Canada’s forests represent about 40 percent of its total land area. Forests have been instrumental in the development of this country, first with the extraction of timber for European countries, then by clear- ing for farming and wood fibre in aid of settlement and cre- ation of economic wealth. Although there seemed to be an endless supply of wood fibre, soon governments were implementing regulations to ensure that forests would be available for the future. Provincial resource agencies were created to oversee the management of these forest ecosys- tems within provincial jurisdictions, and the Canadian Forest Service was developed to provide forest research and policy direction for the use of our forests.
Over the years, these agencies and forest companies provided innovation and leadership in managing these resources, such that forest exports from Canada totalled $38 billion in 2006. Today, however, the forest industry is undergoing great change as a result of global market pres- sures and economies of scale, and 22,000 jobs have been lost in the forest manufacturing industry since 2003.
Although these are difficult times for our forests from a social and economical standpoint, it is also a time to rethink and refocus how we might utilize trees in general. One scenario could include intensive silviculture on agri- cultural land to reduce costs and rotation ages, a form of agroforestry. But how do you get farmers, rural communi- ties and forest industry to adopt these practices? It would not be an easy task, since most farmers have spent their lives removing trees.
This article explores the development of agroforestry practices in Canada, and why it would be appropriate and relevant at this point to develop a national agroforestry net- work to help promote and implement the concept of plant- ing trees on agricultural land.
Agroforestry is the intentional incorporation of trees into farming systems (crops and/or livestock), and it has been practised for hundreds of years in other parts of the world. Afforestation (plantation forestry) is the planting of trees on land, typically agricultural, that has not been forested for over 50 years (according to the Kyoto Protocol). For the purpose of this article, afforestation will be regarded as an agroforestry practice where there is block planting of trees.
The practice of incorporating trees was considered in Canada through the Experimental Farm Station Act, adopted in 1886. This was an ambitious program proposed by the federal government to develop tree nurseries that would grow seedling stock to plant a third of the prairies. Though it has been practised else- where in the world, predominantly in Third World countries, it is only recently that the value of agro- forestry systems to various regions of Canada has been recognized.
Several reasons explain this renewed interest. The adoption of agroforestry systems may provide benefits to the rural economy through enhanced timber and fibre supply, crop diversification and manufacture of bio-based products. The recent trend of dwindling com- modity prices ”” particularly in the prairies ”” and increasing input and transportation costs have resulted in the declining economic viability of tradition- al cropping systems and a need to diversify farming systems toward value-added products and the bioeconomy. Also, across Canada the forest industry is under increasing pressure to secure alternative wood fibre sources due to over-allocation by government on a multi-stakeholder land base of forested Crown lands, changing management practices and wood supply analysis projecting wood shortages in the future due to over- mature stand structures. Some provin- cial jurisdictions now require new forest companies to obtain a certain portion of their wood volume alloca- tion from private land. In addition to enhancing potential carbon sequestra- tion and reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs), the incorporation of trees into predominantly agricultural landscapes has environmental benefits including enhanced soil conservation, nutrient management and water quality.
British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick are currently developing or research- ing agroforestry and afforestation sys- tems that are suitable for their soils, climate and farming systems. However, the adoption of these prac- tices by farmers has been slow. Thus, to move agroforestry forward, what is needed is a national voice and a mech- anism to unite these groups to work together, exchange information and coordinate and collaborate on research projects across the country. Creating a national network would certainly advance this initiative.
At the provincial level, there has to be coordination among the differ- ent sectors and a common goal to make agroforestry practices successful. In Saskatchewan, the concept of agro- forestry started in 1997 with the Saskatchewan Advisory Council on Agroforestry, consisting of government, university and user groups. In the State of the Environment Report (1997), Saskatchewan created an Agri-Food Innovation Fund, in which one of the five priority areas was to develop sus- tainable agroforestry economic diversi- fication opportunities for farmers.
In 2005, Premier Lorne Calvert announced his vision of converting 10 percent of the arable land in the province to agroforestry practices to create another sustainable industry in the province. Since that time an agro- forestry unit was developed at the Saskatchewan Forest Centre that would bring the research results to farmers and develop demonstration plantations. In addition, the University of Saskatchewan approved a Centre for Northern Agroforestry and Afforestation, which would create research capacity to develop agro- forestry systems that were appropriate to Saskatchewan conditions as well as growing an agroforestry industry. A founding document was developed for the govern- ment to provide a road map for how the industry should be grown in Saskatchewan. With this increased activity, there is a need for better communication and collaboration between gov- ernment agencies, researchers and extension personnel and for a national network of agro- forestry to promote this agenda with the federal government.
In 2003, in an effort to improve the communication and research endeavours and provide agroforestry with a national voice, several individuals from across the country applied to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) for funding to develop the Canadian Agroforestry/Afforestation Research Network (CAARN). Although the basis for the network arose primarily from global warming issues and a need to address Canada’s targets for Kyoto, CAARN was formed with a vision to support research, facilitate coordina- tion and promote collaboration among stakeholders involved in research into the use of agroforestry systems on agricultural land for the purposes of carbon storage, mitigation of GHG emissions, fibre production and other related (for example, envi- ronmental) benefits
The network research program was to address three overarching themes (carbon sequestration, green- house gas emissions and environmen- tal costs and benefits of afforestation and agroforestry strategies), coordi- nated through five regional nodes, in order to represent the major geo- graphic and climatic Canadian regions, soils, agroforestry systems and tree species. This regional approach was chosen to provide an accurate representation of carbon sequestration and GHG emission data for national accounting and model- ling efforts. Canada has an estimated 57 million hectares of degraded land in classes 3 to 6, and if only 5 percent of this land area were afforested or converted to agroforestry, the poten- tial for an annual carbon sink of 47 to 76 megatonnes of carbon dioxide (up to 30 percent of the emission reduc- tions for Canada) would exist. Thus afforestation and agroforestry strate- gies could present a potential mecha- nism for helping Canada meet its Kyoto commitments.
Sadly, CAARN was not funded, but having such a national network would benefit Canada in three ways:
It would provide the scientific insights and verifiable carbon models to address the critical knowledge gaps necessary to implement a national agroforestry strategy to maximize carbon sequestration and reduce GHG emissions.
There are a number of regions in Canada in which afforestation may be an important adjunct to existing wood supplies. This can arise as a result of wood shortages from natural (provincial) forests due to current age-class distribu- tions, changes in acceptable forest management practices or industri- al expansion, or because harvest- ing intensively managed plantations is seen to be more environmentally sustainable than harvesting native forests. Provid- ing this additional wood supply will also provide a means of eco- nomic diversification for farmers in areas with depressed markets for traditional agricultural com- modities.
Afforestation and agroforestry systems in Canadian agricultur- al landscapes have important environmental benefits. These include the restoration of degraded soils in areas subjected to excessive tillage or high- intensity livestock manage- ment, the addition of organic matter to previously tilled soils, reduced use of herbicides with a 20-year rotation, snow reten- tion and physical protection from wind erosion, uptake of agricultural chemicals (such as nitrates) from soil water, the provision of enhanced wildlife habitat, the moderation of stream temperatures and the addition of organic matter to riparian ecosystems.
The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration Shelterbelt Centre in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), is currently the only federal organization that has a national agro- forestry mandate. A national strategy is being developed with the goal of improving the competitive position of the agricultural sector by incorporat- ing agroforestry systems for the sus- tainable management of the agricultural land base. The strategy also includes a research program, delivered nationally, to advance the science needed to incorporate agro- forestry systems into the landscape as well as to develop more genetic material. There are several research areas that are being examined at regional AAFC locations to docu- ment how new genetic stock grows and functions under different climatic sce- narios, the design of differ- ent agroforestry systems, such as riparian buffer strips and shelterbelts with cropping systems, and the social and economic impacts of agroforestry sys- tems.
Although agroforestry would log- ically seem to be aligned more with agriculture than with forestry, the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) has been working in the area of afforesta- tion or block planting of fast-growing trees, such as the hybrid poplar, on agricultural land. One specific pro- gram was the Forest 2020 program, where demonstration plantations of fast-growing trees were planted on sites across Canada. However, no concerted research effort was designed for these plantations, and a national agroforestry network would have provided an excellent vehicle for conducting research on these plantations, notably about carbon sequestration. The CFS is also involved in biomass energy, and demonstration plantations of willow and hybrid poplar have been planted across Canada. It has also created the Fibre Centre, another indication that this agency is interested in develop- ing these unique agroforestry sys- tems.
The agroforestry organization that serves North America is the Association of Temperate Agroforestry, which convenes every two years some- where in North America to discuss research results and policy issues relat- ed to agroforestry. The association has a Web site that serves as a forum for disseminating research information and other news items. Although this association provides a useful avenue for exchanging ideas, it is not a mech- anism for developing a national agro- forestry network.
Thus there are a number of activi- ties related to agroforestry across the country, generated by various agencies. Although tremendous capac- ity and infrastructure have been devel- oped on the way to strengthening and adopting agroforestry systems, there is no cohesive or overarching structure to further agroforestry.
The Sustainable Forest Management Network, which has been funded by NSERC for the past 14 years, is a network of forest industries, universities and provincial and feder- al agencies that has been a tremen- dous help in promoting sustainable forest management in the boreal for- est. This is the kind of network I envi- sion to raise the profile of agroforestry across Canada and further strengthen the linkages and the cooperation among universities, industry and provincial and federal agencies.
Just as the government helped settle the prairies back in the 1800s by planting trees, so a resurgence in tree planting in the 21st century could lead to a greener strategy for Canada in terms of the environment, rural revitalization and renewable energy. The time is ideal for promoting an agroforestry network, especially with oil at $100 a barrel and a renewed interest in biomass energy from renewable resources using willow and hybrid poplar. This aspect of using woody crops for biomass energy in farming systems could pave the way for adopting other agroforestry sys- tems across Canada.