An Introduction to Woody Agriculture
Woody agriculture is a new agriculture discipline that focuses on intensive production of staple food and fuel crops using woody perennial plants. It is similar to agroforestry and edible forest gardening, but does not mix woody perennial crops with annuals, herbaceous perennials, or livestock. Currently, most of the research on woody agriculture systems has focused on two crops: chestnuts and hazelnuts.
Woody agriculture is an intensive system of production that establishes permanent stands of the woody crop through coppicing. Nuts are gathered annually, and the wood is typically harvested for biofuel or charcoal production once every 5-10 years. After harvesting, the plant regenerates from the roots and returns to food production the following year.
Woody agriculture has many benefits over traditional annual-based agriculture, including:
- Reduced erosion. Once the stand of trees or shrubs is established, no tillage is necessary, greatly reducing wind and water erosion. The deep root systems of woody perennials also help hold the soil in place.
- Reduced agricultural runoff. The deep root system of perennial woody crops uses soil nutrients more effectively, requiring less fertilizer. It also utilizes fertilizer more efficiently when it is applied, reducing runoff. Herbicide and pesticide needs are also reduced.
- Reduced water needs. Established perennial crops are more drought-resistant than annual crops thanks to their deeper root systems and require little or no extra water in most regions.
- Improved wildlife habitat. Woody trees and shrubs provide food and shelter for many animal species in addition to the food and fuel they produce for humans.
Contrary to popular belief, tree crops, especially improved hybrids, can produce as much or more per acre as traditional annual crops, and some hybrid varieties have been bred for precocious production, reducing the amount of time between stand establishment and income generation.
Woody agriculture has also been gaining attention from the scientific community due to its carbon sequestration capabilities. Woody plants sequester three times more carbon dioxide than annual crops per year, and it is estimated that converting 1/4th of current agricultural land to an intensive woody agriculture system would completely counteract the excess carbon dioxide emissions produced by fossil fuel burning and other human activities, while providing large amounts of food and fuel for human consumption in the process.