More resilient agriculture with trees in the fields

Climate-proof rural and urban areas

A combination of trees and crop fields makes agriculture more resilient. Foto: WUR Open Teelten

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Mixed agriculture and agroforestry could help the transition to more climate-proof ways of farming. But how can farmers implement this effectively? Researchers at Wageningen University & Research and their European colleagues are letting farmers all over Europe experiment with climate-smart combinations of livestock, trees and crops.

The image of modern agriculture is often one of monocultures and mega-barns. This is the kind of agriculture that leads to climate change, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity. But other kinds of agriculture are possible too, ones where farming practices even have a positive impact on the environment. These alternative kinds of agriculture are the subject of the European AGROMIX project. The 28 partners in this project are investigating whether mixed agriculture and agroforestry can be used to make farming healthy, resilient and able to cope with the effects of climate change. The project is bringing farmers, researchers and policymakers together to conduct research, experiment with options and arrive at solutions. They are doing this in twelve pilot projects across Europe in which mixed agriculture and various forms of agroforestry are being tried out. The results will be used to make policy recommendations aimed at supporting the transition to more sustainable agriculture.


AGROMIX aims to find ‘climate-smart’ combinations of livestock, trees and crops. Examples of such combinations are a mixed arable and livestock farm, or a farm that also has agroforestry. Agroforestry can take various forms, such as an orchard where sheep graze or a field of potatoes that also has rows of trees and bushes. The increasingly popular food forests are another example of agroforestry.

Various forms of mixed agriculture and agroforestry are being tested throughout Europe

Cinta cenese pigs graze in wood pastures. Photo: Tenuta di Paganico

The benefits of agroforestry are not just economic – the farmer has multiple sources of income, which spreads the risk – but also ecological. A row of trees increases biodiversity, retains water and improves the soil. Trees can also reduce damage from wind. How farmers can make smart choices from all these options is at the heart of Wageningen’s research in AGROMIX.

Serious games

Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is one of the 28 partners involved in the project. Daniël de Jong, who works at Wageningen Plant Research, is the project manager for the Dutch contribution. De Jong: “Modern agriculture is geared to uniformity but our goal is diversity. To achieve this, we’re assessing the opportunities and issues associated with various alternative approaches. That will help farmers figure out the implications that alternatives like these would have for them.” Tools such as serious games are an accessible way of giving farmers a clear understanding of the options. De Jong: “Wageningen is currently heading the development of one game in which farmers will be able to input their farm’s details and see what a switch to agroforestry would cost them and what gains they would get from it. The game is obviously a huge simplification of the real world; it is intended as inspiration, not as a personalised recommendation for that farm.”

Twelve pilots

WUR is supervising the twelve pilots in the various European countries. A co-design process is used in which all stakeholders – farmers, companies, local residents, researchers and policymakers – discuss potential solutions in joint design sessions. De Jong: “In France, we have a pilot project with a pig farmer who would normally keep his pigs permanently in the shed, but now he wants them to graze in the fields. He also wants to feed them with fodder he gets from his trees. By producing his own feed for his pigs, he will be less dependent on feed such as soya that has to travel long distances. The trees are in his meadows and provide the pigs with shadow as well as fodder.”

AGROMIX brings together researchers, farmers and policymakers to explore the transition towards resilient farming, efficient land use, and sustainable agricultural value chains in Europe.

This specific pilot involves investigating which parts of the trees are suitable for use as animal feed. Business models are also being studied: how can the farmer market the pork? Is a special label for grass-fed or tree-fed pigs an option? After all, the meat needs to fetch a higher price to make up for the increased costs of this more extensive form of livestock farming. De Jong: “I expect farmers, businesspeople, researchers, policymakers and perhaps consumers too to jointly consider the options.”

Climate-proof landscape

A pilot has also started in South Limburg in the Netherlands and De Jong is involved in that too. The assignment is to figure out how to lay out the landscape in a way that makes it climate-proof. “The municipality of Voerendaal has a problem with extreme downpours and droughts. The terrain is hilly, so after a heavy rainfall the streets are full of mud that washes off the fields. The municipality wants to prevent that. It also wants an attractive, diverse rolling landscape, which is not necessarily what you get with monotonous potato fields. But they don’t want to drive out the farmers either.” One possibility is reviving a traditional form of Limburg agroforestry: ridges planted with herbs, bushes with berries and trees such as oak and walnut. Many of these ridges were lost due to land consolidation and the increase in scale. That is a pity because they stopped the water from flowing down the hillside so rapidly, while the roots of the trees and bushes helped retain the water in the soil. Moreover, the ridges were good for biodiversity and helped keep pests under control thanks to all the insects and birds living there. A downside is that farmers had to make detours with their tractors, so not all farmers are keen on seeing a return of the traditional ridges.

Everyone in line

It is difficult to get everyone in line when so many parties are involved in the pilot – farmers, the water board and the provincial authority for example. De Jong: “Solutions thought up at a desk aren’t enough in themselves to bring about change. For that you need people who have the power and the drive to set the change in motion – for example, a farmer respected by everyone in the village.”

You can’t force people to plant trees or change the way they work. Let them reflect on the issue themselves

The Limburg ridges are a traditional form of agroforestry that could be reintroduced. Photo: Shutterstock

De Jong specialises in organising design sessions. He advocates thinking outside the box for these sessions: “In my opinion, you should invite not just the usual stakeholders but also outsiders such as artists and other mavericks. They often come up with ideas that never occur to the stakeholders.” Although he warns against overly high expectations. “If the farmers are not keen on any of the ideas that are proposed, nothing will get done. I’m happy even if only two of the five ideas are implemented.” It is also important for all the people attending one of these design sessions to feel the urgency. De Jong: “For example, arable farmers did not have a problem with drought last summer, so some of them are less inclined to change their practices in ways that increase the water retention of the soil. They no longer see a need for that. It’s up to us to persuade them of that urgency. These meetings aim to make it clear to everyone that climate change and loss of biodiversity are a given and we really need to develop new building blocks together.”

Typically Dutch

When developing solutions – ‘building blocks’ – that enjoy broad support, it is important to make sure everyone feels they are being listened to. WUR has a lot of experience with change processes of this kind, where you need to get everyone on board. De Jong: “The Ministry of Agriculture also requires us to take this approach. If you want to do applied research, you have to involve practitioners in the field. It’s a good idea to make sure the practitioners feel they too bear responsibility for the project as they are the ones who will ultimately need to implement it. That is why we are so pleased with the municipality of Voerendaal, which really has a sense of ownership of the pilot project.” He says this approach to collaborating is typically Dutch. “Other countries have more of a tradition of top-down approaches. The researchers or some other authority impose their ideas and the people in the field are expected to carry them out without ever being asked for their opinion.” According to De Jong, that is asking for trouble and resistance. “That is why we try to be less domineering at AGROMIX. We encourage the pilot project managers to be open to ideas from all the stakeholders. After all, you can’t force people to plant trees or change the way they work. Let them reflect on potential problems in the future and come up with their own solutions. If you involve them in the changes, they will be much more supportive.”

European research context

AGROMIX addresses the following European policy challenges:

  • Restoring the balance of power in agriculture
  • Combatting climate change
  • Environmental management
  • Conservation of landscapes and biodiversity

Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Plant Research and Wageningen Economic Research European countries involved: Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland and United Kingdom

Duration: 2020 – 2024

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