The College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech is part of a $60 million, five-year grant led by The Nature Conservancy for a project titled "Expanding Agroforestry Production and Markets for Producer Profitability and Climate Stabilization." The project aims to advance agroforestry across the eastern United States and Hawaii and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative.

John Munsell, professor and forest management Extension specialist in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, said Virginia Tech will receive $2.25 million of the grant to lead regional efforts to help mid-Atlantic and Appalachian farmers increase the use of agroforestry and reap the economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Agroforestry is a form of climate-smart agriculture that integrates trees, shrubs, crops, and livestock into a single farming system. Through more widespread use of agroforestry, farmers can significantly draw down carbon from the atmosphere while profitably growing healthy foods that can help support local communities and regional food systems.

“This unprecedented investment by the USDA in agroforestry will increase adoption nationwide, support producers in an equitable manner, develop critical technical resources, and ultimately reshape cost-share programs as we know them,” said Munsell. “We will work with a diverse array of producers, study and meet their financial and technical needs, and leverage Virginia Tech’s track record of improving agroforestry system efficiencies and increasing on-the-ground application.”

Professors John Fike, Liesel Ritchie, and John Munsell pose for a photo.
(From left) Professors John Fike, Liesel Ritchie, and John Munsell will work with farmers in the mid-Atlantic and Appalachia to increase the use of agroforestry in their operations. Photo by Marya Barlow for Virginia Tech.

Munsell will be joined by Professor and Forage Extension Specialist John Fike in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Professor of Sociology Liesel Ritchie in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. The multidisciplinary team will directly assist producers in instituting or expanding agroforestry practices that complement their farming operations.

“Virginia Tech was chosen as a partner for this effort because of our strong track record in agroforestry research and extension in the U.S.,” Fike said. “That success largely arises out of the collaborative relationships among many people in our two colleges and Virginia Cooperative Extension. Partnering with Liesel Ritchie from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences will further strengthen our understanding of producer behavior and motivation and how we can better tailor our program and related research to meet their needs and increase adoption.” 

“We are thrilled to be working with The Nature Conservancy in this effort to expand the implementation of agroforestry, which blends ecosystem services and production-based land use without relegating one for the other,” Munsell said. “Through strategic design and complementary species integration, food and fiber production, and environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration, water and air quality, soil health, and biodiversity can be enhanced. Rather than managing trade-offs, agroforestry accelerates multifunctionality.”

Despite the benefits of agroforestry, only about 1 percent of U.S. farms currently practice it. Through regionalized technical assistance and farmer outreach efforts, this project will transform 30,000 acres into agroforestry systems over the next five years, thus building a foundation for scaling agroforestry nationally. Within 10 years, the model for this project could facilitate the adoption of climate-smart agroforestry practices such as alley cropping, silvopasture, and windbreaks on 10 percent of U.S. farmland.

Because agroforestry sequesters 2 to 5 tons of carbon per acre per year, the level of adoption expected from this project would generate carbon sequestration equivalent to 1 to 2.5 percent of 2020 U.S. emissions from all sources, according to Joe Fargione, science director for The Nature Conservancy’s North America Region, which is leading the project. In the longer term, over approximately 20 years, the project could catalyze more than 80 million acres of high-density agroforestry, mitigating 3 to 6 percent of the country’s 2020 emissions.

“Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge of our time, and farmers are on the front lines,” said Fargione. “Putting more trees in agricultural landscapes is a win for farmers and a win for nature. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions by storing more carbon in the soil, and it helps farmers’ bottom line by creating an expanded revenue stream.”

To increase access to capital, this innovative project will provide $40 million in direct incentive payments to producers for tree planting, creating a national network of demonstration farms that will be used for education and outreach. The project also will catalyze new financial mechanisms and business models – such as leasing tree-planting rights to investors – which project partners expect will attract hundreds of millions of dollars of private and institutional investment in the next decade or two.

By combining the necessary incentives, outreach, and education through a distribution network of the leading nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and researchers in the agroforestry space, project partners will increase capital investments in tree planting, thus increasing the supply of agroforestry commodities. Climate-smart commodities from agroforestry systems include nuts, fruits, timber, and products grown amongst the trees like annual and perennial crops and livestock such as beef and chicken.

 “The project is designed to create a longer lasting and broader impact that extends beyond the duration of this grant and to producers not directly enrolled in our program,” said Fargione.

“The Colleges of Natural Resources and Environment and Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech are highly regarded leaders in agroforestry research and extension,” Munsell said. “The award further cements the university’s role in advancing this climate-smart land use.”

Related story:

New grants to expand forest farming in Appalachian woodlands and beyond