A Primer on Agroforestry vs. Forest Farming vs. Food Forests

The terms agroforestry, forest farming, and food forest get used often in conjunction. Although they sound synonymous, in fact they are related terms that have distinctly different definitions and practices. In today’s blog, we explore these terms.

Agroforestry is a USDA term. According to the USDA, “agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.” So simply put, agroforestry is using trees and shrubs for some kind of benefit on the farm.

Just like the federal government is apt to do, the USDA divides agroforestry into five major subsections. These are alley cropping, silvopasture, forest farming, riparian forest buffers, and windbreaks. So forest farming is a distinct subsection of agroforestry. To paraphrase that saying about squares and rectangles, all forest farming is agroforestry, but not all agroforestry is forest farming.

Let’s explore these five subsections.

Alley cropping is a system where trees are planted in rows for some purpose (like fruit, timber, nuts). While the farmer is waiting for those trees to mature, he plants some kind of annual between the rows of trees for short term (annual) income.

Silvopasture is utilizing trees and livestock on a single piece of land. In general, the trees provide wind, shade, and rain shelter to the livestock. The trees themselves may be grown for timber, fruits, or nuts. The fruits and nuts may be for human or livestock consumption.

Forest farming is what everyone thinks of when the term agroforestry is used. Forest farming uses existing forests to grow food, medicinal or herbal crops with some slight manipulation of the existing forest. A classic example is using the shade of the forest to grow ginseng. Another classic example is growing shiitake mushrooms on logs from the forest under the shade of the forest. Lately in the ag sphere I revolve myself around, a lot of folks are improving existing stands of pawpaws and American persimmons. These improvements include opening up the canopy around the pawpaws and persimmons by cutting down the bigger trees in the area. This is then followed by grafting superior cultivars into the pawpaw and persimmon stands.

Riparian forest buffers utilize plantings of trees, shrubs, and grasses right next to creeks, streams, and rivers. The two main purposes of riparian forest buffers are to stabilize the banks from erosion and to filter farm nutrient runoff from going into waterways.

Windbreaks are just rows of trees used to slow down wind. That being said, windbreaks have many uses. They can be used to shelter animals or buildings from wind, dust, or odors. They can be used to shelter crops from neighbors’ pesticide drift. In the Midwest, they often function as living snow fences in the winter, where snow piles naturally accumulate.

What’s a food forest then?

A food forest is an intentionally planned and grown “forest site.” It uses different heights of trees and shrubs to produce food at different canopy levels to maximize production. Planting is in a non-linear fashion. Food forests also utilize both the near above ground level, ground level, and below ground level to maximize production. An example in descending height order would be chestnuts and pecans, followed by persimmons, followed by pawpaws, followed by dwarf apples and serviceberries, followed by comfrey (for mulching), followed by alpine strawberries. Permaculturists have been responsible for the increased popularity in food forests over the last decade.

Some real life examples of food forests are below.



Hopefully, this blog clears up some confusion when talking about agroforesty, forest farming, and food forests.

Blog Author: Justin Husher, Horticulture Specialist

Leave a comment


Sign Up

Get email updates from the Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District.