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Farmers reasoning behind uptake of agroforestry

Agriculture matters. It’s the most important employer, thanks to lifting people from poverty. We are, however, yet to get its maximum potential. Agriculture is additionally the foremost significant water user and therefore the biggest driver of deforestation.

Agroforestry, an agricultural method where a farmer grows trees and crops on the same piece of land, is a win-win-win miracle approach. It has multiple benefits to climate, biological diversity and economic development. Experts stand behind this message that agroforestry can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

So, if agroforestry is so good, why is it not being practised by everyone? This question was broadly discussed during the planet Agroforestry Congress 2019, and here are five barriers to agroforestry adoption and ways to beat them.

Change is usually a risk.

The wonder of agroforestry is documented, but farmers who need to switch from accustomed practices to something they have never tried before perceive it as a risk, regardless of the promised increases in yields.

Most farmers are reluctant to use agroforestry, even after receiving training on the matter. This fear could decrease if the training had a uniform follow-up rather than being a one-off event. The farmers find it difficult to understand if they need to adopt the techniques correctly and consistent with the precise conditions on their farms. Transition to agroforestry must go alongside safety nets. Therefore, the farmers can change without risking their livelihood.

It is also vital to notice that farmers with large chunks of land are more likely to adopt agroforestry. Abundant land allows farmers to experiment with agroforestry on a bit of their acreage while keeping traditional agriculture on the remainder. This way, their perceived risk decreases and, then, if successful, the agroforestry area could expand.

What is more, farmers frequently receive conflicting messages from the authorities and development partners. For example, in Zambia, the government promoted fertiliser support programs and offered subsidies for chemical fertilisers, while researchers promoted agroforestry to scale back the dependency on these same fertilisers. The takeaway is that transition requires a coordinated effort and a supportive enabling environment.

Information is not enough.

We would like to tap into social norms and values. Most farmers have the skills to farm with agroforestry. They are conscious of its benefits. However, agroforestry interventions often miss the society beliefs and values embraced by most people.

How we define ourselves, among other things, entails where we draw the boundary of what we are not. This features a strong influence on our sense of being. Farmers are uncomfortable with tree planting and logging because they associate these actions with forestry, not agriculture.

Research has shown that training on agroforestry methods does not necessarily end in high uptake rates. Consistent communication is important for effective capacity building – drawing from stories that illustrate agroforestry has benefited other farmers. Such stories foster interpersonal communication between farmers through which they will learn from each other is critical.

No clear land rights – no agroforestry

Michael Jacobson, Penn State University, took part during a large ICRAF project in Zambia on using “fertiliser trees” to enhance soil quality and reduce dependency on chemical fertilisers. He reports that he found almost no fertiliser trees when he returned to the project site some years after. It had been as if the project never existed! It appears that the farmers didn’t have clear land rights and, for that reason, didn’t want to take a chance in planting trees. So, the trainers were barking up the wrong concept. Trying to convince farmers to adopt agroforestry for the sake of soil fertility.

That is why the question of tenure is so central to agroforestry. Many agroforestry projects have failed because farmers have little or no right to the land they live off. Furthermore, in some countries, like Ghana and Vietnam, all trees belong to the state, as stipulated within the forest protection policy. This discourages farmers from planting trees. That’s why the official agriculture and forestry policies got to include specific land use conditions to enable agroforestry.

Underutilised species need better marketing.

Humans only make use of 0.5 of all the edible plant species. Agroforestry offers many products that would satisfy our nutritional needs, but local and indigenous species are often neglected in favour of the commercial products demanded by the worldwide market. This example creates the consequence – if there are no galip nuts on the market, there are no buyers. Thereupon, there’s no demand and no processing factories and, thus, even lower willingness to plant the trees. There’s a requirement to determine links between smallholder farmers, small scale entrepreneurs, processors, distributors, and retailers.

Context is king

And last but not least, when working with agroforestry, one should never forget that it’s highly context-specific. What works on one farm might become a disaster on their neighbours’ farm. It’s impossible to advocate for a selected species or a specific practice that will work for everybody. You want to understand each farmer, their land, needs, and condition.