Uptake of agroforestry in the UK remains stubbornly low – and that is at least partly because farmers think the financial incentives on offer are just not enough.

A new Defra-funded report, carried out by the Organic Research Centre, has looked into why UK farmers are not currently enthusiastic about planting trees on their land, and sought the input of established agroforestry pioneers to help identify what is needed to nudge the industry into a more tree-friendly frame of mind.

The ORC report notes that only 3.3% of UK land is currently used for agroforestry, which it describes as a 'middling figure' compared to other European countries, and well behind countries like Portugal which has 13% of its land under agroforestry.

Authors Dr Colin Tosh and Sally Westaway undertook a systematic review of existing research on the matter, as well as consulting with monitor farmers already specialising in different type of agroforestry, such as silvoarable (incorporating trees into arable) or silvopastoral (livestock with trees). Later this year, each of these monitor farmers will take part in a series of workshops to get to the bottom of what advice and payment incentives are needed to encourage farmers to take up agroforestry within the UK government’s Environmental Land Management system.

Dr Tosh explained that there had been a number of smaller studies over the last ten years looking at farmer attitudes to agroforestry in the UK, and the ORC review had considered all of these to extract its general conclusions, the chief of which were that either a lack of farmer knowledge or financial concerns were the main obstacles to progress.

“Farmers just don’t know they feel enough about agroforestry to go ahead and plant an agroforestry system," said Dr Tosh. "They also feel it is a substantial long term financial investment and don’t feel the current incentives and payment systems are sufficient.”

Head of Horticulture and Agroforestry at the Soil Association, Ben Raskin, and part of the research consortium behind the report, elaborated on the policy implications of the research: “It’s pretty clear that there will need to be a considerable investment in advice and guidance mechanisms for farmers post-Brexit. Farmers are hungry for more technical information on how to implement and manage agroforestry systems, as well as wanting a better understanding on the financials of including more trees on their farms.”

Lead Farming Advocate at the Woodland Trust, Helen Chesshire, went further. “I believe there is a strong argument for including an explicit agroforestry component in the main farmer payment system to have emerged post-Brexit: the Sustainable Farming Incentive. As it stands currently, I see a distinct possibility of agroforestry falling through the cracks of post-Brexit agriculture policy.”

Ms Chesshire’s comments were echoed by one of the leading agroforestry farmers in the UK, Stephen Briggs, who also advised the research: “The benefits of agroforestry for both the productivity and diversity of my farm have been immense. Farmers are aware of the term 'agroforestry' now and I think there is a very strong argument for a more distinct inclusion of agroforestry into UK agricultural policy post-Brexit.

The report 'Incentives and disincentives to the adoption of agroforestry by UK farmers: a semi-quantitative evidence review' is free to download from the Organic Research Center: https://www.organicresearchcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/AF-ELM-Test-Evidence-Review.pdf