In the latter part of 2016, Ethan Steinberg and two of his friends planned a driving tour across the United States to interview farmers. Their goal was to solve a riddle that had been bothering each of them for some time. Why was it, they wondered, that American agriculture basically ignored trees?
This was no esoteric inquiry. According to a growing body of scientific research, incorporating trees into farmland benefits everything from soil health to crop production to the climate. This practice is known as agroforestry. Steinberg and his friends, Jeremy Kaufman and Harrison Greene, also suspected it might yield something else: money. This led the trio to create Propagate Ventures, a company that offers farmers software-based economic analysis, on-the-ground project management, and investor financing to help add trees and tree crops to agricultural models.
One of Propagate’s key goals, Steinberg explained, was to get capital from interested investors to the farmers who need it — something he saw as a longtime barrier to such tree-based agriculture. Propagate quickly started attracting attention. Over the past two years, the group, based in New York and Colorado, has expanded into eight states, primarily in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Although relatively rare in the US, agroforestry is a widespread agricultural practice across the globe. Project Drawdown, a climate change mitigation think tank that ranks climate solutions, estimates that some 1.6 billion acres of land are in agroforestry systems; other groups put the number even higher. And the estimates for returns on those systems are also significant, according to proponents.
Ernst Götsch, a leader in the regenerative agriculture world, estimates that agroforestry systems can create eight times more profit than conventional agriculture. Part of this is because many crops can thrive beneath the shade of trees. On top of that, agroforestry practices are some of the best natural methods to pull carbon out of the air, according to Project Drawdown.
The group ranked silvopasture, a method that incorporates trees and livestock together, as the ninth most impactful climate change solution in the world, above rooftop solar power, electric vehicles, and geothermal energy. If farmers increased silvopasture acreage from 1.36 billion acres to 1.9 billion acres by 2050, Drawdown estimated carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced over those 30 years by up to 42 gigatons — more than enough to offset all carbon dioxide emitted by humans globally in 2015, according to NOAA — and could return $206 billion to $273 billion on investment.
Those numbers speak volumes to the power of agroforestry. Want to learn more about the environmental and economic benefits of agroforestry? Check out this great piece from the people over at Greenbiz.