Forest Gardens: The Climate-Smart Agriculture of Tomorrow

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.”

Enter Forest Gardens

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.

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,”:

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.

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