A lot of exciting new technologies are changing how we view agriculture: farming in silico, drone farmers, self-driving tractors. But not every innovation is quite so flashy and futuristic. The latest trend reshaping rural environments is pretty down to Earth: agroforestry, the art of planting trees.
Protecting the soil
A big problem faced by farmers across the world is wind erosion of the topsoil. This soft layer of soil, into which crops are planted, is vulnerable to being carried away by high winds. When this happens, it's obviously disadvantageous for the crops.
But it's a problem farmers usually have to just live with. Lynn Briggs and her husband own a farm in Cambridgeshire, in the UK. "Most people round here think it's pretty normal for the earth to just blow away" says Lynn. "They seem to think it's what happens and you just have to live with it".
The Briggs are part of a growing movement of farmers trying to bring agroforestry to the English countryside. The practice, which involves planting lines of trees at various points in a crop field to protect and enrich the soil, sees little use in England, and has no official backing from policymakers - yet.
Aside from this lack of government support, farmers also tend to worry about the trees' effect on the crops. A common fear is that they will cast shadows over the crops, depriving them of light. This is less of a concern in the warmer climates where agroforestry is already in use, but English farmers have to work hard to maximize the sunlight they're receiving. Of course, the problem is easy enough to sidestep by planting the lines of trees from north to south, not east to west.
Another concern is that the trees' roots will compete with those of the crops for valuable resources. But studies have shown that tree roots actually pull their energy from much deeper in the ground, meaning there's little overlap.
In fact, agroforestry looks like a pretty good technique for English farmers, just as it has already proven to be for many others. Depending on the trees planted, the farmer also has access to new resources - fruit, timber - which can supplement their income while other crops are growing, or even be used directly to generate energy for the farm.
And the trees have all sorts of ecological benefits not offered by a regular "monoculture" farm. Aside from protecting the soil, these rows of trees can also improve biodiversity, capture carbon dioxide and conserve water.
The technique has its roots partially in a larger movement called permaculture, which stresses the need for agriculturalists to think of their activities not in terms of individual actions, but as a whole sustainable ecosystem. Proponents of the philosophy emphasize that our choices should be guided by examples provided by nature itself, and strive to integrate with, rather than replace, natural ecosystems.
Agroforestry, based on the simple principle of planting trees, is gaining ground across the world. It's a reminder that in our technological era, not every innovation has to be cutting-edge. Sometimes, changing the world is as simple as planting a tree.
Source: The Guardian