By Tom Driscoll, Director of Conservation Policy and NFU Foundation

The Climate Column has covered many practices supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In addition to its own work promoting conservation practices, NRCS also collaborates with the United States Forest Service to provide resources through the National Agroforestry Center (NAC) to help farmers contribute to climate resilience. NAC promotes a number of agricultural conservation practices, including alley cropping, which describes the process of raising agricultural or horticultural crops between rows of woody plants.

For an established producer, planting trees may seem like a big change, but the potential benefits are numerous. Depending on the crop grown and the tree species selected, alley cropping can enhance soil moisture retention, protect crops and soil from wind, and improve a farm’s economic resilience by diversifying income streams. Furthermore, if nitrogen-fixing species are employed, alley cropping can increase yields and decrease input costs. Income diversification may be especially attractive for farms facing inter-generational transition; the younger generation can tend to the trees, scheduling maintenance around school or “town job” responsibilities.

Successful alley cropping requires consideration of relevant markets, careful harvest timing to ensure crops do not interfere with each other, planning for the passage and use of farm equipment when spacing tree rows, and species selection that prevents light, nutrient and water competition.

Would alley cropping work on your farm? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts on the practice in the comments section!

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