A Closer Look at Working Buffers

Built off of riparian buffers, working buffers include the following practices:

  • Forest Farming
  • Alley Cropping
  • Silvopasture
  • Short Rotation Biomass

Benefits of working buffers include:

  • Combination of economic production with environmental protection
  • On-farm economic and ecological resilience through diversity
  • Increases in soil moisture and nutrient cycling    
  • Increases in wildlife and beneficial insect habitat
  • Creates a more sustainable system
  • Carbon sequestration

Forested buffers along streams help keep water clean and cool – important for fish, wildlife, and humans, they are the main defense keeping pollution out of our surface waters. Our Working Buffers program allows farmers to widen their forested buffer without losing farmable ground by combining agriculture and trees together. Tree crops such as fruits, nuts, and timber are combined with understory crops such as berries, floral industry greens, mushrooms, and livestock forage. 

There are four working buffer techniques that may fit the goals of your farm: forest farming, alley cropping, short rotation biomass, and silvopasture. Where to use and how to manage these alternative farming methods is specific to each site’s conditions and each landowner’s goals. It can be difficult to balance on farm land use between functioning riparian buffers and productive ground. Working buffers provide ways to expand a newly planted or existing buffer to increase its functions while at the same time earning more income for your farm. 

Illustrated below is an example of alley cropping. Alley cropping involves planting herbaceous and usually annual crops in the ‘alleys’ between widely spaced rows of trees. Trees are selected for their productivity potential and synergies with crops. Highly productive tree or shrub species can be managed for fruits, nuts, livestock feed, and timber. ‘Alley crops’ in-between rows can produce hay, small grains, vegetables, ground cover fruits, medicinal herbs and even vines such as berries or grapes. Combining these two production methods can help farmers cope with market fluctuations and crop failures by diversifying outputs and increasing yields. Alley cropping can either be a long- or short-term approach to maximizing farm production while establishing additional forest canopy in a streamside buffer area. 

Want to see what the other working buffer practices look like? Or have questions about how to get started on your own property, visit snocd.org/working-buffers or call Carrie Brausieck 425-377-7014.

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By Carrie Brausieck, Resource Planner | From Volume 29: Issue 1 of The Nexus