2018 Highlights

The mission of the USDA National Agroforestry Center (NAC) is to advance the health, diversity, and productivity of working lands, waters, and communities through agroforestry. This work advances USDA's goals to “strengthen the stewardship of private lands through technology and research” and “facilitate rural prosperity and economic development.” With its national network of partners, NAC conducts and supports research, develops technologies and tools, and provides educational materials and training on agroforestry.

This report highlights some key accomplishments made in FY2018.

Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and agriculture. In the United States, agroforestry systems typically include at least one of five practices: windbreaks/shelterbelts, riparian forest buffers, silvopasture, forest farming, or alley cropping.

Ecosystem Services

By helping to understand and quantify the ecosystem services that agroforestry systems can provide, such as water quality, pollinator habitat, and soil health, NAC is supporting the development of science-based technologies, programs, and design tools for enhancing these services.

Left: a bee covered in pollen sits lays in sand. Center: water droplets form on green leaf. Right: A hand scoops dark brown soil.

Enhancing resiliency to climate change and weather extremes

The USDA National Agroforestry Center provided leadership in publishing a new scientific assessment: Agroforestry: Enhancing Resiliency in U.S. Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing Conditions.

  • Contributions from more than 50 experts from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
  • This report presents the first-ever synthesis on agroforestry as a mechanism for improving the resiliency of agricultural lands under climate change.
  • In the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric.
  • #3 out of 246 USFS research publications.
Agroforestry: Enhancing Resiliency in U.S. Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing Conditions Cover.View Publication
Supporting U.S. Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing Conditions With AgroforestryView Publication

As a complementary resource, NAC also released an annotated bibliography documenting the scientific literature on the role of agroforestry in adaptation and mitigation under climatic variability and change, as well as on effects of these stressors on agroforestry. The references and abstracts are also available from an online ZoteroTM database that will be updated as new literature becomes available.

Currently, the publically-accessible database contains over 230 references.

Selecting plants for agroforestry

The USDA National Agroforestry Center is developing a plant selection guide to help planners identify tree and shrub species for a suite of conservation purposes. In this online tool called Tree Advisor, more than 90 species of trees and shrubs from northern and central Great Plains are rated for 14 different agroforestry and conservation purposes. Some of the purposes include water quality, carbon sequestration, flood protection, particle drift reduction, and pollinator habitat. This tool may serve as a template for developing multi-purpose woody plant selection guides for other regions in the U.S. This year, NAC also published an Inside Agroforestry newsletter that highlights the variety of considerations for identifying and acquiring suitable plants to achieve producer goals in agroforestry systems.

Tree Advisor logo

Promoting food security through pollinator conservation

Agroforestry offers numerous benefits for pollinators and crop pollination services, thus supporting food and nutritional security. This year, NAC partnered with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to review the scientific literature and prepare a book chapter and a webinar on the role of agroforestry supporting pollinators and pollinator services.

In addition, NAC is working with the University of Nebraska to evaluate the role of woody buffers in reducing pesticide exposure and promoting beneficial insect and pollinator habitat. Preliminary data indicate that windbreaks can reduce the drift of agrochemicals to pollinator habitats.

Inventory methods to determine functions of trees outside forests

Station Director's ChoiceThe Trees Outside Forests inventory project was chosen as the Northern Research Station Director’s Choice award.

In a continued effort to inventory and monitor Trees Outside Forests (TOF), NAC and USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station Forest Inventory and Analysis continued their partnership to fill information gaps on the role of TOF on the landscape. Using GIS and remote sensing techniques along with computer learning algorithms, the patterns of non-forest trees in a region or state can be quickly determined to be windbreaks, riparian forests or just scattered trees. The work is currently being done in agro ecoregions in the central plains states. Being able to efficiently inventory windbreaks and riparian forests over large areas can support creating value-added assessments of the functions they provide. These mapping resources can also aid policy-makers, resource managers, and landowners in natural resource planning and management.

A satellite image showing inventoried riparian forest buffers and windbreaks.
An example of riparian forest buffers and windbreaks that have been inventoried using GIS techniques within the Trees Outside Forests project.

Human Dimensions

Landowners, managers, Tribes, and communities are the ultimate decision-makers on agroforestry adoption. Such decisions can be supported by resource professionals that provide technical assistance and training. Understanding factors that influence agroforestry outreach and adoption can help focus research and outreach efforts.

A group of several people stand in a field listening to a speaker during a training in New York.

Using modern technology to preserve the past and plan for the future

The severe dust storms across the Great Plains region of the 1930s spurred the creation of the Prairie States Forestry Project (PSFP), a federal program designed to combat soil erosion. More than 220 million trees were planted from 1935-1942, creating more than 18,000 miles of windbreaks from North Dakota into Texas. Many of the original maps, photos, and other records are being digitized and archived by NAC and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. These will be made available to the public once completed. The PSFP represents one of the largest and most-focused efforts by the U.S. government to address an environmental problem and is considered a potential model for an effective climate change strategy.

A giant duststorm rolls across the Great Plains during the 1930s
A giant duststorm rolls across the Great Plains during the 1930s.
an aerial view of windbreaks in the landscape.
Many of the windbreaks from the Prairie States Forestry Project are still in use today.

The USDA National Agroforestry Center is also using GIS technology to record original windbreak plots and determine which windbreaks remain and which have been removed. The archives and data are the basis of Story Maps and other media used to tell the story of this vast conservation project. The data can also assist land managers planning for the future, as many of these trees are being removed for a variety of reasons, including age.

Enhancing Rural Economies through Agroforestry

To address the need for ideas and conversation on the economic challenges and opportunities facing agroforestry, more than sixty producers, researchers, investors, government staff and others met over three days in March, 2018. This event was organized by NAC, in partnership with other USDA agencies (the Agricultural Marketing Service, Agricultural Research Service, Economic Research Service, Farm Service Agency, National Institute of Food and Agriculture Research, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rural Development) and others.

Presenters pose for photo during the Agroforestry Economics workshop. Photo courtesy of Victor Harris.
Presenters from the producers panel at the Agroforestry Economics Workshop.

The final report provides a narrative summary of the workshop including:

  • Presentations on producer perspectives and economic factors affecting producers;
  • Panel discussions on accessing land and capital, markets for products from agroforestry systems, and incentives and markets for ecosystem services benefits;
  • Syntheses of small group discussions on challenges, opportunities, and bold steps under three overarching and interrelated themes: accessing resources, accessing markets, and participating in ecosystem service markets.
  • Recommended next steps for the next year and next five years.

Increasing land access for agroforestry

Inspirations for Creating a Long-Term Agricultural Lease for Agroforestry: A Workbook cover

Inspirations for Creating a Long-Term Agricultural Lease for Agroforestry, published with NAC support by Farm Commons and the Savanna Institute in FY2017, was shared widely with NAC's Inside Agroforestry newsletter as well as partner communications tools such as the Association for Temperate Agroforestry (AFTA) newsletter, the  Temperate Agroforester. This resource has enhanced efforts to develop long term leases that allow farmers to implement a range of agroforestry. This work has included outreach to absentee landowners in Illinois, work with institutional landowners in Wisconsin and Virginia, and additional training events. The effort will expand in FY2019 through a new agreement with the Savanna Institute, which will support work with farmers and landowners to pilot and document land access strategies for agroforestry.Download Workbook

Outreach and Education

The USDA National Agroforestry Center provides national leadership in agroforestry outreach by facilitating the production and exchange of agroforestry information with technical service providers who assist landowners, including new farmers, limited resource landowners, and Tribes, in agroforestry adoption. Catalyzing and supporting exchanges of agroforestry information across these groups is central to NAC's mission.

A group of participants sit within a treestand listening to a speaker during this workshop.

Reaching out through publications and more

In FY2018, NAC continued to provide engaging and informative publications on agroforestry to the general public, farmers, and technical assistance providers through print and web distribution. NAC also responded to requests by Federal, State, and non-profit partners for more than 16,000 copies of publications printed in prior years. These were used to educate farmers, landowners and others at workshops and venues. In addition, NAC reached out to diverse audiences through its email update, Agroforestry Connection. Although relatively new, Agroforestry Connection now has more than 800 subscribers, with new subscriptions every month. Information was also disseminated by NAC staff through scientific journal articles, tools, and other research publications.

Training the trainers: outreach and education on agroforestry

A group of people stand in agroforestry system during a training
The USDA National Agroforestry Center is regularly involved in supporting training for technical assistance providers.

Training technical assistance providers, including State forestry and State agriculture staff, NRCS employees, conservation district staff, non-profits, consulting foresters, and many others, is an important part of NAC's technology transfer work. This year NAC worked with partners to support workshops and training in Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota on a range of topics, from windbreaks to multifunctional riparian buffers. NAC staff were also invited to present at a variety of webinar series hosted by partners around the country.View Recorded Webinars

Extending our reach: agroforestry working groups

Leadership and support for national and regional agroforestry working groups strengthens network development, adoption of regionally-specific agroforestry systems, partner coordination, and new opportunities for research and outreach. This year, NAC supported monthly webinars and calls as well as workshops by the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Agroforestry Working Group, agroforestry training academies by the Mid-America Agroforestry Working Group, network development by the Pacific Northwest Agroforestry Working Group and the establishment of a Southwest Agroforestry Action Network. At the national level, NAC staff provided leadership for the USDA Interagency Agroforestry Team and USDA Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee, leading to the development of a draft updated USDA Agroforestry Strategic Framework, to be released in FY2019.

At the national level, NAC staff provided leadership for the USDA Interagency Agroforestry Team and USDA Agroforestry Executive Steering Committee, leading to the development of a draft updated USDA Agroforestry Strategic Framework, to be released in FY2019.

Enhancing understanding of USDA programs for agroforestry research

Guide to USDA Agroforestry Research Funding Opportunities cover.

This year NAC developed and released Guide to USDA Agroforestry Research Funding Opportunities. The guide provides an overview of external agroforestry research funding opportunities offered by a variety of USDA agencies, as well as examples of past projects. The goal is to help agroforestry research entities identify programs that fit their interests. This is especially important for agroforestry research requiring a longer time horizon than that for annual systems.Download Research Guide

Sharing past successes: Indexing agroforestry projects supported by SARE

A screenshot from the USDA National Agroforestry Website of the SARE index.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture's (NIFA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program funds many grants that support research and outreach in agroforestry. This includes support for on-farm research, professional development, and partnership projects. In FY2018, NAC created a web-based catalogue of many of the SARE projects related to agroforestry. This catalogue allows users to search past projects by agroforestry practice, state, date, and project type or read a project description. Such efforts can inform decisions regarding agroforestry implementation and research.View Catalogue