The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.
Episode 022 - Agroforestry: The new-old science
When agriculture meets forestry, the result can have a surprising impact on the environment, wildlife habitats, crop production, and beyond. AAFC research scientist Dr. Raju Soolanayakanahally and Kevin Boon, General Manager of the BC Cattlemen's Association, explore the roots of the long-standing practice of agroforestry, and the benefits it brings to the future of agriculture and climate change.
Kevin: My first boss when I came out here, was Judith Guichon. And she later went on to become our lieutenant governor in British Columbia. And she has a lot of environmental values. And she once said, and it sticks with me when I first came here, she said, "You know, I truly believe that some of our best environmentalists wear cowboy boots, not sandals."
Kirk: Welcome to The First Sixteen. I'm Kirk Finken.
Sara: And I'm Sara Boivin-Chabot.
Kirk: The voice you just heard was Kevin Boon. He's a producer born and raised on his family ranch in Alberta, and who has since moved out to British Columbia. And he's now the general manager for the BC Cattlemen's Association, and he's involved in a number of projects that deal with the subject of our episode today, which is agroforestry.
Sara: And we also spoke with Dr. Raju Soolanayakanahally, a research scientist from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. He's one of our experts digging into the innovative world of agroforestry.
Raju: Agroforestry is very oldest practice. Even when we look at the First Nation communities, integrating trees is part of their cultural upbringing. So for us, like, we are trying to "redefine the old wine in the new bottle." So we are trying to define agroforestry in a modern concept. But for me it's one of the oldest sciences that all of our grandparents followed.
Sara: Agroforestry is a relatively simple but very effective concept in agriculture. Actually, it's basically exactly what it sounds like: agriculture and forestry. It's all about planting trees and shrubs together alongside your crops or your grazing animals to create both economic and environmental benefits.
Kirk: And, Sara, you've actually had personal experience working in agroforestry, haven't you?
Sara: Yeah, I did my Masters in agroforestry actually. So this is one of my favourite topics, and you'll be able to tell in the interviews. I got really excited, especially talking to Kevin. It's been a while since I've had the "boots on the ground" experience, so listening to all the work he's doing was really, really fun for me.
Kirk: I learned a lot too from Raju about the science behind agroforestry. Like he was saying, the research is new. But the practice is pretty much as old as agriculture itself.
Sara: So it's a subject with really deep roots?
Kirk: Hah, yes, well-played.
Sara: Thank you. So let's start things off with Raju to get the full story of agroforestry and why we're looking at these same techniques again today. Raju, can you tell us when the history of agroforestry began in Canada?
Raju: When it comes to Canada, the history of agroforestry dates back more than a century. If I speak particularly from the prairie perspective, like Western Canada since 1901, the Department of Agriculture at that time, currently now redefined as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, we have been producing trees and distributing the free trees to farmers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Peace River region of British Columbia. On any given year, anywhere between 3 to 5 million trees were shipped to the prairie farmers for planting on their ag landscapes, whether it is for shelterbelt planting on the farm, as well as, like, planting some of the riparian and other planting designs that we find commonly. And so far through the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Program, the prairie farmers have received, in the last 116 years, more than 700 million trees that got planted on prairies. And if we measure the number of kilometers of shelterbelts planted on Saskatchewan landscape alone, it's 50,000 kilometers or more.
Kirk: You mentioned a couple of terms there that I think we should highlight — shelterbelts and riparian planting designs. Shelterbelts are when you plant a barrier of trees or shrubs to protect crops from wind and storms, right? And riparian planting involves planting next to streams or other water sources to decrease erosion and run-off. So those are both kinds of agroforestry, right?
Raju: Broadly, agroforestry can be put into five major categories. One is like shelterbelts or wind breaks. The second one is alley cropping or tree-based intercropping. Silvopastoral systems, riparian buffers, and forest farming. These are the five practices that we define them, and each one of them has their own unique way of integrating the trees with livestocks on agriculture systems.
Sara: Oh, yeah, alley cropping is when you plant rows of trees and then put your agricultural crops in the so-called "alleyways" in between. That also helps with reducing soil erosion and recycling nutrients. Silvopastoral is specifically integrating trees and forage with livestock animals — that's what Kevin's involved with. And forest farming is the cultivation of crops under a maintained forest canopy, which promotes shade and growth.
Kirk: So there's a number of ... I guess, we can call them "patterns," for planting trees, or for agroforestry. Which makes sense, since not every agricultural landscape has the same needs. Each one is different, especially in this vast country, Canada.
Sara: And especially in times where climate change is affecting agricultural conditions more and more every year.
Kirk: Yeah, that too. Raju, how does agroforestry fit into the adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change?
Raju: Well, this is very good question, Kirk, for the reason ... we recently were collaborating with Nature United and we published a paper called Natural Climate Solutions for Canada. And this has a very strong implications and mitigation potentials where we showed, whether it is agricultural landscape, wetlands, grasslands, or forested landscape, what is the carbon sequestration potentials of integrating trees? For example, the government of Canada now has a 2 billion tree-planting program to mitigate some of the Paris Agreement targets by 2030 and beyond, up to 2050. So if I just restrict myself to the agriculture-landscape-based systems, this Natural Climate Solutions came up with, like, 11 different themes under which, on agriculture landscape, we have potential to sequester more carbon. And if I narrow down further into agroforestry practices, we have tree-based intercropping or alley cropping that has potential. Then we have silvopastures that has potential in eastern Canada, mainly in Quebec and Ontario regions. Then we have, like, riparian forestations, whether this can be pan-Canadian landscape we can use wherever there are waterbodies, streams and all. And finally, prairie specific is avoided conversion of shelterbelts.
Sara: And if these Natural Climate Solutions for Canada are followed, what will we see as the results?
Raju: Overall, when we look at trees in agricultural landscape, it has potential to sequester 7.7 megatonnes of carbon equivalents per year. These are the potentials that we showed by 2030 to achieve on the Canadian landscape from coast to coast. So what it takes into account is the integrated strategy to reduce emissions and also to sequester carbon. Number one. Number two: globally, the Natural Climate Solutions provide one third of all the mitigations needed by 2050. So Canada is a partner on that. And lastly, effective implementation of these Natural Climate Solutions are grounded to respect indigenous rights, cultures and traditions as well.
Sara: Wow, that actually sounds really good. I have to admit, climate change sometimes keeps me up at night, especially as someone who, you know, is raising kids and thinking about their futures. And there's a lot of pessimistic, sort of "doom-saying" narratives out there. With scientific basis, of course. But it's easy to forget, even for me working in this department, just how many researchers, scientists, biologists, chemists, plant physiologists, they're all out there working on this problem.
Kirk: Yeah, it really is a relief to hear this. And we all want to create a better planet and a healthier environment. Especially producers. Their crops and livestock depend on it.
Sara: Exactly. But I know sometimes there are obstacles or hesitancies that can get in the way of adopting new processes like that. Raju, can I ask you a question that I think might be on the minds of some of our listeners? I know you've talked about the benefits of agroforestry for carbon sequestration, for reducing soil erosion, encouraging plant growth, all that. But how about water conservation? Does agroforestry allow for it, or would producers find that the trees they plant are competing for water resources?
Raju: We can look at it from two components. When we look at non-point source pollution of fresh waters by planting riparian trees like poplars, willows, all along the streams, you can intercept a lot of this runoff of nutrients when there are flooding events or when there are rainfall events. That is, runoff of this topsoil that is rich in nutrients and that will eventually end up in freshwater systems or into oceans, leading to eutrophication or algal bloom and increase in nitrate load in the fresh water. All these riparian trees have an immense potential to intercept and take up the water and nutrients and avoid the environmental footprint on waterbodies. When it comes to prairies, by integrating shelterbelts on agriculture landscape, definitely the trees are competing with the crop for resources, whether it is water or nutrients. But the competition is only to a certain distance. For example, if a poplar tree is, say, 15 meters tall, it can compete 15 meters from its base into the agriculture system. But the benefits of having the tree to minimize wind erosion, to minimize soil erosion, and to trap snow during winter months is much more beneficial. You may lose the benefits in the 15 meter area zone, but that positive benefits will be up to 300 meters from the planting of shelterbelt. The reason for it is, in addition to all this minimizing wind erosion, trapping snow, there are also beneficial insects and pollinators that shelter in these planted shelterbelts or natural hedgerows that help in improving the crop productivity by having higher pollination rates. So there are always pros and cons when we are planting. But when we look at the combined effect, there is always a positive net benefit to the producer.
Kirk: So the science really adds up. But how does it look at the ground level?
Sara: Is it time to branch out to Kevin Boon?
Kirk: Only if you stop with the puns.
Sara: No promises. Hi, Kevin. Can you tell us about some of the projects you've got going on as the general manager for the B.C. Cattlemen's Association?
Kevin: Yeah, so we partner ... we tend to, most of our projects, because we're a small association, tends to depend on partnering with researchers and with government and with entities that have other interests, but our interest at the same time. So we've got a couple on the go, three or four, one that we've got a little mini documentary out on called Too Close to Home that depicts some of the work we're doing with livestock in utilizing the fine fuels of forage on the ground, but doing it in a way to protect communities and forest values and some of the values out there. So, another one that we got, we are working with Thompson River University and Government where they're doing a project of strip logging. We've done some with selective logging so that the objective in these fir belts is to be able to harvest again your timber in 25 to 35 years. But in the meantime, you've opened the canopy, so you're allowing those grasses and forage and other vegetation to grow up underneath while still retaining the value of the forestry, as well as the capabilities of trapping snow so that we've got the proper runoffs. And that's a very important aspect of being able to feed the world, basically.
Sara: I love the attention to long-term planning, not just short-term results.
Kirk: And it makes sense, given the lifespan of trees. They're not, you know, on a six-month timeline.
Sara: So Kevin, those are projects you've got on the go, but you've also got one that you're wrapping up now, right?
Kevin: One of the other projects that we have actually been involved in that is just coming to a close that was utilizing the Climate Action Initiative, and we've developed a tool and worked on and it's called Forage and Water Resiliency Project is what we refer to it as, where we're forecasting out and utilizing a mapping tool to where will we need water access and water development now to be able to, in 30 years from now, know that we have access to that forage and the health for the forest industry and the different aspects there. And by developing that map, we can work with the First Nations and with the Guide Outfitters and other interests on the landscape to say, "Where in this map do you have values and where are the things that are there?" So actually building a landscape level plan and that includes forestry and the trees, because contrary to popular belief, we really do like trees and we really depend on them.
Kirk: You know, that is a great statement, and an important thing to remember. Coming at it from the outside, there can be a bit of a negativity, or at least a lack of understanding about agriculture and forestry as they relate to climate change.
Sara: Yeah, not everyone expects to see cattle in the forests, so they might assume they're having an adverse effect on the environment. Kevin, how do the cattle and the wildlife and the plant life all interact? Does it affect the regeneration of the forests?
Kevin: The wildlife and the cattle and ... They interact very well together because they utilize the same plant base. And so there you often see them in the same place at the same time. The trees are there and they're important too for the wildlife, they need the protection from the elements. And so it's important that we don't get rid of them in there and that we create that balance there. They work well together. And in fact, sometimes if you don't have enough on there, and so if we don't have enough deer or wildlife on there, we need the cattle on there to make sure that that regenerative process for the forages underneath takes place. Because it's the same as when you mow your grass. If you leave it get too long, it stops growing. And if you cut it too short, it takes a while to get it growing. But if you mow it to the right stem, you get a nice healthy lawn that keeps growing. And that's the intent, or that's the goal, is to make it so that that is at the right length and it's having the right stocking levels of the combination of both wildlife and cattle.
Sara: It really sounds like an ecosystem. Well, it is an ecosystem, but you really make it appear ... You really put a light on it, how much of an ecosystem it is and how much the forest actually benefits from the cows just as much as the cow benefits from the forage.
Kevin: Yeah, and it's a matter of ... we saw a situation actually, where some land was bought by a conservation outfit, that the first thing was, "We're removing cattle from the landscape because they have to be detrimental and to all the species at risk and the different things." And within five or six years, they went to a ranch and said, "We need your cattle on there because we're finding that it's altered what brought those animals there in the first place. And we want them back and we need the cattle." So they reintroduced cattle into it and to that benefit. And so it's understanding the entire landscape. And to do that, the groups have to come together to understand the values and to try to accommodate and build a better working relationship for everybody that has it in there. But also understanding in there that certain interests in there are paying the tenure and are managing that land at best for other purposes.
Kirk: In the spirit of that idea, of bringing everybody together, what's something you want everyone to be aware of, as a producer involved in agroforestry?
Kevin: It's a matter of how do we make the public aware of that value, because we have a public that really takes agriculture in a lot of ways for granted in the fact that they've always had food on their plate and they don't necessarily understand how or what it takes to get there. And we're not always beautiful in what we have to do or what we do, but we do it for them. And that is part of what managing that land we're doing for them as well as for us. And I think that that's a message that we don't get out enough. I am pretty passionate about what our industry does in agriculture. And are we doing it perfect? Not a chance. Are we trying? You better believe it. And are we willing to incorporate, and especially as we see the younger generation come up into it, employing new techniques and new ways and learning off the past? We get so caught up in what can we change that we forget to look at, we don't need to change everything. We just need to refine what we do.
Kirk: I think that really sums up the state of agroforestry today. It's about the innovation of the future, but equally the wisdom of the past.
Sara: Yeah, it's not a new concept by any means. Like I said, I used to do work on this years ago. But it's constantly developing, taking those ideas both new and old and finding how to refine them. All in search of creating economic, environmental, and social benefits.
Kirk: Some of these developments in agroforestry are centuries in the making. And some are just being discovered as we speak. So let's go back to Raju, because I had one last question for him. Raju, after all that we've heard from both you and Kevin about where agroforestry is at today, I want to know: where do you see this going? What's your vision for the future?
Raju: This is very good question, Kirk. And in the month of July this year, the World Agroforestry Congress is happening here in Canada, the week of the 17th. It will be held in Quebec City. More or less this conference attracts researchers, practitioners, farmers from around the world. Almost 130 to 160 countries people represent at this event. The theme of the current conference is Transition to a Viable World. And there are a lot of transitions that are occurring under this theme. And one of the transitions is Transition to a Viable Climate. So climate change is a big thing. And the more and more we look at, like, the vagaries of nature, like intensive droughts or excess heat, floodings ... So integrating the trees might help to buffer some of those negative footprints and help to sequester the carbon, and cool the global warming. So that's where agroforestry can help to mitigate some of those. And especially for developing countries, this is the most cheapest and most formidable way to approach climate mitigation potentials.
Kirk: Sara, you've got the biggest smile on your face right now.
Sara: I know! I just love it. Agroforestry is so interesting, and there's still so many things to learn about it. Like today, Kevin talked to us about that project where they had cows grazing close to houses to cut on the undergrowth so it would reduce forest fires. I was really surprised of all that unexpected secondhand benefits for the house owners of being less afraid of forest fires when they come. Mind blown.
Kirk: In a similar vein, but you know, kind of a social science-y kind of thing, Kevin was talking about the collaboration that they do, and, you know, he mentioned in our discussion with him, the work with First Nations communities, with municipalities, and with other interest groups where they're finding a common language to talk about forestry and agriculture and management of land and stuff like that. And that I think is fantastic, because these are groups that didn't historically work together or collaborate.
Sara: Raju talked a bit about it too, and talked about how it even impacted his life growing up in India, so it's universal.
Kirk: Yeah, no, I totally get it. In fact, I'm really starting to see the forest for the trees.
Sara: You've been waiting to use that one.
Kirk: Absolutely. And hey, if you're out there waiting for the next episode of The First Sixteen, make sure you subscribe to us on your favourite listening platform so you don't miss out on our next episodes.
Sara: Yeah, we've got some really interesting and exciting topics coming up.
Kirk: As exciting for you as agroforestry?
Sara: Hmm, almost. But I'm sure they'll grow on me.
Kirk: Okay, I think we better leave it at that.
Sara: Leaf it at that?
Kirk: Mm, yeah, no, it's really time for us to log off.
Sara: But until next time, you know what to do!
Kirk: Try something new. And try some better puns, jokes, yeah?
Sara: Now you're being a stick in the mud.
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