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Forest Gardens:
The Climate-Smart Agriculture of Tomorrow


April 10, 2018
By Trees for the Future Staff

We all know about climate change. We’ve been told about greenhouse gasses, we’ve seen the dramatic images of ice shelves collapsing into the ocean, and yeah, maybe the weather in our area has been a bit more severe lately. For the majority of Americans, this is how we see climate change: news reports, videos from the arctic, and the occasional inconvenience.

What we don’t see is the impoverished farmer struggling to provide for his family. What we don’t see is his fight against drastically fluctuating markets, against degrading seed quality, and against even mother nature herself when the rains come less frequently, at ever-changing times, or sometimes, not at all.

What we don’t see is the human element.

Every year millions of farmers and their families face severe risks that threaten not only their livelihood, but the survival of their family. Climate change and its resulting weather extremes and abnormalities are increasingly stacking the odds against those who have the most to lose.

These farmers and their families are the least prepared to weather climate change and the first to suffer from its impacts. One crop failure is enough to send their lives into an irrecoverable downward spiral. As said by Bill Gates, “If just one piece falls out of place, their lives can fall apart.”

Tatu mixes trees among vegetables and grains to ensure her family has diverse foods and paydays

Enter Forest Gardens

Imagine a system of agriculture that analyzes and works to mitigate the risks for these farmers. A system  that requires only knowledge, a little monetary investment, and the desire to combat climate change while simultaneously building a safety net for millions of farmers in the world’s most at-risk areas.

At Trees for the Future, we have imagined such a system and we’ve already implemented it to positively change the lives of millions of farmers and their families.

We call this system the Forest Garden Approach. From analyzing and mitigating risks to providing farmers with the knowledge and resources they need to succeed, this approach is based around a simple, yet effective premise. But it’s also adaptable, promotes resiliency among local populations, and combats the effects of climate change.

The Forest Garden Approach does not rely on a specific collection of crops or set farming technologies. Rather, the success of this system comes from examining real risks as defined by farmers and researchers, and implementing the optimal set of solutions to protect farms from present and future threats.

Kity's land is protected by a Living Fence and she has planted crops ideal for local weather conditions

Farmers know their environment
and local climate trends

The first step in our process of climate-smart agriculture is to analyze changes in local weather patterns that effect agricultural conditions. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the farmers with whom we work are experiencing significant changes in precipitation, an increase in the severity of storms, and a general increase in temperature and temperature extremes.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) gives additional context in its report “Africa as a Crossroads,”:

“Climate variability is an important atmospheric phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa, where climatic conditions are uncertain and display a high degree of variability. Analysis of long-term trends (1900-2005) indicates rising temperatures in Africa as a whole, as well as drying, or decreased precipitation. This change causes significant climatic disturbances in many parts of the continent, either inducing drought or flooding, or increasing sea temperatures, which lead to cyclones, particularly over the Indian Ocean.”

Our local, “boots on the ground” technicians dedicate themselves to researching and understanding the changing environmental conditions across Sub-Saharan Africa. They are trained to work among local populations – often with low-literate groups who lack access to climate science journals or international news reports – to identify climate change in local environments. Together, our technicians and the local population work through questions of the localized effects of climate change and apply what they learn to design forest garden programs that mitigate near and long-term risks.

Most farmers rely heavily on the land and are exposed to natural elements. When the summers are hotter, they take note. When the rains come later, they take note. And most of all, they remember that what now looks to be desert, was once a fertile environment capable of sustaining much greater capacities of plants and wildlife.

We ask farmers simple but important questions to understand how they are affected by the changing climate.

  • Have you noticed changing trends in your local environment
    (infrequent or later rains, more severe storms, hotter temperatures)?
  •  Has something changed in your local environment (more or less of certain wildlife, more or less of certain trees, or the number of trees in general)?
  •  Do you see changes impacting your local agriculture
    (more pests, more or less rains, floods, droughts, desertification)?

 Once trends have been identified our technicians work with farmers to discover the impact these changing trends have on their fields and communities.

  • In Tanzania the change in temperature is resulting in an agricultural shift from maize to millet, a hardier crop for the drying and warming
  • In Kenya our farmers used to experience drought every ten years. Now it’s every three.
  • In Senegal nearly every rainy season is marred by irregular rainfall and deadly floods. In the worst examples, we see massive mudslides and rivers running brown, whisking away tons of precious topsoil from eroded
  • In all areas warming is causing water to evaporate and soils to desiccate. Most farmers reports pest and disease moving into new areas and at different times. Unanimously they say their soil is dying.
Our technicians in Tanzania cross a seasonal river after the rains arrived

Farmers learn to ask the right questions

 After working with farmers to identify local climate trends and their effects, the next step in climate-smart agriculture is teaching farmers to ask necessary questions to preserve the future of their farms and families.

  • How can I protect my field from fierce winds and storms?
  • How can I minimize erosion of my precious topsoil?
  • How can I revitalize my tired soil?
  • How can I trap more moisture in my soil?
  • How can I grow my own fuel wood so I don’t have to deplete our forest?
  • How can I avoid forage (water) shortages?
  • Will I no longer be able to grow certain crops?
  • What can I plant that can tolerate unpredictable rainfall?
  • How can I permanently improve the quality of my soil?
  • How can I protect my crops from hot winds and increasing temperatures?
  • How do changes in weather affect my ability to buy or sell certain things in the market?
  • Which trees bear fruit during the leanest and driest times of the year?
A seasonal river in Tanzania trickles in March when it had been expected to be flowing strongly

Farmers select the best solutions
for their local environment

While other development agencies may argue the solution to farmers’ needs lie in credit, fertilizer, or quick-fix technologies, we believe the farmers know best. And consistently, farmers choose the Trees for the Future Forest Garden Approach as a superior form of climate-smart agriculture. Our system is low-tech, highly replicable, and applicable everywhere from mudslide-prone hillsides in Kenya to the rapidly desertifying lands of the Sahel in Senegal.

Not only does the Forest Garden Approach meet the FAO’s climate-smart agriculture definition of sustainably increasing productivity, enhancing food security, and removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, but most importantly, it empowers any farmer anywhere to identify and implement successful adaptations that align with their local needs.

Our Forest Garden Approach trains farmers to protect, stabilize, revitalize, and diversify their fields using techniques such as:

  • Planting windbreaks to protect farms from winds and storms
  • Planting contour rows to stop erosion and allow nitrogen-fixing trees to build topsoil
  • Producing much of their own fuelwood and animal fodder
  • Improving the growing conditions of their fields and extending the growing season overall
  • Planting crops that are naturally drought and rain tolerant, without the need for genetically modified seeds

The protective layers of the Forest Garden approach create a holistic, natural response to the effects of climate change. The windbreaks of trees help the soil hold more moisture and organic matter, while also attracting birds that keep pests at bay. Fruit trees, unlike traditional staple crops, can handle changes in precipitation if the rains come early or too late. As well, many fruit trees, such as the jujube, bear valuable fruit despite thriving in arid zones, and keep the ground cooler by protecting once bare fields from the full brunt of the sun’s heat.

Our farmer's plot in Ikinu, Kenya boasts diverse crops that can flourish in the local conditions

Forest Gardens: the clear choice

Through teaching millions of farmers to ask the right questions and to protect, stabilize, revitalize, and diversify their fields, the Forest Gardens Approach is not a silver bullet approach, it is a methodology to create climate-smart agricultural practices. Put simply, it is the environmentally sound agricultural system of the future.

The impoverished farmers in the most at-risk areas can’t afford to wait for politicians, or diplomats, or even world leaders to act on an agenda. Their families don’t have that kind of time. We have the ability, right now, to help them. The Forest Gardens Approach is the right approach. Join us, won’t you?

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Your donation has a direct impact on the earth and lives of the people who need it most. By helping us plant trees, you give families the ability to transition from unsustainable farming techniques to a Forest Garden system. Your donation not only sustains and empowers them, but also changes their lives forever.