What Works: Farming with trees

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By Kim Kido

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

Poor soils, lack of irrigation, and limited access to inputs, including fertilizer, are some of the barriers farmers face to increasing food production, and alleviating food insecurity, in sub-Saharan Africa.  Incorporating trees on farms can help increase yields by building soil fertility, reducing erosion, retaining water, or providing shade. And many species produce high-value fruits, timber, fodder, or medicine that can be sold or used to meet household needs. Ecosystem benefits like habitat creation and carbon sequestration are added benefits.

Trees on a farm in Kenya. (Photo credit: International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT))

Planting nitrogen-fixing leguminous tree species, like Faidherbia or Acacia albida, in maize fields has helped achieve up to four-fold yield increases in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. During the rainy season, when crops are planted, the Faidherbia acacia loses its nitrogen-rich leaves as it enters dormancy. Crops are provided with a source of nitrogen, and the tree’s bare branches don’t block sunlight. And when the availability of fodder is limited in the dry season, the trees produce seed pods that livestock can eat.

While legumes improve soil fertility, planting fruit trees amongst other crops can provide emergency income and a source of food in times of scarcity. For small farmers like Virginia Wangui Njunge, who farms two acres north of Nairobi in Kenya, planting fruit trees is a way to minimize risk by increasing productivity and crop diversity. Njunge sells avocados, guavas, apples, and mangos from her trees that grow along with vegetable crops, including tomato and cabbage. Intercropping fruit trees with annual and indigenous vegetable crops to provide food and income while trees mature is a common practice in Kenya.

The World Agroforestry Center’s Agricultural and Tree Products Program developed better varieties of popular trees that grow wild in forests and on farms, such as bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis) and African plum (Dacryodes edulis). These trees produce larger, sweeter fruit, mature faster, and grow at lower heights than other trees to make harvesting easier. Often planted with cocoa in Cameroon, the fruit trees have earned some farmers five times more income than cocoa, reducing their dependency on cash crops that are prone to major price fluctuations.

Cocoa is also grown with wild African plum, ndjassang (Ricinodendron heudolotii), orange, and avocado trees in Cameroon and Nigeria. The World Cocoa Foundation’s Sustainable Tree Crops Program has helped farmers in West Africa like Mathias Evouna refine shaded cocoa production methods to reduce pesticide use and boost yields. Implementing management practices such as pruning that he learned through this program, Evouna produced a third of his total yield on less than 15 percent of his land. Fruit trees in shaded cocoa production provide substantial food and income, while the system prevents total deforestation, provides habitat for forest species, helps mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, and enhances nutrient and water cycling.

More trees exist on farms in Kenya than in forests and plantations combined. On-farm timber production is a growing industry, and may help relieve logging pressure on scarce natural forests. Trees that can be sold for building materials and firewood or charcoal production help diversify income of small farmers. Farmers typically plant timber species, particularly Grevillea robusta, along with vegetables and grains. The root systems of the trees help stabilize slopes typically found on coffee and tea farms, and retain water.

What other ways do trees benefit farms? Tell Nourishing the Planet what works and have your answers featured on the blog. Email me at Dnierenberg@Worldwatch.org or tweet your response to @Nourishplanet.

Kim Kido is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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