This article has been translated by Marco De Boer from reNature Foundation. It is also available on the reNature Foundation website.
Trees provide many services to society: carbon storage, climate change, air purification ... For the last ten years, farmers, policy makers and civil society organizations have developed a new interest in forest farming systems or agroforestry. Previous research shows that such a system can bring benefits to the farmer: protection against erosion, risk diversification by diversifying income, creation of a favorable microclimate with functional biodiversity.
Nevertheless, the roll-out of agroforestry in Flemish agriculture is proceeding rather slowly. Between 2011 (when the Flemish government started supporting subsidies) and 2018, only 130 hectares of forestry agriculture were added to about forty companies. From a survey conducted by Lieve Borremans in the context of her doctorate with 86 farmers, the majority of farmers did not consider agroforestry.
What exactly stops them? In order to provide an answer, the researcher presented the various barriers. These vary from technical to social barriers:
- Lack of knowledge and usable instruments There is little knowledge available in Flanders about the long-term productivity and adaptability of agroforestry. In order to expand this knowledge, investments must be made in further research together with pioneers and farmers. Borremans: “For example, there is a need for interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research projects aimed at the construction of long-term test plots or the development of useful tools (machines, applications) for planning, designing and maintaining agroforestry systems.”
- Uncertainty about profitability A lack of certainty about profitability is one of the most crucial barriers that prevents farmers from working with agroforestry. After all, it is a long wait for the income from wood production, and farmers are not compensated for the social services that the trees supply in the meantime, such as the storage of carbon. Borremans: “That's why we need to focus on creating market mechanisms that enable farmers to valorise their efforts for the environment, landscape and biodiversity. Consider, for example, carbon trading or an agroforestry label that creates added value.”
- Lack of clear legal framework and flexible support measures In recent years, the government has taken important steps to encourage the adoption of agroforestry. A subsidy program for the construction of agroforestry systems was set up whereby 80 percent of the costs for the planting of the trees were repaid. In addition, the government worked out a suitable legal framework for cultivation. Positive developments, says Borremans. “But there is a need for further adjustments and improvements in order to arrive at a fully-fledged legal framework and an attractive and effective subsidy program.” The government can also play a role in research, network and market-making. In the Netherlands, this is done via the Green Deal Natural Inclusive Agriculture Green Education. In this way, the government wants to facilitate and accelerate the development of sustainable initiatives, while at the same time guiding the future policy.
- Knowledge seeps through insufficiently The knowledge of agroforestry among farmers and other stakeholders in the sector is limited and the expertise on the cultivation of trees in an agricultural context is spread over various organizations. For farmers, it is therefore unclear where they can go with their questions. To remedy this, the knowledge built up in the VLAIO project Agroforestry Vlaanderen (see below) is bundled in a central knowledge desk. Borremans: “To further disseminate this knowledge, communication to and education of relevant actors remains important. They must be well informed so that they become familiar with agro-ecological farming practices and their advantages for the community.”
- Lack of support and shared vision Borremans' research shows that there are different views on the type of agroforestry that is desirable in Flanders. For example, there are stakeholders who believe that agroforestry in the context of Flanders can only be useful in the form of small landscape elements on the edge of parcels. Other stakeholders, on the other hand, also see potential in more complex forms in which trees and crops interact closely. Dialogue and cooperation between these groups should lead to a restoration of trust and the building of a common vision. There is also a need for broad social support. That is why citizens must also be involved and informed.
According to Borremans, the intention to start using agroforestry can only be increased if every obstacle is tackled. “Research centers, governments, civil society organizations, (agricultural) companies and consumers must jointly commit to work on more research and development, other revenue and financing models, a sound legal framework and effective support measures, more knowledge sharing, broader support and a shared vision. This is the only way in which opportunities for a sustainable scaling up of agroforestry in Flanders arise.”
Lieve Borremans' research is part of a broader VLAIO project ‘Agroforestry Vlaanderen’ in which ILVO, Inagro, UGent, Belgium's Soil Service and Agri Management Center Eco2 offer solutions and guidance to interested farmers. The knowledge that was built up within the consortium will be used this year to give Agroforestry Master classes to farmers, advisers, policymakers and other stakeholders.