What is Agroforestry?
For thousands of years and across the globe, humans have grown food crops within the canopies of wild forests, taking advantage of the shade, the rich, moisture-retaining soils, and the insects and animals that pollinate plants, spread seeds and fertilize the ground. They’ve also recreated these natural systems, planting multi-story, intercropped “agroforests,” especially in the Pacific Islands. That knowledge faded as modern monocrop agriculture became the norm.
In recent decades, though, farmers have been rediscovering this old way of farming. Especially when combined with modern organic practices, it solves problems and creates multiple benefits simultaneously.
Agroforestry as Solution
At Provisions, we support organic and regenerative agroforestry as a vital way to offset climate change and its effects. Agroforestry is the opposite of industrial agriculture, which emits a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, agroforests draw carbon dioxide from the air into their trunks, roots and the ground, where it builds soil health by stimulating microbial activity. Integrating organic and regenerative practices, like using fallen leaves for mulch, compost, and fertilizer, adds to the health of the soil. When storms hit and waters rise—as they’re doing with increasing frequency as our planet warms—these healthy soils absorb water, preventing runoff, recharging ground water and making the land more resilient to drought. The intertwined roots of trees and assorted plants, along with a threadlike mass of soil fungi, hold the soil in place, keeping it from eroding.
Like wild forests, agroforests support biodiversity aboveground as well as below. Endangered species from jaguars to migratory birds thrive in the multi-storied, varied vegetation of agroforests. They form vital habitats and corridors between isolated pockets of wilderness, so wildlife have the range they need.
Agroforestry benefits the farmer, too. The mingled crops make the farm more resilient to pests and diseases. And when one crop finishes, there’s always something else to harvest, use at home, share or sell. Integrating animals provides another food source, and free fertilizer in the form of manure. In this way, agroforests on small plots of land can sustain families and entire communities. Yet they can be scaled up without causing the soil degradation and deforestation that’s common in conventional farming. At any size, an agroforest just makes the land more efficient and productive.
We partner with several growers (see below) who practice agroforestry, and it’s fascinating to see how resilient and adaptable this system is, and how it tailors itself to each region. Agroforests can offer a practical alternative to industrial agriculture. After all, they’ve proven themselves over millennia.
Our Agroforestry Partners
The Breadfruit Institute, Kaua’i, Hawaii
Dr. Diane Ragone directs this groundbreaking research program at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, where more than 100 different food crops, flowers, medicinals, and other useful plants grow in a demonstration garden called ROBA (Regenerative Organic Breadfruit Agroforest). Tall, stately breadfruit trees form the canopy, their broad, glossy leaves shading an incredible variety of flowers, fruits, vegetables and spices from all over the globe. You’ll see taro, coconut, pineapple, ginger and bananas here, and also spinach and even asparagus.
Ragone champions organic and regenerative agroforests as the most fruitful and beneficial way to grow breadfruit, both for food and reforestation. She reveres the traditional cultivation methods she’s learned from native and indigenous communities over the decades, and they are foundational to her work. Ragone has inspired us to seek out strong agroforestry partners around the world for our ingredients, and has helped us understand the potential of agroforestry to change world agriculture.
Besides having all the typical benefits of agroforests, breadfruit agroforests are especially amazing. Breadfruit trees grow to maturity in just 3 to 5 years, so they can quickly reforest barren land. They don’t require a lot of care, and produce massive amounts of food—each tree can bear up to 800 pounds of nutritious fruit per year for 50 years. They complement a wide range of food plants, as the institute’s own garden demonstrates. The fallen leaves make excellent mulch and compost for the whole agroforest. Actually, just about every part of the tree can be used: the trunks for lumber (Pacific Islanders used them for their legendary canoes), the sticky latex sap for waterproof caulking, and the male blossoms as insect repellent.
It’s no wonder that breadfruit agroforests have been cultivated in Oceania for thousands of years. There’s potential for them to spread much further. These agroforests thrive in tropical conditions found along the equator—exactly where rates of hunger are high and economic scarcity prevails. These systems are ready to deliver, in other words.
To capture all that agroforests can do, the Institute offers a definitive 75-page organic and regenerative Agroforestry Guide and a treasury of other information—everything from cooking tips to backyard planting advice. All of it is available for free from the institute’s website. Beyond Hawaii, the Institute has helped create agroforests in Jamaica and Puerto Rico to reforest ruined soil and restore livelihoods and food security. Even more impressively, working with partners in its Global Hunger Initiative, it has sent more than 100,000 breadfruit trees propagated from its collection to 44 countries around the world, and encourages recipients to plant them in agroforests.
Since its inception in 2017, the ROBA garden of just 2 acres has produced well over 8,000 pounds of breadfruit and nearly 7,000 pounds of food other than breadfruit. Meanwhile, it’s turned compacted, waterlogged bare soil into a rich, biodiverse, stunningly beautiful garden. It’s a compelling argument for an ancient way of farming.
The Breadfruit Institute, which is partly supported by funding from Patagonia Provisions, occasionally offers workshops, lectures, and agroforestry work days. The McBryde Garden, which contains the ROBA garden, is open to tours by appointment.
Sol Simple, Nicaragua: Mangoes and bananas
Sol Simple, a collective of small, independently owned agroforests, is one the first groups in the world to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™), the highest standard for organic agriculture. We use their mangoes for our ROC Chile Mango snack, their bananas for our Cacao + Mango Bars, and sell their solar-dried pineapple on its own, under the Sol Simple label.
Each farm has its own configuration of trees and plants, says Sol Simple field team manager Gabriela Zapata, with at least a few animals integrated “to achieve biological, environmental, and economic balance.”
The mangoes come from agroforests in the drier, hotter southwest. Here a wide range of fruit trees grow together, with mangoes forming the canopy along with guava, tamarind, soursop, lemon, and hardwoods used for furniture, like cedar and mahogany. Corn forms the mid layer, and beans and squash fill in below. Cows and oxen are part of the farm system too, used for plowing and to haul crops to market.
The bananas grow in the isolated, mountainous north of the country, used to shade the main cash crop, coffee. Other tall trees like avocados, oranges and hardwoods provide shade too. When the four-month coffee harvest ends, the farmers turn to the trees for income, plus low-lying vegetables and fruits like yucca, beans, squash and passionfruit. Chickens or pigs scratch and root in the soil. Grocery stores aren’t close by, so the agroforests provide not just income but daily food for the farm families.
In both areas, the forests produce masses of organic matter—fallen fruit, leaves and branches, in addition to any animal droppings. All of it decomposes in place, fertilizing the soil and helping it retain water. It’s a lot messier than pristine rows of weeded seedlings, but healthier. And the well-developed tree roots hold the slopes in place, preventing landslides. Managed with modern organic farming techniques, the fruit trees are relatively pest-free, and fruit size and quality have increased in the last few years.
Jungle Foods, Costa Rica: Breadfruit Flour
Jungle Foods collects breadfruit from small family farmers, mainly on the Caribbean side of the country, and shepherds the fresh fruit to a processor, where it’s dehydrated and milled into flour for our Breadfruit Crackers.
In Costa Rica, breadfruit trees have been grown for generations, mainly in family backyard agroforests. They’re typically interplanted with plantain, cacao, coconut, cassava and palm. But families have been steadily cutting down the trees, unable to find a market for the fruit and overwhelmed by the bounty of a tree that produces hundreds of pounds of fast-ripening fruit per year. Many of them have cleared the land for monocrops of banana, pineapple, cassava and sugarcane.
Jungle Foods’ mission—and ours—is to turn breadfruit trees into a valuable resource for farmers that can continue to anchor those backyard agroforests, regenerating the land and becoming a reliable source of income. The company promises to buy at least 80% of all breadfruit grown by each farmer.
At some farms, Jungle Foods helps layer breadfruit trees into existing agroforests. In others, the company starts agroforests from scratch, sometimes on former plantations where monocrops have ruined the land. It’s not a one-size-fits-all agroforest. “We don’t tell them what crops to plant,” says Jungle Foods co-founder Paul Zink. “We help them get the plants they’re interested in.”
Although each farm is unique, here’s what a typical Jungle Foods farm grows, from the canopy down to the soil:
- Hardwoods such as mahogany
- Breadfruit trees
- Banana or plantain trees
- Cacao trees
- Climbing vines like passionfruit
- Bushy plants – a mixture of perennials and annuals, including medicinals, chiles, and native greens like chaya (tree spinach) and katuk (star gooseberry)
- Root crops—cassava, taro, turmeric
Jungle Foods’ breadfruit agroforests generate the rewards that breadfruit agroforests do in other places, drawing down CO2, providing food security, and diversifying income streams. Even the leaves of the breadfruit tree have a protective and regenerative effect. Broad, thick, and glossy, they form a canopy for the forest, “like a gigantic umbrella,” says Zink, forcing rain to trickle slowly down onto the soil instead of washing it away. As fallen leaves naturally disintegrate, they act as a protective “skin” on the earth, helping retain moisture.
The company’s goal is to source as many different agroforestry products as possible, to encourage agrobiodiversity. “It’s why we’re called Jungle Foods,” Zink says. He’d like to source cacao and cinnamon and whatever else does well for his farmers and restores their land. “Ultimately, I want to source from a system.”
Imlak’esh Organics, Ecuador: Cacao
In the lush Esmeraldas region on the northwest coast of Ecuador, Imlak’esh farmers shade heritage varieties of cacao with mango, citrus, mahogany and palm. “It’s pretty majestic,” says co-founder Tucker Garrison. “It looks like Big Sur, but with jungle dripping into the ocean and hawks and raptors cruising overhead.” Vines and groundcover crops grow under the cacao—turmeric, ginger, cardamom—and symbiotic fungi spread beneath the ground, helping decompose organic matter and create fertility. From these forests come the cacao nibs we use for Provisions’ Cacao + Mango bars. We sell Imlak’esh’s cacao nibs separately, as well as their delicious, crunchy-chewy Charge Boss Clusters, which feature cacao nibs as a main ingredient.
The agroforests are ecologically remarkable in several ways. Their root systems both aerate the soil and hold it in place, invaluable in an area lashed by storms. Further protection comes from a practice called “chop and drop,” in which farmers trim wood and leaves and use them to build up living terraces. These enrich the soil and also form bulwarks, preventing the steep hillsides from eroding into the ocean. The forests’ many plants provide food, medicine, animal feed and building materials—a diversity of income streams packed into a small area.
Before clearcutting took out most of the virgin forests, this area was home to jaguars, monkeys and tapirs. The Imlak’esh cacao agroforests teem with pollinators and small predators, and Garrison hopes to gradually expand and link them to form wildlife corridors that might attract the animals that once lived there.
But probably the biggest boon of cacao agroforests is that they’re saving heirloom cacao varieties and rescuing rainforest land. The chocolate industry has in recent years started clearing rainforest to plant cacao as a monocrop, using new strains of lab-developed cacao designed for high yield and able to tolerate full sun. Garrison calls them “the cardboard Roma tomato” of the cacao world, flavorless and generic. Agroforests give the more delicate heirloom cacaos the shade they need to thrive, and the plant polyculture there brings out their nuances of flavor.
The beauty of agroforests is their essential wildness. “There are so many variables that are not under our control,” Garrison says. “It’s about helping a living system express its own essence and be what it wants to be.”
Photo by Amy Kumler
Photo by Amy Kumler
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