Scott O’Bar

Crops for Drylands

After last summer’s severe drought many Americans are looking for ways to continue producing food, while decreasing their dependence on irrigation – A noble goal in light of the fact that 70% of worldwide freshwater usage is irrigation(1). Our North American food supply has grown increasingly dependent on a well-coordinated, interdependent, highly energy-intensive system of production and distribution that exhausts more natural resources than it replenishes. The system on which this food supply depends is fragile and could easily be disrupted by the next major disaster, or, over the long term, a changing climate. The most glaring risk we currently face, however, is desertification: the long-term loss of vegetation and subsequent loss of soil, which, according to the United Nations, has already affected 70% of the earth’s drylands(2).

Agroforestry is the integration of trees with productive farming. Last year, many smallscale Midwestern farmers reported poor yields and, in some cases, a complete lack of yields due to the severe drought(3). If they had grown their crops using an agroforestry framework, then they could have prevented some of those losses.

Looking at the conventionally farmed land, it is easy to assess the problem. In most cases, there is no biologically rich topsoil. Leaving the soil bare and exposed to the elements results in more direct evaporation of water before plants have a chance to utilize it. Unprotected soil may also be sterilized through exposure to UV radiation, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides applied to the crops year after year. Such chemicals do not favor the soil microbiology necessary for recycling plant nutrients. Unprotected, dehydrated and relatively sterile soil is more prone to erosion from wind and water. “Farms” that depend on an endless input of synthetic chemicals, could be described more accurately as deserts that support crops via an artificial life support system.

It is said that when a conventional farmer switches over to organic farming there is about a five to seven year lull before the farmer can see an increase in their productivity. This is not to say that the farmer lacks the skills necessary to manage an organic farm during those first few years, just that the soil in these initial years is not suitable for supporting healthy plants without the addition of synthetic fertilizers.

Sustainability is not enough, since that implies that we’re sustaining a relatively weak state of affairs. What about the severely degraded land? We need systems that simultaneously heal the land while producing food. Ecological restoration does a good job of healing the land and restoring it to its previous state, but it does not address the food requirements of a growing population nor does it take into consideration that a changing climate might not support the plants or even ecosystems of yesteryear. Experimenting with alternative crops grown in a manner that mimics ecological restoration, helps create a diverse food production system, and a safety net, should unforeseen changes affect our ability to grow more traditional crops. A regenerative agroforest is a form of biomimicry, which addresses not only reforestation, but also food production and water security with one holistic approach.

Reforestation, in general, has some distinct benefits on the macro level. Forests help re-humidify the atmosphere, and provide condensation nuclei, which increases rainfall. Forests help create more rainfall, which helps create more forests, which helps create more rainfall, and on and on. Many tree species are deep-rooted, which allows them to accumulate nutrients from subsoils that remain out of the reach of small, annual crops. The water that trees transpire creates a humid microclimate that reduces the evaporative stress on more tender, herbaceous plants; something that is very helpful during periods of drought. Also, when trees mine nutrients from subsoils, those nutrients accumulate in the leaves, flowers and fruits of the trees, and when these plant parts drop to the ground, they passively mulch the soil, helping to trap moisture, and they eventually create a layer of nutrient-dense topsoil that is well within the reach of the root zone of delicate, annual crop plants.

In the Midwest a sensible regenerative agroforest might include a canopy of Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). Black Locust produces excellent timber, and is often used for untreated fence posts that last for 100 years in the ground. Honey Locust produces sweet, edible pods that are best consumed while they are still green. Underneath those trees we could plant shrubs of Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora), which produces bright-red, sweet berries. As an herbaceous layer we could plant the American Groundnut (Apios americana), which produces edible beans and edible roots. All these species are nitrogen-fixing, and contribute to a net gain of soil nitrogen, thus increasing the productivity of the land over time.

By allowing a forest with these species to continue for a few years, we could then go in and plant more traditional fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. At this point the new, productive trees that we plant will have an entire forest of nitrogen-fixing support species to help nurse them into production by providing dappled shade, a humid microclimate and amended soil.

Barring a few wild cards like covert weather modification, regenerative agroforestry can help address the issue of desertification caused by our current food production system.

In summary a regenerative agroforest has the following advantages:

  • A diversity of yields. Different crops at different times of the year instead of being inundated with one crop all at once.
  • Helps enhance soil fertility.
  • Helps restore balance to the hydrologic cycle.
  • Symbiotic relationships between plants. Plants help each other grow.
  • More stable against pest outbreaks. The diversity of plants confuses pests and fragments their populations. More habitat for predators.
  • Perennial yields. A properly designed system can last into the indefinite future, with little human intervention, much like a natural ecosystem. Requires little input once established.
  • Independence from fossil-fuel based fertilizers and sprays.


(1) http://www.unwater.org/statistics_use.html

(2) http://www.cbd.int/gbo1/chap-01-06.shtml

(3) http://grist.org/sustainable-farming/a-dry-run-from-hell-drought-hits-the-smallest-farms-the-hardest/

Scott-Face-567-x-436About the Author:

Scott’s concern over the mismanagement of the world’s freshwater, has led him to scour the botanical world for key edible species that require little irrigation compared to today’s major crop species. He is a visionary proponent of food forestry, and a self-described rare & edible plant enthusiast who has spent years researching alternative systems of food production, which require little energy and few external inputs.

Scott hopes to foster more firsthand research involving drought-tolerant edible plants, and seeks to ease the burden of drought-afflicted regions throughout the world by installing multi-species agroforests that simultaneously heal the land and produce food with minimal irrigation.

He is the author of the new book, Alternative Crops for Drylands: Proactively Adapting to Climate Change and Water Shortages. To learn more about this pertinent topic visit his website: http://cropsfordrylands.com/

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4 Responses to “Agroforestry: The Future of Food Production”

  1. Brent Bielema says:

    Fantastic article! Looks like I have a new game plan for future plantings — just what I needed! I will have to buy his book too, and spread the word. Also if all else fails, maybe we will just resort to insect farming, since they will undoubtedly outlast man’s many attempts to destroy the world. Thanks for posting this!

  2. David Shiflett says:

    Very refreshing to read attorney Chris who understands what’s really going on. Scott O’Bar is a great thinker. I would like to see him do some demonstation plots to spread his ideas to farmers. I like his comment, ” barring the wild card of weather modification”. He also gets it. You can’t talk about climate change without talking about the world-wide covert destruction of the natural weather patterns. He did’nt mention rock dust, one of the first things to do to remineralize depleated soils. He no doubt covers that in his book which would be worth getting.

  3. common law private attorney general Chris says:

    The rogue feral Federal private enemy owned Corp U.S. / U.N. Government’s Tampering with nature by G.M. O. TransHUmanist Manipulations thru Fracting; Aerial Chemical Sprayings / Solar Reflective Mgmt. by Earth sterilizing: Tri Methyl Aluminum; Barium; strontium 90; tungsten; flourasyllic acid a.k.a. Flouride; cyanide and other secret Proprietary/ B.S. Special Sauces to Critical for Americans to know about??? are rendering Much of Americas Farm Lands Forests and orchards Sterile and UN- AB EL to produce and with extreme specificity to magically Bursting into Flames with elevated Ignition qualities and Hotter Burning Characteristics appearing meant to DIStroy Americas Woodland Food Chains and Riparian Water Ways; Oceans with Core EXit, as well as Poisoned aquifers to Leave America explicitly vulnerable to Attacks by her other Enemies for ready Takeover by N.W.O. Glo-Ba’l Elitist Terrorists and other Despotic DickTraitors? PRAY for DEVINE intercession

  4. Barbara T. says:

    Great work by Scott O’Bar. His positive and pro-active approach could work in cities also. We the people all need to learn how to grow our own food or buy locally farmed food so we will not be owned.