Agroforestry and Permaculture Explained

In my professional life I have delivered many presentations, workshops and short courses on the basics of agroforestry over the years. I’ve repeated the concepts of agroforestry so many times, I can almost slip into a semi-conscience state and reiterate the definitions like a mantra. Common questions that I will field are: “how is this different from agriculture or forestry?”, and occasionally, I will be queried if agroforestry is the same as permaculture. While these two systems are similar in some respects and even encompass common land use practices, they are distinct. I hope with this posting to clarify how the two relate to each other.

First let’s visit the definitions for agroforestry and permaculture.

Agroforestry Defined

Some have complained to me that there is no universal definition of agroforestry adding to the confusion of the uninitiated. Indeed, a short search of the internet or agroforestry literature will generate scores of different wordings. But my counter to this complaint is that there is no single universal definition for agriculture or forestry, nor likely for any complex endeavor. And despite the academic world’s predilection for the incessant working and reworking of definitions, there is a consistent conceptual thread woven through the definitions.

In my home jurisdiction of British Columbia, the Ministry of Agriculture defines agroforestry as a “land use system that involves the deliberate retention, introduction or mixing of trees or other plants into crop and animal production systems in order to increase profitability, sustainability, protection of the environment and social acceptance. Agroforestry is:

  • Intentional – designed and managed for a planned result
  • Intensive – all components are intensively managed
  • Integrated – a blend of agriculture, forestry and environmental science
  • Interactive – designed to minimize negative and maximize positive interactions between trees, other crops and livestock.”

This definition is consistent with, and derived from, other North American organizations’ including the Association for Temperate Agroforestry (AFTA) and the USDA’s National Agroforestry Centre (NAC).

AFTA defines agroforestry as “an intensive land management system that optimizes the benefits from the biological interactions created when trees and/or shrubs are deliberately combined with crops and/or livestock.” And the USDA NAC states “agroforestry intentionally combines agriculture and forestry to create integrated and sustainable land-use systems.

Agroforestry takes advantage of the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock.” There are many other published definitions that are minor variations on these themes. All involve the deliberate integration of agriculture and forestry (silviculture) to optimize social, economic or environmental benefits that result from managing the interactions.

Global Definitions Include Time

On the global stage the only overt difference from these temperate examples is the inclusion of the concept of integrating practices in time in addition to sharing the same physical space. So this includes various traditional swidden agricultural practices. The World Agroforestry Centre defines agroforestry as “land use systems and practices in which woody perennials are deliberately integrated with crops and/or animals on the same land management unit. The integration can be either in a spatial mixture or in a temporal sequence. There are normally both ecological and economic interactions between woody and non-woody components in agroforestry”. And the from the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) we get “a technique where tree and crops are grown together so as to optimize the productivity in a given space and time.”

Permiculture Defined

For permaculture there is also a range of definitions available. However, because there are fewer institutional players involved in permaculture research and education, there are fewer published variations. Personally, I like the succinct version on Wikipedia. And who am I to differ with the collective wisdom of everyone with typing skills and internet access: “an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies.”

Origins of Agroforestry and Permiculture

Agroforestry as a defined field of endeavor is relatively new, emerging from international development efforts and literature in the early 1970s. It entered the formal lexicon in the mid 1970s (e.g. Webster’s dictionary added an entry for agroforestry in 1977). But the practice of agroforestry is ancient and likely spans the entire history of human food and fibre cultivation. Many traditional cultures have developed integrated practices for blending livestock, perennial crops, annual crops and trees together in multi-storied, mixed cropping systems. Some of these were displaced by modern farming and forestry, but many which persist to this day.

Permaculture has a more focused origin from the mindspace of Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in their 1978 publication “Permaculture One“. Their original concept of permaculture encompassed agroecological systems to achieve “permanent agriculture”. But it has evolved over time and it now generally accepted to denote design and practices for “permanent culture” as a means to achieve sustainability.

Permaculture practitioners attempt to replicate growth patterns observed in “nature” through production systems of food plant configurations that resemble their “wild” origins. ‘Design permaculture’ moves beyond food systems. It uses the connections and underlying ecological principles observed in naturally functioning ecosystems as a basis for planning all manner of human systems (e.g. habitation, waste recovery and recycling, transportation, etc.) .

Agroforestry and Permaculture Compared

The two fields of endeavor are most certainly complementary. The modern interpretation on permaculture is more broadly applied to all human activities, whereas agroforestry is confined within the realms of natural resource management. Both rely heavily on incorporating woody perennial plants into their systems. All agroforestry practices involve the production of trees and/or shrubs, and it is common, but not a necessary component of permaculture. For example, permaculture has embraced the concept of the forest garden (a form of ‘forest farming’ in the agroforestry realm). But you can have a permaculture food system without a tree/shrub component, as long as it mimics some other natural plant community or process.

Permaculture limits it’s design to arrangements that occur in natural systems. Agroforestry includes some practices that are completely a human construct but that still generate valuable ecosystem services. For example, the ‘linear forests’ created through narrow shelterbelts, living fences or fenceline plantings of trees and shrubs do not occur in nature, but they are a pragmatic approach for increasing the protective benefits from wind erosion, enhancing structural and species diversity, carbon sequestration and water and nutrient cycling in agricultural landscapes.

Social Dimensions

There is also a marked difference in the social dimensions of agroforestry and permaculture. Agroforestry has permeated the global lexicon to greater extent, though not necessarily in North America. And it is also embedded institutionally in government and academic programs and institute names all over the world. Search any large library catalog (e.g. US Library of Congress) and you will find many more academic papers and books tagged to ‘agroforestry’ than ‘permaculture’.

Permaculture institutes are also found around the world (in at least 100 countries). But they remain more of a ‘grassroots’ organization. This is likely a product of it’s ‘multilevel marketing’ approach to disseminating information. Indeed, many of the original students of the permaculture ‘Design Course’ offered by Mollison went on to establish regional institutes for teaching the techniques they had learned. But it didn’t necessarily cross over into university curriculum or government support programs. Permaculture is also more demanding of it’s practioners as a holistic philosophical approach to agriculture and society. It is a more all-encompassing lifestyle approach than agroforestry, which as a group of activities, can be applied as a means to diversify or complement any existing forest or agricultural system without replacing them.

To summarize, both systems have foundations in applied ecology to achieve social and environmental goals, and even share common practices. They differ however, in scope, depth of the philosophical approach and applications. For me, when comparing agroforestry and permaculture, it is very much like a favourite phrase of friends in Kanchanaburi, “same same, but different.

‘Tragedy of the Commons’ Redux

Summer is upon us and an army of grey-market gatherers are descending on the forests of British Columbia to harvest berries, mushrooms, floral greenery and an array of other botanical products, part of a largely informal non-timber forest products (NTFP) sector worth somewhere near a half billion dollars a year in sales.

The BC-based wild NTFP harvest has steadily marched towards big business in the past few decades in the shadow of the conventional forest (read timber) industry with increasing numbers of pickers and wholesale businesses capitalizing on the natural wealth of the province. However, because the harvest of NTFPs from Crown land is largely unregulated (and in my interpretation of the Land Act, most of the commercial harvest is in fact illegal), the emergence of this industry has raised concerns about its impact on the forest ecosystems and on the aboriginal and other traditional users who depend on them.

We have little research documenting the impact the removal of NTFPs is having on wildlife and forest processes, but empirical evidence has been mounting for years that the unmanaged commercial NTFP harvest is succumbing to overexploitation by an unscrupulous segment of the industry that has no concern for sustainability or other users. On Vancouver Island, once prime areas for salal collection, a staple of the floral greenery market, are now only producing a sparse understory of low-quality plants. Transient picking crews are moving from site to site and harvesting everything in sight, often leaving garbage behind and disturbing other vegetation and soil for ease of their access. Unethical harvesters, supported by some equally unethical wholesale buyers with no concern with how or where their product is sourced, are tearing up the old growth forest floors with rakes while looking for mushrooms, irreparably impairing future production. In the southern interior there are examples of vanloads of ‘picking’ crews raking mountaintops clean of huckleberries and in the process destroying plants, leaving nothing for wildlife or First Nations harvesters exercising their traditional food gathering rights.

Five years ago, the Forest Practices Board, in a report titled “Integrating Non-Timber Forest Products Into Forest Planning and Practices in British Columbia”, recommended the provincial government should increase its involvement in the management of NTFPs. The report emphasized that the current system does not give harvesters or buyers any incentive to manage these resources sustainably or to consult with First Nations. First Nations throughout BC have unextinguished rights and title to timber and non-timber resources on public land in BC and these rights are routinely ignored by NTFP harvesters. Five years have passed since the release of this report with full public recognition of the problem that has been decades in the development, but very little action has been taken to regulate the activity and provide security to the legitimate players in the sector. What we are left with is homegrown example of the tragedy of the commons.

In Garrett Harden’s seminal 1968 Science article “The Tragedy of the Commons’ he used the analogy of the unregulated use of a pasture shared by livestock herders. Each herder in trying to maximize their own production increases their herd size whenever possible, but the positive and negative consequences of this action is not shared equally. The herder receives all of the proceeds from each additional animal produced, but the pasture is slightly degraded by each additional animal and this negative externality is shared among all herders using the pasture. Consequently, for each individual herder there is little incentive to conserve or restrain their activity and overgrazing of the pasture is the result. So too the tragedy of BC’s NTFP commons – each harvester is fully rewarded for each additional mushroom/berry/branch they pick, but everyone (including other non-commerical users and wild species) share in the pain of overexploitation.

For the NTFP industry to develop sustainably in this province there must be incentives to invest in resource management and penalties for those who otherwise would not voluntarily adhere to sustainable and ethical management. Regulation of the NTFP harvest in BC is a complex issue deserving something greater than a one-size-fits-all approach. The commercial resources are widely dispersed over an enormous forest land base and often the objects of harvest are transient in nature (not growing in the same location from year to year), making tenure options complicated. But complexity is no longer a suitable excuse for inaction. We have examples of businesses, such as ‘First Nations Wildcrafters, BC’ in Port Alberni, who on their own initiative have set very high standards for what, when and how things are harvested, and employing a very progressive and enlightened approach to ensuring the safety and quality of their product, and equitable treatment of harvesters and other stakeholders. We need to draw on the experience and insights of businesses like ‘First Nations Wildcrafters, BC’ and get the process of regulating NTFP harvest in BC underway.

With the current downturn in the forest industry, increasing numbers of laid off workers may now turn to harvesting NTFPs as their unemployment benefits begin to wind down. Without some concrete actions towards legitimizing and regulating the NTFP industry in BC then the price we will all pay for continued inaction is the loss of part of our collective natural heritage and the loss of the opportunities to develop sustainable rural jobs and economic stability.

Organic Sector Drifting Towards Globalization

Organic agriculture is one of the production success stories of the past decade. In recent years it has achieved solid double digit growth in annual sale. Organic agriculture encompasses production systems that promote and enhance soil biological activity. They typically involve minimal use of inputs and employ practices that restore, maintain, and enhance natural processes.

Continue reading “Organic Sector Drifting Towards Globalization”

Agroforestry Can Reduce Interface Fire Risk

One of my last projects in a previous work life with the Research Branch of the BC Ministry of Forests was to design and set-up adaptive management trials testing forest restoration techniques in the Rocky Mountain Trench of Southeast BC in the late 1990s. The imperative for restoration in these forests (and also throughout the intermountain west of North America) was the tremendous structural and species composition changes that have developed in the last 75-80 years as consequence of fire suppression. The forests in question have evolved over 1000s of years with frequent (every 7 to 10 years) low-intensity fires. With the best of intentions (I believe there is a road to somewhere paved with these) we have put in place systems that have an enviable record in quickly putting down both human and naturally caused wildfire. Fire suppression has been carried out so efficiently, it has all but arrested this natural process on the landscape.

The result of quelling fires is what Dave White, a former colleague of mine in the Ministry who was tragically lost in a back country snow avalanche a few years later, termed “upside down ecosystems.” And “upside down” succinctly describes the modern forest composition in relation to its natural potential. What should be mosaic of grassland and forest patches has become a thick forest with small islands of grasses of much different composition. In areas that should predominantly be large old, thick barked, ponderosa pine with scattered Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine, has become a thick tangle of Douglas-fir and lodgepole suppressing new ponderosa growth.

The consequences of these forest changes are far-reaching and largely negative. Some timber has been saved from destruction until it can be cut, but the diminished quantity and quality of grassland has undermined wildlife habitat for everything from the charismatic macrofauna (a.k.a. elk) to the lowliest arachnid. Forage production is lost to the livestock industry and cattle and wildlife are forced into conflict over the remnants of the former North American savannah. Trees are abundant, but of poor form and low value. And in the ultimate irony, the risk of a catastrophic wildfire has grown immensely. Small trees, lower branches and woody litter that would normally be consumed over time in small, low-intensity burns, has built up to the point where fires can scale to the status of ‘fire storm’ in short order. Expansion of human settlement into these areas has also grown immensely, creating a high risk of interface fires sweeping not only through eight decades of unconsumed woody fuel, but also billions of dollars of homes, cottages, industrial development and public infrastructure.

And for anyone thinking this accumulation of forest biomass represents a great store of carbon to buffer climate change, I believe that is a false notion, because fire will release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. And we can never put an end to forest fires. At some point the right combination of drought, wind and multiple lightning strikes will overwhelm the initial attack response and another major interface fire will occur. It is only a question of when. Managing the risk by reducing fuel loads in the interface is a logical response.

This week, Tom Hobby, Forest Economist at Royal Roads University rekindled the debate on the forest ingrowth problem with his well publicized report and interviews stating that we are not acting fast enough to reduce the risk of fires in these systems. The Filmon report commissioned after the interface fires in Barriere and Kelowna clearly outlined the scope of the problem and recommended action, and in academic/research circles we have known of the problem for decades.

A challenge however, lies in the scale of the problem. The Government of BC has started fuel reduction projects, but there are an estimated 1.7 million ha of interface areas at high risk of wildfire. The potential costs of restoring these areas could easily run into the $100s of millions. And there is also the issue of maintenance. The influx of housing, both permanent and recreational, means fire is a very risky tool to use, even in low-intensity controlled burns.

Fortunately, there are options through agroforestry that can reduce the fuel loads, manage the areas as fire breaks and mimic the structure of the natural forests. As an added benefit, adopting agroforestry practices on the landscape will generate income (through resource fees) and long-term jobs. A silvopastoral or forest farming approach in these ecosystems would involve retaining a low-density overstory of timber or Christmas trees in a single tree, widely-spaced grid pattern or clusters of trees with open spaces between. Often the lower branches of the trees are pruned to improve the value of the wood, but this also reduces ladder fuels to prevent ground fires from moving into the canopy. In silvopastoral systems livestock grazing on the grass, forbs and browsing of the shrubs provides an added benefit of annual removal of the fine fuels that can give fires an initial toe-hold. In both forest farming and silvopasture, the Crown can generate additional revenue from grazing licence, timber and non-timber resource use fees. This amounts to restoration that isn’t a drain on the public coffers, but instead generates jobs and income.

Supporting and developing agroforestry as a viable ecological restoration/economic development tool deserves serious consideration not only as a short-term fix before the inevitable happens again and millions or billions are lost in a major interface fire, but also as a permanent managed solution to the problem. Implementing solutions that simultaneously improve our environmental and economic bottom line is also overdue.

Agroforestry Options for Land Use Planning

The following is an excerpt of my presentation delivered this morning in Whistler at the 2009 BC Land Summit, titled “Agroforestry: Integrated Options for Adapting to Change.”

Agroforestry is a group of integrated production opportunities that blend agriculture, silviculture and conservation practices in the same system. These systems can assist to strengthen and diversify the economy while also addressing conservation challenges. Because of their integrated nature, they may be suitable options for achieving multiple land use objectives in the context of increasing social emphasis on simultaneously accommodating:

1. increased urbanization;
2. economic development;
3. food security through support of local food systems; and,
4. preservation of natural areas and functions.

Agroforestry has several potential advantages relative to conventional agriculture, including the capacity for production gains through more efficient use of available resources, economic advantages that come from blending different outputs from the same production system, and the environmental services that can be provided from these managed systems.

Because agroforestry systems blend economic activity with conservation practices they can be suitable land use options to buffer or transition between conflicting land uses. In the rural-urban fringe, trees and shrubs are already widely utilized to transition areas from production to settlement. This concept can be expanded to utilize these interface areas for food production with the development of “Community Forest Gardens” incorporating fruit and nut bearing trees and shrubs, as well as maple or birch for tapping and production of syrup. On a site level, agroforestry practices have tremendous potential to buffer management activities that may be a source of conflict among neighbors by: capturing run-off before entering riparian areas, trapping dust, managing nutrients and odour from intensive livestock operations, improving viewscapes, and dampening noise. At the landscape level agroforestry practices can provide the same services of transition and buffering. For example, new agricultural development areas (as is now occurring in the mountain pine beetle impacted areas of the interior) can be transitioned to wilderness with silvopastoral or forest farming areas. Agroforestry management can also mimic the structure of an open forest, therefore, managed areas can be used to open up ingrown forests in the southern interior where reintroduction of the natural fire regime is not practical with the current pattern of rural settlement.

The economic returns from wood, food, floral, natural health and other niche products can subsidize conservation activities including providing wildlife habitat, sequestering carbon to mitigate climate change, managing fire risk and protecting soil, water air quality. In this manner, the economic activity from agroforestry becomes a strong incentive for producers to adopt conservation practices.

Development of agroforestry options requires a multidisciplinary approach with policy, planning and research and development contributions from professional Agrologists, Planners, Foresters and others. Because these systems are relatively novel in British Columbia, changes to policy, legislation, and community and regional plans are needed to facilitate agroforestry implementation at appropriate locations. Most agroforestry practices require research and development support to refine and adapt them to local situations, and additional partnerships are needed to make this happen. On public lands, First Nations’ rights and titles to timber and non-timber forest resources must be settled equitably, and then enabling legislation and policies must be enacted. At the municipal and regional government level, amendments and definitions are needed in Official Community Plans, zoning and landscaping bylaws. Likewise, formal agroforestry guidelines should be developed and incorporated into the existing “Edge Planning Guide”. Finally, public education is needed on the concepts and opportunities for using agroforestry, and to ensure rural/suburban residents understand that these system are actively managed requiring occasional maintenance and harvest.