In Almere, land reclaimed from the Zuiderzee in the twentieth century is giving rise to an impressive example of how ecology and agriculture can be combined. On Utopia Island, the Weerwoud Foundation has created eight different agroforestry systems. The aim? To show farmers, students, and policymakers the wealth that agroforestry has to offer.
The 1.4-hectare Agroforestry Experience has organically grown to become part of the experience offered to visitors to the 2022 Floriade Expo in Almere, Flevoland. The Floriade, held once every ten years, is a Dutch horticultural exhibition attracting global interest. Next year’s edition is themed ‘Growing Green Cities’ and will be all about making cities more liveable and sustainable.
The project is one of just a few in the Netherlands, a country where the role of agroforestry is still to be fully explored. But the ability to mitigate climate change, increase agricultural resilience, and safeguard biodiversity has fueled interest in agroforestry in recent years.
“We want humans to be a positive force in the ecosystem,” tells Xavier San Giorgi, the architect and agroforestry expert behind the project. To catalyze this vision, the site is a living lab to explore the role of perennial species in contributing to sustainable agriculture.
On the island, potatoes, onions, and other crops grow in small fields alongside rows of fruit- and nut-bearing trees, which offer services like wind protection and increased biodiversity to avoid pest outbreaks.
San Giorgi points out that there is an important, and often-overlooked, distinction between food forests and agroforestry.
“Food forests aren’t as scalable as agroforestry systems are. They are more like recreational places where you can pick or harvest,” the designer tells. “But this is not natural,” he mentions whilst pointing at the food forest site within the project. “I have totally designed this whole area.”
The USDA defines agroforestry as “the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits”. Food forests, in turn, mimic the ecological functions of a forest, but with primarily edible species, often planted in a non-linear way.
For the Weerwoud Foundation, agroforestry shows the potential to scale up, and the organization actively shares its vision with those who are interested.
Monthly volunteer days at the site are an opportunity for people to get hands-on experience in the various agroforestry systems that the island counts. Volunteers also gain some theoretical insights during short tours around the island.
Video: the project from the sky
During next year’s Floriade Expo, the food forest will enable the two million expected visitors to see how well they can read their environment in a system that, at first sight, seems chaotic. The different agroforestry systems neighboring the food forest will show how ecological principles can be applied to reconcile food production with ecosystem recovery.
The foundation aims to show how future entrepreneurs – and the world – can contribute to ecosystems’ carrying capacity. It works together with various academic partners to measure ecological and economic impact, increase knowledge about pollination, and provide students with internships and research opportunities.
In addition, business partners are involved in the cultivation of some of the annual crops and yield processing, which further spreads knowledge and enthusiasm.
The Floriade Expo will be welcoming visitors from 14 April to 9 October 2022.