I had a fascinating day at Dartington Hall Estate last Thursday learning about the experimental research they are carrying out on Agroforestry. This is essentially where trees are planted in fields which primarily produce other crops – whether arable or otherwise – in order to capture carbon from the atmosphere and also increase the ability of the land to absorb water and delay run off.
There is nothing new in some forms of agroforestry, where for example, sheep might graze in an orchard (or under solar panels) but if we are to scale up the planting of many trees in our country, we need to know where they are going to go. At he recent election, each of the three main parties pledged to plant millions of trees over the next few years. Where will they go? One answer is in lines in large arable fields or pasture land, planted in a way that does not reduce the economic yield of that area. In fact, the additional trees might in the very long term have a significant financial benefit either for fruit or timber.
So the very impressive brains at Dartington are exploring this issue in order to solve some of the problems that farmers might face if they go down this route. What is the best formation in which to plant trees? What kinds of trees might work well in different parts of the country? How do you combine the short-term economic interest in what the field produces with the inevitably longer term returns of the trees? If two or more different people own the trees rather than the field, what kind of legal agreements do you need?
As we tackle climate change together, we need both a top down and a bottom up approach. This kind of research will help us decide precisely what works. We will never succeed if effective farming practices are only embraced by large landowners or hobby farmers. We need the 2 to 300-acrefarmers to fully sign up to good environmental practices. They will only do this if those practices work and have an economic benefit. Devon is full of such farms and we must come up with ideas and practices that work for them.
Parliament is now actively grappling with what the new British agricultural policy will look like. It must certainly be flexible enough to enable farmers to design their solutions such as agroforestry, whether alone or in conjunction with neighbours.