Posted by Lou Astbury on

Agroforestry + growing tea.

What is agroforestry?

Very simply it is the integration of trees and shrubs into agricultural landscapes. Or perhaps a better way of saying this, it is a way of working with the land that integrates trees, shrubs and food crops for improved collective health and resilience. 

This is not a new concept, it’s just been given a ‘term’. And has only resulted due to a reductionist approach to management which disects the landscape into  ‘agriculture’’, forestry’, ‘riparian’, ‘urban’ zones. Hard lines and distinct disciplines prevent us working with the land holistically. 

Monocultures don’t work long term. Whether that is growing single species of trees or wheat. It’s all the same - it forces growth into a form that stresses the system. And the result is the need for heavy inputs - whether that is in the form of additional nitrogen, unwanted plant or insect control, chemical treatments, modified crops etc. While the current narrative is still that huge agriculture is the only way to feed the world, the implications of this approach are close to collapse. It is unsustainable.

There has been masses of scientific research conducted and so much indigenous knowledge that clearly shows - more complexity, means greater diversity, which results in a resilient system. 

There is huge potential to create thriving, abundant and nourishing systems that have the ability to adapt and be resilient. Even intensive systems are possible if we follow the natural laws of the earth.

Integrating trees and ‘crops’ is a step towards creating more diverse land management systems. However the uptake in the UK is still very low. There are some amazing trials underway but they are limited and one of the reasons perhaps is the lack of harvest potential from trees and processing infrastructure around ‘could be’ harvests. There are also plenty of other blockages like funding, land ownership, the relative slow growth rate of trees in comparison to annual crops to name but a few. 

I feel ‘tea’ production has enormous potential when thinking about agroforestry systems.  Harvesting from native tree species in the UK, from trees in other parts of the world (where agroforestry or forest farming is still a traditional land practice) and also for transforming traditional tea (Camellia sinensis) plantations into diverse environments that can support biodiversity. 

There is much to learn and I’m figuring this out and exploring potential as we go along. The benefits gained from respectful non-timber tree harvesting here in the UK is underrated. 

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