We’re getting hit harder by drought. Doing the usual things no longer seems enough for drought-proofing our farms. Fortunately, there are farmers leading the way, and getting heartening results despite earning their incomes off marginal land.

Over the last twenty years, families have revegetated five million hectares of farmland, increasing their drought-hardiness and incomes by strategically planting and allowing the natural regeneration of trees within their pastures, arable fields and vegetable plots.[i]

Drought-proofing by bringing back trees

Growing Maize under Legume Trees

The trees store water, create shade, reduce wind, air temperatures and therefore the amount of water lost from the soil through evaporation. But, as explained in ‘Drought-Proof your Farm’, by growing trees and other additional plant biomass, these farmers also dramatically increase the amount of rainwater infiltrating and stored in their soil. Research demonstrates that something as simple as planting trees in paddocks increases water infiltration three-fold.[ii] And we now have evidence that when we grow more trees, rainfall increases!

In ‘growing up’ – using the vertical space they have available – these farmers in the Sahel, also create opportunities to grow extra forage and emergency stock feed for livestock and additional income streams by selecting tree species producing fruit, nuts, seeds, construction timber, pollen, nectar for bees, etc.

The southern edge of the Sahel desert in Africa had been open woodlands – scattered trees and shrubs. Like in many marginal rainfall areas, massive tree clearing happened from the 1960s for firewood, and because farmers were told that trees consumed precious water and nutrients that would otherwise be available for their crops and pastures.

woman drought-prooing her garden with trees

Growing Vegetables under Trees in Africa

Getting Practical – Drought-Proofing our Farms

By asking ourselves, “what’s the best thing we can do to drought-proof our farms?” we can do the major re-think necessary to take us beyond hoping that what we do will be enough. Start small by trialling techniques to see what works best. Get your seeds, seedlings and planting materials ready for when the rain does come.

The farmers in the Sahel were willing to make radical changes because their situation was urgent. They didn’t have the luxury of making changes they hoped would be enough. With no government assistance and low-interest loans – their lives, as well as their livelihoods, were threatened. Arguing that they lacked sufficient funds, time or the necessary equipment and machinery to drought-proof their farms was not an option.

In Niger, farmers convert approximately 250,000 hectares each year, despite getting little or no rain. By controlling grazing, tree suckers grow up to 2m within the first year, and within 2-3 years, the trees are 4 to 5 m high.[iii] In areas where farmers can’t rely on natural regeneration or want to grow particular species, they plant seeds and young trees.Digging holes for trees for drought-proofing farms in Niger

Digging half-moons for Planting (©FAO/Giulio Napolitano)

On our farm in far north Queensland, we’re seeing the benefits of combining Holistic Planned Grazing with Silvopasture and tree alleys for windbreaks. The grass under the trees stays green longer into the dry season and continues to photosynthesise later in the morning than grass growing in the full sun. In the bananas and orchard, we’re using an overstory of open-canopied legume trees to provide ‘protective cropping’ by reducing sunburn on our fruit.

What’s Critical to Realise

  1. Improving the condition and number of shelterbelts, patches of remnant vegetation, riparian and other natural vegetation help, but these actions on their own are not sufficient. We need to skillfully plant and allow the natural regeneration of trees within our pastures, arable fields and market gardens, and develop other ways to grow more plant biomass using practices like polycultures, alley cropping, cover crops, living mulch, and green manure.
  2. Warmer (and wetter) climates – more vegetation required. That’s why – silvopasture, the raising of animals among trees, is ranked across Africa, Asia and South America as the most important climate-smart intervention graziers can make.[iv] Arable farmers and horticulturists in these regions are also starting to grow cereals and veggies using agroforestry designs.
  3. Use time-controlled-grazing and other mob grazing techniques to maintain grass cover under trees.

Find out why this ‘eco-logical’ approach to drought-proofing works and how to use it on your farm – Drought-proof your Farm.

Image of front cover of How To Drought Proof Your Farm

References for Drought-proofing our Farms

[i] Kathleen Buckingham and Craig Hanson, 2015, The Restoration Diagnostic Case Example: Maradi and Zinder Regions, Niger, 2015 World Resources Institute.

[ii] U. Ilstedt, A. Malmer, E. Verbeeten, D. Murdiyarso, 2007, The effect of afforestation on water infiltration in the tropics: a systematic review and meta-analysis. For. Ecol. Manage., 251 (2007), pp. 45-51 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378112707004665)

[iii] Tony Rinaldo, 2008, The Development of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, Permaculture Research Institute (https://www.permaculturenews.org/2008/09/24/the-development-of-farmer-managed-natural-regeneration/)

[iv] Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life. Insights from CSA Country Profiles across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sova, C. A., G et. al. 2018. “Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life: Insights from CSA Country Profiles Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” World Bank, and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Washington, DC. (https://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/abs/10.1596/31064)

Images © World Agroforestry Centre

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