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Trees for improving farm productivity

With depletion of agricultural lands and lack of irrigation facilities, agriculture in arid and semiarid regions is becoming uneconomical. Agroforestry provides a viable solution for such problems. Promotion of afforestation should be based on well tested technical and economic data to guide the farmers and general public in the right direction.

Trees for improving farm productivity

We need trees for our survival. Trees purify the atmosphere by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, provide food, fodder, medicines, organic manure, fuel, timber and also improve the soil productivity, ground water table and the ecosystem. Thus, trees play a significant role in improving our quality of life. Among trees, there is a large number of species and a wide variation exists among them. These variations may be due to their size, growth rate, and adaptability to various agro-climatic conditions, their ability to tolerate harsh weather conditions or their utility. By and large, every tree created by nature is good, although some are more useful than others. Some trees may not survive under certain soil and climatic conditions while some others may grow aggressively, suppressing other species. Hence, the success of tree planting depends on the choice of species.

Trees have a significant role in keeping the environment clean, while supporting livelihoods. Over 43% of the cooking energy in the world is met from biomass. In rural areas where 65% of the population lives, biomass is the only accessible and affordable source of energy. In the developing countries, the average per capita consumption of biomass in rural areas is equivalent to a ton of wood per annum and 50% of the wood cut in the world is used for fuel (Hall and de Groot, 1985). More than 2 billion people in the Third World are dependent on biomass to meet their energy needs which is equivalent to 22 million barrels of oil every day. In 1979, about 68.5% of the total rural energy was met from wood in India. In 2000, the annual demand for wood in the Indian rural sector was 192.6 million tons while it was difficult to meet even 50% of it from the available sources. This indicates the extent of damage caused to the natural forests and the need for growing trees to meet the fuelwood needs.

Presently, only about 12% of the geographical area in the country is under close forests as against the stipulated forest cover of 33% required for maintaining ecological balance. It is estimated that India has about 80-100 million hectares of denuded forests and wastelands, which have been accelerating soil erosion, run off of rainwater, loss of bio-diversity and contributing to global warming. Therefore, to conserve the ecosystem while solving the energy crisis, the strategy should be to encourage people’s participation to revive and regenerate the natural forests while planting tree species of their choice on private and public non-forest lands.

Social Forestry – A drive for people’s participation

With the aim of developing private and non-forest public wastelands under afforestation while protecting the natural forests, the Government of India introduced several people-oriented afforestation schemes from the early 1950s. Significant among them were decentralised plant nurseries for distributing among small farmers, cultivation of fodder, fuelwood and round timber species through Forest Development Corporations, fuelwood plantation on urban wastelands, production of industrial raw materials on Government-owned wastelands and leasing revenue wastelands to the poor for growing trees, etc. To enhance people’s participation in tree planting programme, the schemes were modified to integrate livestock with forage production and shift from fuelwood production to income generation by introducing short rotation species with long rotation trees and timber species with fuelwood. However, most of these schemes could not attract small famers as they had very little scope to plant species of their preference. On the contrary, farm forestry schemes to cultivate eucalyptus and other commercial species exceeded the target area as the participants were motivated by the prospect of economic gains. Fast growth, high value for the produce, sustained demand from industries and existence of an easily accessible market contributed to the popularity of eucalyptus plantation. Higher profitability due to higher rate of survival, short gestation period, higher yield, ready market, high value products like round wood, remunerative price, negligible impact on seasonal crops, easy management of labour and ease in protection were the other reasons for acceptance of eucalyptus by farmers.

Choice of tree species for farmers

Based on various social forestry projects implemented over the last 2-3 decades, it is clear that choice of species is the key to the success of any afforestation programme. Profitability is the main factor for tree plantation on private lands, followed by other minor factors such as gestation period, demand for produce, level of investment, access to market, availability of planting material and specific local uses, which influence the farmers to select tree species for planting on their lands. Farmers generally plant tree species on their land either because they are convinced or because they are motivated by some of the agencies engaged in promoting afforestation. Most of the small farmers are influenced by publicity, incentives and perceived benefits, while selecting tree species for planting. The popularity of the species also varies from region to region, based on the value and demand for produce, marketing infrastructure, agro-climatic conditions, available inputs and publicity by the extension agencies.

Tree species for income generation

A study in Maharashtra revealed that when different agencies were promoting tree planting, a majority of the farmers preferred to grow fruit, timber and round wood species on their marginal lands. This preference was based on the profitability, demand for the produce and field publicity. For instance, eucalyptus was the most popular species not because of higher returns, but because of easy marketability, short gestation, fast growth, non-browsing foliage, and wider publicity. Similar popularity has been observed for poplar (Populus deltoides) in North India and for Casuarina in South India. In interior areas, where marketing facilities for wood were inadequate, farmers preferred to grow fruit crops and used existing market outlets for selling their produce. Selection of fruit species was dependent on the soil productivity, irrigation facility, availability of good quality planting material and profitability. Oil seed trees such as neem (Azadirachta indica), mahua (Madhuca indica and Madhuca longifolia), pongamia (Derris indica), undi (Calophyllum inophyllum) and jatropha (Jatropha curcus) are also gaining importance due to their use for bio-diesel production. Among these, jatropha and pongamia have received wider publicity, but farmers are yet to realise the advantages of these species. There are many other non-wood tree species having economic importance.

Farmers did plant some fuelwood species such as Subabul (Leucaena leucocephala), Gum acacia (Acacia nilotica var. telia) and Australian acacia (Acacia auriculiformis) on their field boundary, mainly to protect their fields, while meeting the fodder and fuelwood needs.

Trees for Agroforestry

With depletion of agricultural lands and lack of irrigation facilities, agriculture in arid and semiarid regions is becoming uneconomical. Agroforestry provides a viable solution for such problems. Under this system, trees serve as wind breaks, source of organic matter, shade and soil binder to prevent soil erosion while generating additional income. Establishing shelterbelts by planting tall growing trees on field bunds is very popular in India. Popular species used under shelterbelt plantation are eucalyptus, poplars, casuarina, bamboo (Dendrocalamus strictus and Bambusa arundinacae), acacia, dalbergia, leucaena, Silver oak (Grevillea robusta), sesbania, gliricidia, melia, etc. To prevent adverse effects of these trees on agricultural crops, regular pruning of side branches and lateral roots will be helpful. These trees will be ready for harvest as poles, while contributing foliage and twigs for fodder, fuel and green manure.

Depending on the fertility and depth of soil and moisture availability, different tree species can be introduced. In areas receiving more than 800 mm annual rainfall, it is possible to introduce various fruit crops while planting multipurpose tree species on field bunds and borders. Agri-horti-forestry promoted by BAIF Development Research Foundation on degraded private lands particularly in hilly terrains for rehabilitation of tribals, is based on this concept. Under this programme, various agricultural crops are grown as intercrops between the fruit trees, to generate income from the first year itself, while fruit trees start bearing fruits after 4-6 years. These orchards established on 0.4 ha by each family provide gainful employment all round the year, while improving the ecosystem.

Planting trees for social causes

People also want to plant certain tree species with religious sentiments or for beautification, but in small number. Many species of Ficus, Bael / Stone apple (Aegle marmelos) and Acacia are also considered holy trees and people generally do not cut them. However, they do not want to plant these plants in large number, without any tangible benefits. Many flowering trees are planted for beautification around residential or public places. Tall growing trees with wide branches to provide shade, such as mahogany (Swientenia macrophylla), raintree (Samania saman) and ficus trees can be planted to bring the open area under tree groves. Plants like bamboo, bottle brush (Callistemon viminalis) and weeping willow (Saliz babylonica) can be planted along lakes and canals.

Profitability of tree species

A benefit-cost analysis of important fruit and round timber species based revealed that pole timber such as eucalyptus, bamboo, casuarina, melia and leucaena start generating income from the third year. As most of them coppice well, plantations can be maintained to harvest 3-4 crops. Drumstick (Moringa oleifera) and papaya (Carica papaya) start fruiting in the first year while other fruit trees like jujube (Zizyphus mauritiana), custard apple, pomegranate, guava, Indian gooseberry (Emblica officinalis), mango, citrus, sapota (Manilkara zapota) and cashew start fruiting from the third year. Trees like tamarind (Tamarindus indica), jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) and jamun (Syzygium cumini), start fruiting after 7-8 years. Oil seed trees like neem, pongamia and mahua start fruiting after 7-8 years. As these species have different gestation period and various uses, it is extremely difficult for common farmers to take a quick decision about planting them. Nevertheless, farmers are ready to plant many of these species on field bunds without affecting arable crops, if good quality plants are locally available. However, if they have to establish a sole plantation on good lands using their own resources, then they will certainly explore more about resources required, investment and profitability before taking a final decision. It was observed that the net income from round timber and fruit trees was high but varied from place to place, mostly depending on the market linkage. In such a situation, small holders preferred fruit trees while large holders opted for round wood species. Farmers do not mind planting tree species of long gestation like teak (Tectona grandis), sandalwood (Santalum album), siris (Albizia lebbeck), shishum (Dalbergia sissoo) and many non-wood product species useful for food, oil, gum, resin, wax, pesticides, tan, dyes, fibre, soap and medicines, in small number on the field boundary or backyard. There are many tree species which are good for fuelwood and fodder, but most farmers are not very keen to grow them.

As compared to fruit and timber species, income from fuelwood is very low. If a ton of wood is sold for fuel, it would fetch only Rs.1000/-. The same wood when sold as pulpwood would fetch 50% more and as round timber, 200% more. When the wood is used as timber either for construction or furniture, it would fetch 400-500% higher price. Thus, farmers would prefer to plant tree species which provide higher returns. Under Social Forestry Programme, the poor farmers were persuaded to plant fuelwood and fodder, while large farmers had the option to grow wood for round timber, paper and pulp. Thus, unknowingly, there was discrimination and the poor were left out of an excellent opportunity to earn more from the programme. This was the major reason for

lack of people’s participation and failure of many projects, which were intended for the benefit of the poor.

Preference for different tree species

While calculating the profitability of different tree species, it is necessary to take their entire life cycle and convert into annual returns. Most of the fruit trees start generating income from an early age and contribute to profit every year. In case of round wood and timber species, income is generated only when trees are cut, after a long gestation. Thus, fruit and non-wood tree species can be widely accepted by farmers if serious efforts are made to promote them.

Farm forestry - teak with melia
Farm forestry – teak with melia

Even for expansion of various fruit crops, there are limitations of labour, resources and market beyond certain scales of operation. Unless efforts are made to process the fruits for value addition and preservation, farmers are not likely to cultivate most of the species on a large scale. For crops like mango, in the absence of cold storage and processing, glut during a particular period in the year may affect the price realisation. In such a situation,  farmers are likely to select the next best crops for cultivation. Looking to the present trend of tree planting on private lands, it can be concluded that farmers opt for different types of tree species in the following order of priority:

1.Fruits and nuts

2.Round wood species and plywood

3.Non-timber forest products and oil seeds

4.Paper and pulpwood

5.Fuelwood and forage

This preference is based on current profitability and is subject to availability of good soil, assured soil moisture and easy availability of inputs. The priority may change for different sites, based on adaptability of the species to local agro-climatic conditions, infrastructure for backward and forward integration, investment capabilities, etc. Many conservationists argue that preference should be given to native tree species and not to exotic.  However, if farmers have to make a choice, they will select on the basis of adaptability, utility and profitability and not by their origin. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the facilitating organizations to evaluate their suitability under local conditions before promoting new exotic species (Hegde, 2010).

To ensure selection of suitable species, it is better to prepare a land use plan, based on the soil productivity of the site earmarked for tree planting. Fertile soil with assured soil moisture is highly productive, where fruit trees grow well and give high returns. Hence, such lands can be reserved for establishing fruit orchards, if farmers are not intending to grow arable crops of high value. Medium quality soils with moisture stress, not suitable for fruit crops, can be used for growing round wood, soft wood or plywood species. Soils of slightly inferior quality can be used for pulp and paper wood. Soils of low fertility with moisture stress, not suitable for above types of species can be used for establishing fuelwood plantation. There are shallow soils with moisture stress, where it is extremely difficult for tree species to survive. Such soils can be used for growing fodder shrubs and grasses.

Strategy for solving fuelwood crisis

Based on various studies, it is clear that establishment of tree plantations for fuelwood and fodder is neither economically viable nor attractive to farmers for cultivation. However, in the absence of easy supply of fuelwood, pressure on community woodlots and  forests will further increase, to accelerate further denudation. To reduce this problem, the following alternatives need to be considered.

* Promotion of commercial plantation, where only 40-50% wood is used for timber or industrial raw material and the rest is sold as fuelwood at a subsidised price.

* Planting fuelwood species of short gestation in fruit orchards or timber plantations is feasible. Selection of nitrogen-fixing tree species like leucaena, gliricidia, sesbania, acacia and albizia which are known for high calorific value can further benefit farmers by nursing the main tree species through soil enrichment.


While promoting tree planting on private lands, the preference of farmers should be considered. Tree species to be selected, should be based on the quality of land, availability of moisture, suitability of climate, growth rate, gestation period, profitability and for fulfilling certain objectives. While most of the farmers consider profitability as the primary consideration, beautification, conservation and improving micro-climatic are the other considerations. For the success of any afforestation programme on private lands, income being the primary consideration, arrangements should be made for backward and forward linkages. The extension programme to promote afforestation, should be based on well tested technical and economic data to guide the farmers and general public in the right direction.

Narayan G Hegde
BAIF Development Research Foundation,
Pune 411 058
1. Hall, D.O. and P.J. de Groot. 1985. Biomass for fuel and food. Paper presented at the World Resources Institute Symposium on Biomass Energy System Building blocks for sustainable agriculture, Virginia, USA: 158 pp.
2. Hegde, N.G. 1991. Impact of Afforestation Programme on Socioeconomic transformation of the Rural Poor. Ph.D. Thesis, Pune University, Pune: 299 pp.
3. Hegde, N.G. 2010. Tree Planting on Private Lands.
Commissioned Paper.Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). Constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, New Delhi. 19 pp.

Indian gooseberry trees bordering cotton crop
Indian gooseberry trees bordering cotton crop