Agroforestry helping farmers prep for climate change
ESSEX, N.Y. — Agroforestry practitioner Meghan Giroux is in a hurry to get as many trees planted on farms as possible, to help build resilience to climate change.
“What’s coming — what’s forecast and what’s actualizing in landscapes right now — is scary and significant,” Giroux said. “I go out to farms and I feel stressed on their behalf.”
Giroux, who lives in Bristol, is the founder and director of Interlace Commons, a nonprofit organization headquartered on the other side of Lake Champlain in Essex, N.Y., that provides agroforestry training and consulting to farms throughout the Northeast. Interlace has been supported by funding from a number of sources, including a congressional appropriation secured by Sen. Bernie Sanders and a grant from the Edward Mother Jones Foundation.
Many of the farms Giroux consults with are already reporting a number of issues related to climate change.
“They’re experiencing longer periods of drought and they’re running out of forages earlier in the season,” Giroux said. “They’re seeing shorter but more intense periods of precipitation leading to erosion issues. And we’re hearing about pests migrating north, and instead of having one reproductive cycle they’re having two, or even three.”
Farmers are looking for tools that can not only help build their resilience but can also diversify their incomes, Giroux said.
Agroforestry, an ancient set of land-use practices, is fast gaining recognition as a one of those tools.
According to the USDA there are five widely recognized categories of agroforestry in the U.S.
- Alley cropping is a system of planting rows of trees or shrubs to create “alleys” within which crops are produced. This can help reduce soil erosion, increase water infiltration, improve nutrient retention and protect crops against wind damage, insect pests and temperature swings.
- Forest farming or multi-story cropping is a system of growing crops under a forest canopy that’s carefully managed to provide the right amounts of sunlight. This can improve crop or forage quality, improve the use and recycling of soil nutrients and reduce excess subsurface water.
- Silvopasture adds trees to the system of livestock grazing, which not only expands available food sources to include woody nutrients, fruits and nuts but can also reduce stress on animals by providing shade and shelter from the hot sun, cold winds or intense downpours.
- Riparian forest buffers made up of trees, shrubs and grasses along rivers, streams and other bodies of water can help filter farm runoff, stabilize banks to prevent erosion and protect cropland from flooding.
- Windbreaks are designed primarily to slow down the wind and other elements like rain and snow, offering protection for soil, crops, animals and buildings, and they can also provide shade for livestock.
All of these practices offer the possibility of diversifying farm income with wood and nontimber forest products.
Demand for the services Giroux provides has been significant throughout New England, she said.
When Interlace Commons recently launched a two-year farmer-centered Field Consultancy Program, which will support agricultural landowners interested in designing and implementing these processes, it received more than 300 applications from all over the Northeast.
Giroux attributes this increased interest to three factors.
“People are starting to feel the effects of climate change, they want to diversify their income, and some of the state and federal barriers to adoption have been broken down over the last few years,” she said.
Giroux herself works with dozens of farms a year. In the first year she helps them design systems. In the second year she helps with implementation.
In addition to helping train farmers, she also continues to pursue more training herself.
In 2021 she participated in the USDA-sponsored Climate Adaptation Fellowship program, which was developed in part by researchers at the University of Vermont.
The program, which was held in Maine, partnered technical service providers like Giroux with farmers who had climate-related concerns.
Giroux came away with a refined climate assessment tool, which can help her farmers identify what’s happening on their farms, predict what will happen in the future and better understand the potential benefits of agroforestry. She also learned how to better communicate with those farmers about climate change in action-oriented ways, she said.
But as demand for these services increase, Giroux worries there won’t be enough people to provide them.
“I’ve been telling the USDA for five years that we’re going to have a bottleneck, and here we are with a bottleneck,” she said. From a provider standpoint the increased demand is “a good problem to have, but now we need more trained technical service providers.”
In addition to helping farmers, Giroux has also consulted for institutions such as Middlebury College.
Last year, as part of the college’s New Perennials Project, Giroux worked with college conservation specialist Marc Lapin, scholar in residence Bill Vitek and four student interns to develop agroforestry designs for 60 acres of college-owned farmland.
“The New Perennials Project is a fantastic program,” Giroux said. “Very few liberal arts schools are really looking at agroforestry so it’s been great to see Middlebury show up and say, ‘Hey, what’s possible in our landscape?’”
For more information about Interlace Commons, visit interlacecommons.org.
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