What is agroforestry?
Agroforestry is a term created from the words agriculture and forestry, and refers to the grazing of livestock and cultivation of crops between planting trees. Yokohama Rubber is promoting agroforestry in natural rubber plantations.
What it means to tackle agroforestry on natural rubber plantations
Having harvests from multiple types of crops such as fruits, herbs and wood in a natural rubber forest has many advantages, including a stable income and increased biodiversity on plantations. In particular, natural rubber is only produced for about 20 to 25 years after the trees are planted, after which the amount progressively declines. This makes replanting necessary to ensure efficient production. However, para rubber trees do not produce natural rubber until five to six years after they are planted. Rubber farmers may delay replanting or abandon their natural rubber businesses because of the loss of income during this period. Agroforestry is also an effective way for the sustainable production of natural rubber.
Expected benefits of agroforestry
Agroforestry provides the following benefits besides providing a supplemental income when para rubber tree seedlings are too young to be harvested for latex.
The price of natural rubber fluctuates greatly with the market. Even after natural rubber is ready to be harvested, the various crops planted on the plantation will help to stabilize the income of the natural rubber farmers.
Rubber trees experience a period called “wintering” every year, when the leaves fall off all of the rubber trees at the same time before new leaves start to grow. Outside this period, the leaves tend not to fall off, so once the leaves that fell off during the wintering period have been decomposed by insects and microorganisms, etc., there is nothing left to cover the soil, which as a result tends to become very dry. If a variety of different plants are inter-planted together, the soil will always have fallen leaves covering it, which will protect the soil from becoming too dry. The decomposition of the fallen leaves also provides free fertilizer for the rubber trees, contributing to a reduction in costs for the farmer.
Rubber trees are affected by a disease called white root disease (WRD), the risk from which is particularly high in Southeast Asia. Once a rubber tree becomes infected with WRD, the disease can spread to other nearby trees very rapidly, and when WRD has been in the soil, that area of land cannot be used to cultivate rubber trees for at least five years. On agroforestry farms, because a wider variety of different plant species are being grown, the range of microorganisms in the soil is much more complex, and it is believed that this makes it more difficult for WRD to gain a foothold.
Another benefit of having multiple types of plants in a rubber plantation instead of a monoculture of only para rubber trees is that it increases the number of insects and birds that utilize the plants, which also increased the biodiversity.
Meeting Professor Sara Bumrungsri
YTRC has been collaborating with Professor Sara Bumrungsri of the Prince of Songkla University, who is an expert in agroforestry, to provide training courses on agroforestry to natural rubber farmers in Surat Thani Province, act as a contact between Professor Bumrungsri and farmers, and provide training venues. A study by Professor Bumrungsri showed that agroforestry plantations increased both the yield and income compared to ordinary natural rubber plantations. Nevertheless, as there are still few examples, YTRC is trying to encourage more farmers to adopt this farming method. When YTRC started this initiative in 2016, the 10 participating farms had an area of about 12 hectares, but in 2021, the number had increased to 57 with about 170 hectares. We plan to expand the area of agroforestry plantations to around 200 hectares by the end of 2030.
Voice of an agroforestry farmer
Mr. Prajub Nuphet
It is now eight years since I first started using the agroforestry approach in a corner of my natural rubber farm. When I first heard about agroforestry, my immediate reaction was “That sounds like a really great agricultural technique!”
After implementing agroforestry for a few years, I stopped using chemical fertilizers altogether. The crops that I have planted on the farm include fruit trees, plants that are used to make spices, and trees the wood from which can be used to make furniture, etc. Not only has adopting agroforestry helped to give me a more stable income, the fact that I am doing something which is beneficial for everyone makes me feel very proud.
Over the past few years, rapid development in the Surat Thani district has led to a decline in the number of wild animals. However, since I started implementing agroforestry, there has been a pronounced increase in the number of butterflies and other insects, wild birds, etc. on the farm. In addition, although it hardly rains at all in Surat Thani during the dry season, the fallen leaves from the additional tree species help to retain moisture, so the soil doesn’t dry out.
I am very grateful to YTRC for providing the seedlings. There is a lot that I don’t know about agricultural techniques and market conditions in relation to crops other than natural rubber, so it would be great if I could access this kind of information. In the future I plan to start growing an even wider variety of crops, including coffee, vegetables, etc., and I hope to become an agroforestry expert so that I can transform my farm into a learning center.
Future challenges and initiatives
We have only just begun our efforts to make natural rubber a sustainable resource. In the future, there are a wide range of issues that need to be addressed, such as moving toward the establishment of international standards for natural rubber, establishing traceability, and strengthening dialogue and cooperation with natural rubber farmers. Yokohama Rubber will continue to work toward achieving the SDGs by carefully tackling each of these issues.