Across the country, farmers are taking innovative approaches to foster environmental stewardship and economic viability through a common conservation practice – riparian forest buffers.

Supporting production while enhancing conservation is an important goal of both Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s agriculture innovation agenda and the USDA Forest Service.

Agroforestry, the intentional integration of trees and crops and/or livestock to meet economic, conservation and social goals, is a strategy that offers many innovative and productive conservation options, including riparian buffers.

Multifunctional riparian buffers, or income-producing buffers, are trees, shrubs and other plants alongside rivers, streams and wetlands that produce products, which can be harvested and sold. These products include fruits, nuts and decorative woody floral species. By widening these buffers and planting more year-round cover, farmers enhance water quality, improve wildlife habitat and protect soil while producing specialty crops they can use or sell.

To increase adoption of these buffers, USDA’s National Agroforestry Center (NAC) has spent years working with partners to demonstrate, research and provide guidance on buffer establishment and management. In 2012, NAC partnered with Virginia Tech to create a woody floral demonstration site that widened an existing riparian buffer at the Catawba Sustainability Center.

In 2016, NAC staff with assistance from Appalachian Sustainable Development and Virginia Tech, developed a nontimber forest product calculator to estimate the income potential from harvesting and selling fruits, nuts and other species incorporated into buffers. Later that year, NAC partnered with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, Penn State University and other partners to host multifunctional riparian forest buffer workshops for agricultural and natural resource professionals.

Partially funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, these workshops generated significant landowner interest. In 2018, Pennsylvania invested $3 million in grants over three years to promote the use of multifunctional riparian forest buffers. Landowners have been pleased with the program’s results.

Sarah DePasquale of Fiddler’s Bend Farm worked with a consulting forester to install her buffer. “Our buffer has revitalized a low-lying streambank ... into a thriving, diversified native planting,” she said. “I am thrilled to see the success of the elderberry, which I market as value-added syrup. Already the market for syrup and fresh berries outstrips the supply from these 2-year-old plants, and I look forward to harvesting more as the plants mature.”

The story of multifunctional riparian buffers demonstrates how farmer innovation combined with Forest Service research, workshops and education can provide new ways to achieve conservation goals and diversify farmer income.

Kate MacFarland works as an agroforester at USDA National Agroforestry Center. Part of the NAC outreach and education team, she serves as liaison to the northeastern, mid-Atlantic and northwestern regions.