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Why Not Integrate More Trees Into Farming Systems?

Authors: Aysha Fleming, Daniel Mendham

Integrating trees into farming systems could be key to solving the land use food-fuel-conservation nexus. An example from the bottom of the planet!
 

Climate change is a wicked problem. It impacts all of us and poses a serious threat to our way of life as well as impacting and degrading many of our remaining natural systems. Agriculture is often portrayed as part of the problem.


What if it could actually be part of the solution?

The traditional approach to agriculture requires a land that is clear of trees, but as farmers already know, and our data is starting to show, trees contribute a lot more to agricultural enterprises than just wood. Systematic and targeted establishment of trees on farms is a ‘nature based solution’ that can help mitigate climate change by capturing carbon and providing renewable feedstock for industrial and domestic fuel needs, and adapt to the new environment, including extreme heat, cold and wind through providing shade and shelter.


Planting trees to combat climate change is a no brainer. Trees are beneficial to both climate mitigation and adaptation. Tree planting is often the first port of call for positive climate action. There has been a huge increase in the number of not-for-profit organizations raising money to plant trees, as well as strong political support, in Australia and globally, for tree planting campaigns. For example, both the Nature Conservancy and the Australian Government have a “plant a billion trees” program.

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But here is the thing, farmers feel like they need to make a choice for their land: “Do I produce food, do I make fuel, or do I conserve the natural values of my land?”


What would you do?


Trees provide the critical link between food production and conservation, and also contribute to meeting our need for renewable fuel sources. But it isn’t quite as simple as just planting more trees. There are some key factors that need to be considered to achieve successful outcomes.


Targeting appropriate species in the appropriate location on-farm is critical for meeting the food-fuel-conservation nexus. It is more important for climate resilience outcomes and for conservation that the trees grow well (and so sequester more carbon) and live long to keep providing the types of benefits that they are needed for. It is the longer-term planning around tree planting that is sometimes lacking in tree planting initiatives. When trees are well grown, they provide a long list of positive outcomes (sometimes called co-benefits) like improved amenity, increased property price, reduced soil erosion and salinity, and increased habitat, food and corridors for native wildlife, to name just a few! This means that if done well, tree planting can have a lot of unexpected positive outcomes, but the longer-term plan must be prioritized.


When planting trees on farms, considering farmers’ objectives is important to enabling the long term maintenance of trees. Planting trees in farms can provide a plethora of different benefits to production – through supporting beneficial insects for pollination or pest predation, or shelter from wind and reduced water loss – to farm operations – through boundary marking and spray screening – as well as timber to harvest and use on farm or sell.

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Matching the tree planting to what the farmer is most looking to achieve on their farm increases the chance that the farmer will actively look after the trees.


Successful examples of tree planting for multiple beneficial outcomes from Tasmania include a recent project at Cressy in Tasmania where the effects of shelter belts were assessed and found to provide up to 30% more pasture production, as well as shelter for ewes and lambs after birth. This type of research helps provide evidence for farmers to work in parallel with conservation groups to plant trees for threatened wildlife. The bandicoots, for example, are making a noticeable comeback after tree planting initiatives in the Midlands in Tasmania (Northern Midlands farmer Julian von Bibra replants trees for project | The Examiner | Launceston, TAS). A wide range of other examples of economic, social and environmental benefits of trees can be found at Tree Alliance.

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While it is tempting to think of tree planting as something that can be ‘set and forget’, with just a little bit more planning and dedication, the real benefits of trees really start to scale out to benefit the whole ecosystem and region, contributing to cleaner air and water quality, soil structure and biodiversity. If the scale of these benefits are taken into account more at the planning stage, there is potential for a longer-term view of trees on farms to achieve so much. The first step is a broader awareness and tailoring programs towards achieving the different co-benefits that trees can provide.


There is still substantial opportunity to recognize farmers’ efforts at environmental stewardship, carbon sequestration, land improvement and wildlife protection both financially and socially (by the local community or consumers). Changes to government and other sector incentives can help to facilitate longer-term tree management and tree planting. So rather than funding planting schemes for fencing and labor, incentives could be tailored to other longer-term outcomes or metrics such as environmental conditions and tree survival, or supporting the markets for public good services such as carbon, water management and biofuel production to reflect the social cost of the non-renewable alternatives.
 
Developing markets and infrastructure (e.g. processing and transport) as well as training and mentoring programs are other areas where government and other sectors can pull levers to increase adoption of trees on farms. This requires collaboration and a ‘big picture view’ for how regions can operate holistically to achieve multiple outcomes for health, job creation, and community, and so planning and incentives to work collaboratively across sectors of industry, and not for profit, should be developed.
 
Once the full range of benefits are recognized by farmers and appropriately acknowledged by society, there will be capacity for trees to become an invaluable part of farming enterprises and to contribute to solving the food-fuel-conservation land use nexus, such that areas of trees will scale up naturally because it is in farmers own best interest to do so, and society can benefit from the attendant public good.

How to cite this page:

Fleming, A., Mendham, D. (2021). Why Not Integrate More Trees Into Farming Systems?. [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/farming-system-trees. https://doi.org/10.54823/1lxxiiub