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Associate trees with crops to create a sustainable and resilient agroecosystem

According to the FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization):

Agroforestry is the collective term for land use systems and technologies where perennial woody species (e.g. trees, shrubs, palms or bamboos) and agricultural crops or animals are used deliberately on the same plot of land in a spatial and temporal arrangement”.

The essential characteristic of agroforestry is the use of perennial plants (trees, shrubs) instead of the exclusive use of annuals (corn, wheat or potatoes). Agroforestry systems have been linked to higher carbon sequestration, better conservation of biodiversity, and reduced demand for inputs such as (artificial) fertilisers, compared to industrial farming systems. In Corsica, where the sun is very strong in summer, the use of trees is essential to protect sensitive crops (lettuce, arugula etc.) from heat, to reduce evapotranspiration and therefore the need for irrigation.

The rich history of agroforestry in Corsica has greatly inspired me. Many species of trees have been cultivated on the island: apple trees, almond trees, hazelnuts, clementines, cherry trees, olive trees and of course ... chestnut trees!

The Corsican chestnut agroforestry system is based on the European chestnut tree (Castanea sativa). By definition, a Corsican chestnut orchard (u castagnetu in Corsican) consists of chestnut trees. Pig and sheep farming are sometimes raised in the castagnetu and consume the herbaceous understory or/ chestnuts.

The efficiency of this agroecosystem has enabled the inhabitants of Corsica's rural regions to thrive for several centuries, even in times of war when the supply of most staple foods was severely limited. The dried chestnuts were processed into chestnut flour and it was this flour that was used to produce staple foods (bread and polenta). It is estimated that until the beginning of the 20th century, Corsican inhabitants of the most populated mountainous regions consumed an average of 500-600 grams of bread made from chestnut flour every day, equal to 1250-1500 calories/person/per day derived from the chestnut, stressing the importance of the chestnut.

Corsica's chestnut civilisation is one of the rare global examples of an agroforestry system that provides a staple food without significantly degrading the ecological capital of the land where it is produced on (in contrast to virtually all cereal-centred staple-food systems) and provides hope for a truly sustainable agricultural system.

Unfortunately, the chestnut civilization no longer exists... There are still some chestnut farmers on the island, but the current chestnut production cannot be compared to the production a century ago... The most important reasons for the collapse of the chestnut civilization are:

  • rural exodus

  • the introduction of exotic pathogens (ink disease and chestnut blight)

  • the arrival of the chestnut gall wasp, an exotic pest of the chestnut tree

  • the traditional monoculture of chestnut trees. The vulnerability is largely caused by the traditional monoculture of chestnut trees, since it is known that monoculture farming systems are more vulnerable to pests and pathogens

My MS'c Thesis investigated the revitalisation of Corsica's abandoned chestnut orchards and you can download it by clicking on the 'research' submenu.

The aim of the uNiek garden is to experiment with many different agroforestry systems to discover the best practices and the best distances between trees and crops to optimise the functioning of the system. Furthermore, I want to help other people (farmers, individuals) interested in agroforestry to implement trees successfully on their land.

The versatility of trees

Trees have many benefits: they fight against erosion, they create habitats that increase biodiversity, they access water in deep soil layers, they sequester CO2 ...

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