary’s psalter, peasants harvest acorns to feed swine. Pre-Columbian Maya traded feathers for cacao carrying small seedlings from South America possibly by canoe then cultivating them in a shrub layer in complex forest farms under the protective shade of leguminous nurse trees. Thousands of years before European settlers arrived in North America, native Americans selected fruit- and nut-producing plants for the characteristics they contributed to a larger, integrated system – trees, sometimes animals, soil, and people.
Agroforestry – cultivating agricultural crops – both plant and animals – in intimate association with forests is an ancient practice, and it carries on today in novel scraps and pockets: the dehesa systems in Spain raise cork and holm oaks on shallow, rocky soils grazing cows, goats, and pigs, harvesting honey, mushrooms, cork and serving as last-vestige wildlife habitat for endangered eagles, vultures, and lynx. The Yoruba of western Nigeria cultivate, and have for generations, homegardens – hard-won from dense forest – pumpkins, yams, and beans, leaving some uncut trees whose leaf litter and roots will hold soil and contribute to its fertility.
Fruit and nut orchards nurture mushrooms in Poland and the Black Forest, and the hedgerows of UK – many ancient, wildly diverse – are at once fencing, forage, shelter, and history – the meshing, in berries and birds, of people and landscape.
Scraps and vestiges of hedgerows abound, this ancient practice that harvests limited quantities of many crops, gruelingly labor intensive, collapsed in developed countries as post-war mechanization required wide-open fields eliminated trees, irrigation removed the need for shade, policy shifts supporting monoculture commodity production that removed trees to maximize subsidized crops. People – who themselves, as harvesters, arrangers, protectors, groomers, and fertilizers of these multi-layered systems – moved away from countryside to cities.
But 20 years later, in the mid-1970s, a reawakening of scientific interest in intercropping and multicropping farming systems coincided with a disturbing awareness of tropical deforestation and global ecological degradation, the energy crisis and accompanying ballooning fertilizer prices spread interest beyond academia and the World Bank began to reexamine priorities establishing cropping systems research centers. Not long after, forester John Bene of Canada’s International Development Research Centre coined the term ‘agroforestry’ and called for global recognition of the key role trees play on farms.
Forty years on, repairing the agriculture and forestry dichotomy in temperate agricultural systems, may find its entre in forested riparian buffers.
Maybe things are taking root.