Our Journey to Dynamic Agroforestry - A Concept with a Future

The following post is an abridged excerpt from my book Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner’s Unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain

In October 2016, Joachim Milz came through Asuom, where our Ghanaian sister company Serendipalm that supplies us with sustainable palm oil is based. It was, as usual, a warm and humid night, and I sat with my teammates Rob and Phillip on the veranda of our guesthouse, which for a few years had been our evening hangout. Traffic noise had died down and the congregation next door was practicing, singing and drumming. The neighbors across the road were burning a small pile of leaves and plastic bags, making for a nice if slightly disturbing smolder.

Yet we were glued to Joachim’s laptop screen. It showed photos taken over a three-year period at a 150-acre farm in neighboring Ivory Coast, where his consultancy ECOTOP had been the technical adviser. Planted on a degraded pineapple plantation, the orchard featured regular parallel rows of densely and diversely planted trees and ground crops. Cocoa, oil palm, and rubber were the main crops; fruit, cashew nut, and timber trees were included at a lower density; fast-growing bananas and papayas still dominated the picture during these early years.

What we were witnessing was Joachim’s mind-boggling concept he called “dynamic agroforestry” (DAF).

The photos literally took us from the time of ground preparation—the pegging of rows and planting—through the first cassava harvest, to what had now become a young bountiful jungle starting its life cycle. Joachim’s barely three-year-old orchard already looked lush and healthy, like designed natural chaos. It modeled, as he explained, natural succession in tropical forests, and supposedly offered numerous benefits compared with conventionally farmed monocultures, large and small. He showed us more examples of such plantings, mostly in tropical countries, and then we bombarded him with questions about his method.

Was this perhaps the agricultural model we had been looking for in Ghana to integrate oil palm, cocoa, and other crops, and become a truly regenerative project?

To Design a DAF Forest

How do you design and plan the installation of a new DAF plot? In essence, you determine what main tree species you want to include and design around them—in Ghana, it is oil palm and cocoa. To simplify planting and maintenance, most modern DAF fields are planted in rows and grids. Yet, unlike in gridded tree monocultures, these rows are highly diverse—with a system.

Note that trees of the same species are spaced quite a bit farther apart than in their respective monoculture. Timber and fruit trees are planted in between palm and cocoa. In West Africa one may, for example, include avocados, oranges, cashews, teak, and mahogany.

You’ll also want to include faster-growing, shorter-cycle plants: bananas and papayas, cassava and maize, beans and peas, as I had seen intercropped on newly planted oil palm plots. They create early income and offer synergies. For example, the shade of a fast-growing banana protects a neighboring cocoa seedling.

DAF aims to optimize the output of the entire system, rather than the yield of a single species. Trees aren’t machines, and each species has its own growing cycle, ecological niche, and requirements. Effective DAF designs must give plants the light, nutrients, and protection they need but also consider the principles of natural succession. In the wild, most cereals and vegetables are pioneering plants. They initially occupy spots without trees around but eventually disappear.

Tropical secondary plants, such as bananas and papayas, grow taller and produce for a few years, then are overgrown and replaced by even taller and longer-lasting trees. If a farmer wants to keep growing these tropical fruits, he moves them to newly planted lots or to the edge of an established field. Depending on their natural place in a succession, each tree thus may occupy a stratum in a DAF plot for anywhere from a few years to over a hundred.

Famously, cocoa tolerates shade well and produces plenty of pods, as long as all else is right. Its canopy resides in a lower stratum and can therefore coexist with oil palms that need full sun and whose crowns occupy the top stratum, like coconuts, mahogany, and eucalyptus.

A DAF planting simulates a natural forest, but it isn’t. Through plant selection and farm maintenance, you design and guide the forest, while letting the trees “do their thing” under favorable conditions. Drone shots of DAF fields will display green, diverse, structured beauty springing up from degraded farmland. From above, mature plots look like natural forests; from below, you discover how designed and productive they are.

DAF fields should include so-called biomass species—fast-growing annuals or perennials. They are trimmed periodically, with the trimmings laid as mulch in the tree rows, where they decay into fertile humus. Once all trees are planted, a DAF mix of cocoa, oil palm, fruit, and timber trees has fewer trees of each species per hectare than in a monoculture but will host a much higher total number of trees—some 2,000 trees per hectare in total, versus 150 for palm or 1,100 for cocoa monocultures.

Don’t densely planted trees grow small and thinnish and produce low yields, as happens with cocoa monocultures in Ghana? Apparently not. In a well-designed and maintained DAF plot, tree sizes and product yield per tree are comparable with that in a monoculture. Unlike monocultures, mixed tree assemblies thrive at such high densities because each species occupies its “comfort zone” during a specific time period and at the “right height.” There is competition for key resources, such as light and water, but trees also collaborate strongly and build synergistic networks.

In large timber monocultures planted densely to produce tall, fast-growing trees with high yields, competition for sunlight prevails. In comparison, DAF uses a more Montessori-type approach to utility forests. Help each tree develop according to its needs and skills, surround it with many other types of trees, and provide fostering conditions to all. As icing on the cake, the inherent high biodiversity of mixed forests reduces the risk of a catastrophic crop loss caused by pest attacks.

If this isn’t a great metaphor for the benefits of symbiotic relationships between humans, what is?

Carbon Farming

Since DAF plots, by design, promote tree and biomass growth in a favorable environment, they also devour atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This high productivity per area has made DAF and other mixed agroforestry systems the darlings of people promoting tree planting to combat climate change. Such sequestration of the greenhouse gas (GHG) CO2 in the form of biomass above and below ground—trees and short-lived plants versus roots—is called “carbon farming.”

How does one motivate farmers of tree crops to renovate unproductive cocoa orchards or replant them using the DAF concept? Very few farmers will make the required management changes simply to counter global climate change. After all, they have much more pressing concerns, namely their economic survival.

Farmers worldwide take reluctantly to a new paradigm, notably one as radical as this: “abandon your convenient monocrops—or at least improve their upkeep—and cut back on agrochemicals.” Fortunately, there are signs of a young generation of farmers in Ghana who want to practice novel approaches. They also have plenty of former agricultural land available to lease.

Our experience in Ghana shows that several devices are needed to attract cash-poor smallholders to practicing DAF and other forms of carbon farming.

First, someone needs to provide the means (seedlings, tools, financing of land and labor); then the results need to show visible improvements of yields, which may take years. An ongoing financial incentive through a carbon credit mechanism will help—but is difficult and costly to monitor. Finally, one needs to provide hands-on engaging training and demonstration.

If regenerative agriculture and dynamic agroforestry are to make a dent “in the climate,” such financial, technical, and training support must be offered to hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers worldwide.

DAF promises to produce things the world needs—fruits, nuts, timber—and provides plenty of other benefits: farmers have more fertile soils and higher yields, trees are less sensitive to drought and pests, the higher biodiversity attracts fewer pests, and more atmospheric carbon is sequestered than in other forms of food production in fields and forests.

Finally, DAF orchards can look very appealing and provide plenty of shade. Not a bad working environment.

Bringing DAF to Serendipalm

With such a wealth of projected benefits, it’s no wonder we swiftly kicked off our mission to demonstrate and implement DAF at Serendipalm. In 2017, the year after Joachim’s first visit, Serendipalm established its own DAF training and demonstration farms, a 15-acre farm near Asuom and a 7.5-acre farm near Abaam.

Next, we started trials with some of our farmers and, by late 2019, had helped some twenty-five to install small trial plots on their farms. In parallel, Joachim and his colleague Bastian Pellhammer taught pruning workshops for Serendipalm’s staff and farmers in the field. We discovered that many older farmers aren’t too motivated to do complex designed plantings or carefully prune their cocoa trees, even after multiple training sessions. Farmer-to-farmer trainings may work in the right setting; they didn’t for this knowledge- and labor- intensive concept and this aging crowd.

The Serendipalm field team thus suggested that instead of expecting farmers to practice DAF and cocoa renovation themselves, to offer support in planting and maintenance to farmers as a “for-pay” service. Over a three-year period, three hundred farmers will plant new DAF fields on overgrown or degraded land. The project finances the seedlings.

Serendipalm also hired and trained some one hundred staff to help farmers in planning, planting, and maintaining their DAF fields and renovating old and unproductive cocoa land. A hundred new jobs is not bad for an area offering little skilled employment. Long term, we hope that this sizeable demonstration project will entice most farmers in our district and beyond to use DAF as a more profitable, manageable, and diverse approach to replanting compared with monocrops.

And while our crews are at it, they will prune and renovate neglected cocoa fields. During their visits, Joachim and Bastian had discovered that a third of cocoa trees produced few to no pods. Taking most of them out reduces tree density and the risk of pest attacks. Over the course of the project our trained farmworkers will renovate some six hundred plots, thus increasing cocoa yields from 350 to over 530 pounds per acre.

What’s in it for the farmer? The higher cocoa yield and overall revenues from a hectare of DAF and the diversification of the product range are a good start. The inclusion of annual and multiyear field crops will translate into income from year one—much sooner than the three to four years needed for palm or cocoa monocrops to produce reasonable yields and income.

DAF tells a multifaceted and rather convincing story that appeals to most people you tell it to. Why wouldn’t brands and consumers want to support products with such a story and impact?

With our DAF excitement and programs in Ghana and Samoa, we are riding a global wave. The concept of mixed agroforestry is catching on, promoted by practitioners and scientists and driven by several urgent needs worldwide: to help small farmers make their farms more productive, resilient, and profitable, and to sequester plenty of carbon while feeding a large part of the world’s population.

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