"For so long farmers have been taking trees off farmland," said Josh Gamble, agroforestry researcher at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, "So the idea of putting trees back on is a little bit of a barrier."
Alley cropping is a type of agroforestry, which is the practice of combining crops and trees into one farming system. The dual income from the land can bring greater economic security to farmers.
"The idea is that it's potentially a multi-use system, with more diversity and more function," said Gamble.
Alley cropping is not only useful for diversifying a farm's income. Fields with trees capture more carbon than fields without trees. Trees protect the crops planted alongside them by providing shade and wind protection.
In addition, trees can provide a buffer between the field and nearby waterways. When a field floods, the water runs off with nutrients and soil, leaving the field less productive and the river more polluted. Trees can filter the nutrients and stabilize the soil on farm land.
Tree crops are used for a variety of products. Some, like pine, are grown for timber. Others, like hickory and walnut, can be used for nut production. Josh Gamble is interested in growing biomass, or trees and crops that are grown for heat and power production. Gamble and his team chose two fast-growing, hardy trees--willows and poplars-- and planted them alongside a variety of native grasses.