What is Agroforestry? 

As conversations around agricultural transition turn to diversification, biodiversity, and resilience to climate change, the essential role of trees in the farmed landscape becomes all the more apparent.

Accordingly, terms like “forest farming”, “silvopasture” and “agroforestry” are growing in popularity. But what do we mean by agroforestry? What are its origins, and why is it important for farming with biodiversity, climate and business resilience in mind? Here, we unpack all these questions, and discuss why agroforestry might be common in farms of the future…

Agroforestry – an overview

Agroforestry is not a universal template – it can come in many forms, from the planting arrangement, the tree species used, and the system it is integrated into. Essentially, agroforestry refers to the combination of trees and shrubs and agriculture. As a land management approach, it encourages symbiosis – ensuring that the combinations of trees and crops (‘silvoarable’) or trees and livestock (‘silvopasture’) are mutually beneficial where possible. Though the species and layout vary depending on context – climate, soil, landscape, and desired outcomes – most agroforestry systems are planned to combine social, ecological and economic benefits to boost resilience and combine sustainability with productivity.

A brief history

Agroforestry is an ancient practice – though it has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, it is by no means a modern phenomenon. Practiced by indigenous populations the world over for millennia, the traditional combination of agriculture with trees has been tried and tested, standing the test of time. Whilst its origins are often explained through the agricultural practice of ancient South American civilisations, such as the Incas and the Mayans, forms of agroforestry were also widely practiced in Europe before the implementation of simplified, large-scale farming methods focused on intensive production. In the UK, this was often referred to as ‘wood pasture’, a style of land management receiving growing attention due to its benefits for soil health, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

Pig in an orchard

Key terms explained:

Agroforestry is a broad practice – coming in many shapes, sizes and varieties. However, there are some key terms which explain important differences between these approaches.

  • “Alley cropping”: Also known as “silvo-arable” farming. It consists of growing crops between rows of trees or shrubs, getting multiple outputs from the same area of land. This is one of the most popular forms of agroforestry.
  • “Silvopasture”: Another practice which is growing in popularity, silvo-pastoral farming refers to integrating trees with pasture for livestock grazing. This has the benefit of providing another crop (nuts and fruit are often popular choices) but also shelter from the elements for animals that would otherwise be exposed.
  • “Forest farming”: This refers to cultivating crops (often speciality crops such as mushrooms or medicinal plants) under a forest canopy, gaining all the benefits of growing in a woodland environment.
  • “Shelterbelts”: Another type of agroforestry, and popular with our friends at FarmED – this refers to rows of trees planted to protect crops and livestock from wind, as well as providing great habitat and carbon sequestration.
Field of young wheat plants. There are whips planted along the right and left edges, protected by guards.
Shelterbelts planted at Knepp

The benefits of agroforestry 

As shown, agroforestry brings numerous social, economic and ecological benefits. For one, it can enhance community resilience and food security whilst providing additional income streams for farmers. This makes that income more diverse, and therefore more resilient to shocks. In some cases, agroforestry can reduce input costs, increasing land productivity. All of this, as well as improvements to soil health, biodiversity uplift, reduced soil erosion, carbon sequestration, and enhanced water quality.

As with elsewhere, agroforestry in the UK can play a key role in tackling land management challenges. Policy and government schemes are increasingly recognising its importance, and encouraging its uptake as shown in the new ELMs schemes (especially the Sustainable Farming Incentive). Clearly, agroforestry has an important role to play in the future of the farmed landscape and is an approach that is here to stay.


Growing up on a regenerative small holding, the relationship between food systems and the natural world has long been an interest of mine. Focusing on land-use tensions and geo-politics at Oxford, and now an MSc in Sustainable Development with Exeter, my interests lie in how we can leverage policy and natural capital principles to encourage not only regenerative land management and food systems alongside investment in nature recovery, but ultimately how we can ensure social equity and systems resilience. I’m drawn to the social elements of nature recovery and climate change adaptation, in particular the intersection of geopolitics, biodiversity economics and justice.
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