Imagine an object that helps mitigate climate change, protect wildlife, conserve water, and provide benefits to farmers. You might picture a new technological advancement or a human-built structure, but it’s even more simple than that—all these benefits come from trees!
The Agroforestry and Woodlot Extension Society of Alberta (AWES) is passionate about trees and the positive impacts they have on the environment. In particular, their focus on agroforestry—the intentional use of trees in agricultural production—is part of a larger, more holistic approach to farming that incorporates as many natural solutions to on-farm issues as possible.
“Many producers are already shifting to this regenerative agriculture movement,” says Megan Andre, executive director at AWES.
“We all want cleaner water and air; we all want to mitigate our impact on the earth, and of course, producers are looking for more productivity from their fields and increased revenue.”
For AWES and other proponents of this approach, trees are the answer to all those wants—and for farmers, it’s as easy as planting and protecting shelterbelts on farmland.
These shelterbelts—arrangements of trees and shrubs planted around fields—provide many natural benefits to producers. Going back as far as the 1930s, when wind and erosion became a big problem for Prairie farmers in a drought, these rows of trees helped to dissipate winds and minimize how much soil is blown away.(1)
Luckily for farmers, shelterbelts help with more than soil erosion—the windbreak qualities also limit blowing snow, keeping moisture in the fields where it can promote healthier soil and aid in crop growth.(2) It’s not only crop farmers who benefit from shelterbelts either; those with ranch land find shelterbelts protect cattle from wind, snow, and rain as well as mitigate the spread of dust and farm smells off the land—something neighbours will appreciate!(3)
Trees, no matter how they are used or where they are planted, also capture carbon from the air and store it above and below ground—a great strategy in the fight against climate change.
Pollinators also love to visit small woodlot and shelterbelt areas, which is helpful for those growing crops like canola, Andre says.
While not quite a “set it and forget it” method of protection, Andre says shelterbelts are a low-maintenance option.
“The most basic idea is the best here—one of the best practices for farmers is monitoring, looking at where your fields and shelterbelts meet and seeing the impact that they’re having, both bad and good,” Andre explains. “You want to see if there is any pesticide or herbicide drift, if you have higher or lower crop yields close to the shelterbelt and then use that monitoring to adjust practices.”
By monitoring shelterbelts and woodlots on their property the same way they do their crops or cattle, producers are able to ensure the health of both are benefiting each other—and AWES is there to help farmers every step of the way.
“We work with farmers in lots of different ways—it can be as simple as a farmer calling me to ask how to save their trees from pests, or asking us to come to the farm and talk about a potential area they want to use for trees,” she explains.
Outside of agriculture, Andre says it is important to understand and share the benefits of woodlots, forests, and shelterbelts.
“Learn from your environment—it’s as easy as looking at trees and thinking about the value you see in them,” she explains.
“Everyone can do their part in promoting and sharing this knowledge.”
By: Ellen Cottee
For more information on agriculture technology explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.
1 The Western Producer—Shelterbelt Program Tried and True A Century Later, 2009
2 Hydrological Processes—Modelling Blowing Snow Redistribution to Prairie Wetlands, 2009
3 Alberta Agriculture—Shelterbelts for Livestock Farms in Alberta, 2014