I work closely with a number of groups promoting the benefits of agroforestry. And it is easy when you are immersed in a subject to lose some objectivity. So lest I become accused of becoming an agroforestry cheerleader, I think it is important to outline some of the potential disadvantages of agroforestry. And I will do so in couple of posts.

Agroforestry Does Not Cure-All

Agroforestry in not a panacea for agriculture, forestry and conservation. No system is optimal for every situation nor for every producer.

When agroforestry works, it can work well. But when it doesn’t work, it will fail as miserably as any poorly thought out scheme. Therefore, it is vital that potential producers and land managers understand the strengths and weaknesses of agroforestry, such that they can make an informed decision about whether to proceed.

Time is Not On Your Side

Probably the single biggest disadvantage of agroforestry to the producer is time. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones have always told us that “time is on my side…” but they obviously weren’t trying to grow trees and shrubs for profit. For there-in is the first hurdle for many agroforestry operations. Agroforestry always involves the integration of long-lived perennial (trees or shrubs) with other crops and/or livestock. From planting to harvest, your tree/shrub crop, even with fast growing species and hybrids, is a multi-year, and sometimes multi-decade commitment. If you are in mid-point or later of your farming/forestry career, you may never see the figurative or literal fruits of your labour.

The Time Value of Money

Agroforestry is never a ‘get rich quick’ scheme, but hopefully it is not a ‘go broke slow’ proposition either.

It is important to note that in economic terms, agroforestry can have an advantage over conventional forestry and horticulture. Agroforestry systems blend long-term crops and products with shorter-term returns from livestock, agricultural crops or other non-timber forest products. In this regard, agroforestry can leverage short-term cash-flow over time more effectively. And it can make the overall operation more profitable than divorcing the “agro” and the “forestry” components.

Moreover, agroforestry systems that introduce the cultivation and harvest of non-timber crops into a mature or nearly mature forest setting do not face most of the disadvantages associated with green-field developments. There you must invest in prepping, planting and nurturing trees and shrubs from seedlings to final crop.

Because time can be your enemy (or at least, not your best friend), production issues experienced for brief periods can have very long-term consequences. A disease or insect outbreak, severe drought or fire can wipe out years of planning and production. And, perennial production risks (e.g. risk of fire) can amplify with time, not diminish. Ongoing contingency planning, proactive pest management (i.e. nipping problems in the bud), and plantation insurance are all tools to help mitigate these issues.

Capitalizing on the Long-term

Recouping your agroforestry investments will also require some informed accounting and pricing. This is done to ensure that your long-term capital (i.e. the value of immature trees) is recognized in the ‘chattel’ of your estate should you sell your land base before you reap a harvest of timber, fruit or other tree/shrub crops.

Alternately, this issue may be immaterial if you plan to pass your operation on to your offspring. Many producers have greater comfort investing in agroforestry production when there is the potential for intergenerational transfers. Your children and grandchildren will thank you for your foresight.

The Triumph of Patience

Time can heal all wounds, but it can also test your patience. It is important for potential producers and land managers to understand the potential disadvantages of the extended time frame involved in agroforestry production and make sure it matches with their risk tolerance and long-term goals.

In my next post I cover how agroforestry systems can be disadvantaged by complexity.