I’m often perplexed as to why agroforestry has such a low profile among the general public.
Many of today’s important issues revolve around society finding a balance between conservation and production, or growing economic opportunities and providing ecological services. And on all these fronts, and for many other issues, agroforestry systems offer practical solutions that are readily adaptable and adoptable.
Many have written at length on the virtues of agroforestry for meeting complex and integrated economic, land use and environmental challenges head-on. Yet a quick topic search of news sites confirms that agroforestry concepts and success stories get very little mainstream attention. Which leads me to question: does agroforestry suffer from an image problem, a lack of profile or maybe a little or a lot of both?
Agroforestry is not novel or just ‘getting its legs.’ The techniques are rooted in traditional practices, tried and tested for millennia around the globe. Even as an academic endeavor it cannot really be considered all that new anymore. The terminology and modern classification of the basic systems are now 3 to 4 decades old. The term “agroforestry” is firmly entrenched at the institutional level in government agencies and academic institutions.
Agroforestry has not however, permeated the collective conscience of the masses to a large degree. And among G7 nations, if someone has heard of agroforestry, they are more likely to associate it with an international development tool, not a sustainable business opportunity for home.
Agroforestry enterprises exist and prosper in the developed and developing world. But how does one get the message out that these are viable solutions to simultaneously address social, economic and conservation concerns? How can agroforestry producers get more recognition, and hopefully additional sales, when their customer base and regulators are largely ignorant of what agroforestry entails? Is branding ‘agroforestry’ as a lean, green business and conservation machine the solution?
In our world of information overload, web 2.0-social-media-hyper-overdrive, having a concise, readily recognized identity that positively reflects what you represent is, at a minimum, a necessary evil. Other brands, issues, and ideas are flooding out, minute by minute, in every direction. Standing still and hoping the world discovers your virtues is the equivalent of buying a lottery ticket as the foundation for your retirement planning.
But if branding is part of the solution to elevating the profile of agroforestry, and through that contributing to greater adoption and integration into mainstream agriculture and forestry, several challenges need to be overcome.
First, agroforestry’s primary strength as a diverse group of integrated land use systems is also a major roadblock to getting current and potential practitioners to work together and rally around a common identity. Having worked with agroforestry support programs, I have experienced how difficult it can be to keep a diverse coalition focused and functioning to support general sector development. At times, group meetings can feel like the proverbial herding of cats. It takes a concerted effort to consistently keep a prairie oilseed farmer using agroforestry primarily to conserve soil on the same page as a woodlot forester in the temperate rainforest using agroforestry techniques to integrate huckleberry production with their timber for economic diversification. So when it comes to branding there needs to be a careful balance between creating a simple, easy to understand message for the masses, that is also inclusive of the diversity and complexity of social and ecological underpinnings to agroforestry.
Second, is the challenge of finding a common understanding of what agroforestry entails. This is rooted in overcoming historic institutional and professional biases. Like it or lump it, globally agroforestry has moved forward primarily from government and academic programs, not producer or consumer groups. This lack of grassroot control over agroforestry development has been chipped away at from some excellent examples of participatory research and development, but for the most part agroforestry programs, are driven by government agencies and universities. And not enough of these programs view agroforestry as integrated systems in both form and function. And that is reinforced by the fact that many agroforestry support programs are established as an offshoot to work done in forestry, agriculture, economics, conservation, etc. As a consequence, agroforestry is used loosely to include true integrated production systems, but also synonymously with any non-timber forest production, with farm forestry or any use of trees on agricultural land, and short-rotation, intensive culture plantation forestry. With so many groups using agroforestry to define disparate activities it will be difficult to impossible to maintain a clear brand message.
And thirdly, flowing from the same root challenges articulated above, for most regional and national jurisdictions, agroforestry lacks central ‘champions’ or leadership. Without these foci to articulate the advantages and to develop and shepherd ‘the brand’, much of what is voiced in support of agroforestry does not contribute to solidifying a positive reputation, it only adds to the background noise of the many, many other issues vying for public attention. And as any billionaire, bad comb-over, real-estate developer will tell you, lose control of your brand and you will not likely get it back. For me, it logically follows that if you are going to brand production systems or any socio-economic activity, those efforts need to be coupled with certification standards and certifying bodies, much as the organic agriculture movement has done.