Moving North American Agroforestry Past ‘Next Big Thing’ Status

Moving North American Agroforestry Past ‘Next Big Thing’ Status

During her plenary address to the 12th North American Agroforestry Conference, at the University of Georgia earlier this month, Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), gave a high-level endorsement for agroforestry as a new and emerging land use tool to solve a host of production and conservation challenges. Jamshed Merchant, Assistant Deputy Minister at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, also in attendance at the conference, focused his talk on international cooperation between the US and Canada on temperate agroforestry research and development. Paired with the release of the USDA’s Agroforestry Strategic Framework at the Conference, Deputy Secretary Merrigan’s strong vocal support for agroforestry could lead to a better profile and resources for agroforestry in the US if her words translate into action. Although, more than one USDA employee lamented to me that their agroforestry programs were on the chopping block in the current round of budget trimming in the US.

As a proponent for agroforestry though, I was genuinely happy for my US colleagues and this recognition from the top they received. If history is a good teacher, a higher profile for agroforestry in the US should also translate into better press in Canada, because Canadian’s generally need affirmation from the outside before they feel confident with what they are doing at home.

But as someone who has been attending (albeit intermittently) these biannual North American Agroforestry conferences for nearly two decades, the characterization of agroforestry as a nascent solution for North American agriculture brings on an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu. It seems to me that politicians, bureaucrats and program leaders, on both sides of the 49th parallel have been drawing similar conclusions about agroforestry’s prospects at every one of these events I’ve attended (and countless other regional, national and international meetings). And not to be overly hypocritical, I too have been guilty at times of swaddling agroforestry in the emerging sectors ‘blanket’, out of the hope that it would attract greater attention from traditional forest and agricultural practitioners.

And this is fundamentally wrong because agroforestry is not new. Or as I often jest, agroforestry is the oldest new idea on the planet. As a traditional and indigenous land use, it has been used in tropical and temperate regions around the globe for millennia. As a conservation-production tool in temperate agriculture (think shelterbelts) it is over a century old. And as an academic subject and organized endeavor under the “agroforestry” banner, it is now decades old. No one, save for those operating on a geologic time scale, could accurately describe agroforestry as new. Perhaps it is ignored, under-utilized, under-recognized and poorly supported and resourced, but it is not new.

Continually characterizing agroforestry as novel seems like politico-speak for “we’ve ignored this issue along time and so we’re going to pretend we just discovered it.”

But for widespread recognition and adoption to occur, agroforestry proponents do not need to put yet another fresh coat of paint on the “Next Big Thing” banner. It’s time to move past talk and more substantively into action. Supportive policies, concrete research, development, and extension efforts are all needed. But more than anything, we need leaders – political, academic and industry – who will understand and vocalize agroforestry as a land use for the NOW and not just the future.

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