Over the years I’ve had many conversations about the benefits and so-called disadvantages of agro-forestry, and I’ve found that people with a forestry pedigree tend to be skeptical. The question always comes down to whether or not there is a financial or biological burden when double cropping land. It’s understandable, as a forester you probably want to prioritize tree silviculture, so the idea that you may have to adjust your method so that the other crop coexist in a healthy way is a no-go for some managers. To be clear, there are sacrifices. In a monoculture your management is 100% oriented around the success of one species, there are no other considerations. For example, you can plant your trees as intensively as possible, (1100+ trees per hectare), personnel can focus on one set of skills, and possibly there are other considerations.
But of course I see this from a different perspective, first and foremost I see agro-forestry in terms of risk mitigation.
Timber, agriculture, cacao, livestock, apples, papayas, they all have risks; the most common are disease, fire, natural disaster and market volatility, a farmers life is full of ups and downs. Trust me I know. But rarely do these risks affect crops in the same way, whereas fire may wipe out a forest floor crop like cacao, only a concentrated extremely intense fire could kill a hardwood tree. Similarly, diseases, common in fruits and vegetables rarely affect trees in the same way, particularly hardwoods. Market prices for any commodity will see good years and bad, but rarely across the whole spectrum. And unlike fruit crops, you don’t necessarily have to harvest your timber trees if there is a market lull, you can wait the bad prices out (and in the meantime they continue to grow!). It has been been said before, as long as the sun shines and rain falls, trees grow.
The biggest disadvantage with timber investment is the long, (sometimes very long) wait it takes a tree to grow to a good, harvestable size. For tropical hardwoods the time-frame is usually estimated between 20 and 30 years, depending on the species of course. But therein also lies the beauty of the symbiotic relationship that a forest floor crop (like cacao or coffee) and a longterm tree crop: One provides you the cash-flow to continue operations and receive income, the other functions as the life-jacket that provides a low-risk and historically reliable investment.
There are other factors as well of course: A poly-culture will look and function more like a natural forest than a standard monoculture. Agro-forestry is more likely to provide consistent, long-term, employment to community members, there are at least two streams of revenue and I should also mention that in a world where high-quality land capable of producing food is extremely limited, it’s just the right thing to do!