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‘One of our greatest climate solutions’: Q&A with the U.S. National Agroforestry Center’s new director

  • Agroforestry is a climate solution that’s growing in popularity in the U.S., where a new leader is set to promote and support its adoption.
  • The new director of the National Agroforestry Center brings decades of experience to the task, and previously served as the organization’s acting director.
  • “Agroforestry is particularly appealing as it has the potential to be one of our nation’s greatest natural climate solutions, while providing so many other benefits,” Anne Marsh tells Mongabay in a new interview.

The new director of the U.S. National Agroforestry Center (NAC) received her doctorate in plant physiological ecology/ecosystem ecology and a Master’s in forest science from Yale University, and joined the Forest Service in 2016 as the national program lead for bioclimatology and climate change research. In 2000 she also served as acting director of the NAC.

Anne Marsh has more than 25 years of experience in ecological research and science synthesis, and has worked with a variety of farmers, agricultural organizations, and government agencies to support sustainable agriculture and forestry. This experience and expertise will be useful to the NAC’s partnering with non-governmental organizations to train farmers in agroforestry techniques.

Recently, the USDA announced a $60+ million investment from the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities funding program to support agroforestry training. Under Marsh’s leadership, the NAC will support this effort by increasing the visibility of agroforestry opportunities for farmers. “The Center will also develop new decision-making tools for technical support staff and farmers, and provide training to USDA staff and a growing number of non-federal partners to increase the delivery of agroforestry-related services,” Marsh says.

In an interview conducted via email, Marsh shares her vision for promoting and supporting agroforestry in the U.S., and what that means for landowners, farmers (whom she generally refers to as ‘producers’), and climate change.

Pecan trees provide moisture and shade to rows of cotton in an alley cropping system in Milton, Florida, 2003. Photo by Jim Robinson for USDA-NRCS.
Pecan trees provide moisture and shade to rows of cotton in an alley cropping system in Milton, Florida, 2003. Photo by Jim Robinson for USDA-NRCS.

Mongabay: How did you get involved with agroforestry?

Anne Marsh: I come to agroforestry through a research background in plant physiological ecology. I have always been intrigued with the capacity of trees and shrubs to enhance ecosystem resilience while providing environmental benefits. Agroforestry is particularly appealing as it has the potential to be one of our nation’s greatest natural climate solutions, while providing so many other benefits. But it only works if it works for the producer.

Over the years I have been fortunate to collaborate with – and learn from – a number of farmers, farm organizations, and government agencies to help support sustainable agriculture and forestry. My recent work at USDA, working across agencies and partners to support agricultural innovation and delivery of technical services, made the director position at the NAC a natural fit for me.

Mongabay: Where does agroforestry fit into the U.S. climate change mitigation strategy?

Anne Marsh: Agroforestry is an important land-based solution, along with forest management, reforestation, afforestation, and forest conservation because carbon can be stored in soils and trees. Carbon sequestration estimates for agroforestry in the US vary widely from 90 million to 219 million metric tons of carbon per year. This is equivalent to taking 71 million to 173 million gasoline-powered vehicles off the street for one year. With new data coming in from the National Agroforestry Producers Survey and 2022 Census of Agriculture, we will have better understanding of the distribution and contribution of specific agroforestry practices to mitigate climate change.

Mongabay: What are your goals for improving agroforestry in the U.S.?

Anne Marsh: The goals of the National Agroforestry Center are to continue to work to bring attention to agroforestry benefits by developing science to inform decision-making around agroforestry and by supporting information transfer to farmers, ranchers, and forest managers. Until recently, the many high-value, though low-cost, benefits from agroforestry have escaped the attention of land managers. Quantification of ecosystem services provided by agroforestry and understanding of factors that influence its adoption and retention can support decision-making by producers and help shape programs to support the agricultural community.

Anne Marsh is the new director of the U.S. National Agroforestry Center (NAC). Image courtesy of USDA.
Anne Marsh is the new director of the U.S. National Agroforestry Center (NAC). Image courtesy of USDA.

Mongabay: What is your vision for the NAC?

Anne Marsh: I would like to see an increase in the integration of trees and shrubs in agricultural landscapes where it makes sense from an ecological, economic, and cultural standpoint. Agroforestry provides so many benefits — increased productivity, market diversification, improved air and water quality, pollinator habitat and more. It would be wonderful to see more of these benefits realized across the country, and particularly in underserved communities.

Since 1990, the NAC has served as the only U.S. Department of Agriculture unit dedicated to agroforestry. We have a three-way partnership with USDA Forest Service Research & Development and state & private forestry units as well as USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Our external partners are an array of non-profits, universities and state and federal agencies. This strong base of expertise can support my vision by continuing to serve as a hub for agroforestry research, technical assistance, and training.

Agroforestry has grown over the last decade, and we are pleased to see an increased interest in such practices. Our work is to ensure that science-based information is available to states, tribes, municipalities, organizations, technical assistance providers, and producers to help people understand and prioritize agroforestry investments and ensure their success.

See more of Mongabay’s ongoing series about agroforestry here

A U.S. agroforestry based farm shows rows of perennial shrubs and trees with annual crops growing between. Photo courtesy of the Savanna Institute.
A Midwest agroforestry-based farm with rows of perennial shrubs and trees and annual crops growing between. Photo courtesy of the Savanna Institute.

Mongabay: What are some of the biggest hindrances to U.S. farmers adopting agroforestry solutions?

Anne Marsh: Lack of general awareness by producers and experts to support implementation is one of the biggest hurdles. Having a sufficient number of well-trained people supporting and delivering financial and assistance programs can help alleviate that problem. We also need to have seeds and nursery stock to support planting initiatives. For agroforestry, this is a challenge as we are only just beginning to understand the demand for plant materials and to anticipate how it might shift over time. For many producers, long-term land access also is an issue. It does not make sense to invest in a site if you are unsure that you will have access to the land in a few years when the tree or shrub crops start producing. Startup or transition costs of implementation, or easy access to programs that support implementation, can also be an issue, particularly in underserved communities.

Mongabay: Recently, over $60 million was awarded to agroforestry efforts led by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and others. Can you say more about how you work with organizations like these to best reach U.S. farmers?

Anne Marsh: With recent USDA Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities awards, a growing number of partners, including TNC, are stepping up to support agroforestry. NAC has reached out to organizations so we can play a key convening and connecting role to help leverage efficiencies in program delivery and optimize network and peer-to-peer learning. We also provide technical assistance, share case studies, and support the training of technical assistance providers. We are compiling data from our National Agroforestry Producers Survey which can help TNC and others better target agroforestry opportunities.

Checking on a forest cultivated bed of ramps. Image courtesy of John Munsell/Virginia Tech.
Multi-story agroforestry, also called forest farming, is often employed to produce timber trees above valuable understory perennials that need deep shade like goldenseal, ginseng, and ramps (pictured, a popular culinary crop in the U.S. East). Image courtesy of John Munsell/Virginia Tech.

Mongabay: You mentioned in a previous conversation with Mongabay that there is a need to train USDA staff in agroforestry technology and approaches. What role will NAC have to fill in those gaps?

Anne Marsh: NAC works closely with our parent agencies, the Forest Service and NRCS, as well as other USDA agencies, to build training capacity and develop training resources. We have developed curricula and continue to produce training materials, including case studies, enterprise budget tools, and practice guidebooks.

Mongabay: Where do nonprofit organizations like Savanna Institute and for-profits like Propagate fit into supporting agroforestry efforts? 

Anne Marsh: Organizations such as the Savanna Institute and Propagate are key partners like many others, with significant expertise and tools that can help producers understand the viability of agroforestry on their farms, ranches, and forested lands. Organizations like these can demonstrate that agroforestry is a financially viable approach to land management. Private businesses and non-governmental organizations also develop landowner and producer relationships and partnerships outside the scope of the typical USDA/farmer relationship, not unlike the very familiar crop or forestry consultants.


Sarah Derouin is a Michigan-based science writer and frequent contributor to Mongabay’s ongoing agroforestry series. Find her latest thoughts on Twitter via @Sarah_Derouin.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: What’s a climate-friendly and profitable way to farm? Some investors say it’s agroforestry, listen here:

Related reading:

American agroforestry accelerates with new funding announcements

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