AGROFORESTRY IN ALACHUA COUNTY: A SONDEO REPORT
Farming Systems Research-Extension Methods
Abdullah Al-Shankiti, Olanda Bata, Victor Cabrera, Daniel Carl,
Stephen Chriss, Ataul Karim, Paul Litow, Raphael Pierre, Karla Rocha,
Andrea Snyder, Amy Sullivan, Paulanco Thangata
Peter E. Hildebrand
Food and Resource Economics Department
University of Florida
Gainesville FL 32611-0240
AGROFORESTRY IN ALACHUA COUNTY: A SONDEO REPORT
As part of the requirements for Farming Systems Research Extension Methods
(AGG 5813) taught by Dr. Peter Hildebrand in the spring of 1998, a sondeo was
performed in Alachua County. Sondeo, also known as rapid rural appraisal, is an
interview technique designed to quickly gather information in an informal manner while
still making an accurate assessment of the study subject (Hildebrand, 1981).
Interdisciplinary teams of two to four people are assembled and contact farmers within the
specified region and gather data.
For our purposes, the sondeo focused on the potential for agroforestry in Alachua
County. Agroforestry can be defined as "the deliberate growing of woody perennials in
interacting combinations on the same unit of land as agricultural crops and/or animals,
either in some form of spatial mixture or sequence" (Nair, 1993). The Association for
Temperate Agroforestry (AFTA) recognizes five types of agroforestry in the United
States: alley cropping, forest farming, riparian buffers, silvopasture, and windbreaks
(AFTA, 1997). Common agroforestry systems in Alachua County are silvopasture,
windbreaks, and/or forest farming (Nair, pers. comm.). Silvopasture is the integration of
trees and cattle. The trees provide shade and protection from the elements for the cattle
and the forage crops grown with the trees are fodder for the cattle. Windbreaks are rows
of trees, usually a mix of coniferous and deciduous varieties that help reduce wind erosion
and shelter plants and/or animals. In forest farming, shade tolerant species such as shiitake
mushrooms or ginseng are grown beneath the forest canopy which is designed to meet the
shade requirements of the intended species. For this study it was observed that
silvopasture was the only agroforestry practice that turned out to be a major land use.
Other major land uses were vegetable production, pine production, cattle grazing, pecan
tree groves, and various types of fruit crops.
This sondeo serves as a source for background information for a project sponsored
by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) entitled "Decision Support
System for Selecting Agroforestry Trees for the Southeast United States." This USDA
project, undertaken by the University of Florida, was initiated in order to create a database
that extension agents, farmers, agricultural professionals, or anyone else interested in
agroforestry in the Southeast could use to select agroforestry tree species. Based on the
ecological parameters of the users' present land type (such as soil type and climate) and
the kind of agroforestry application (alley cropping, windbreak, etc.) they are interested in,
the decision support system will suggest tree species that will fit their situation. Our
sondeo helped gather information on types of agroforestry practiced in Alachua County,
situations where agroforestry could be implemented, farmers' concerns about agriculture,
and the types of agriculture they are practicing now. This information will hopefully
determine their willingness to try a different type of land management.
Description of the area
Alachua County is in north central Florida; Gainesville is the county seat and home
to the University of Florida. Another point of interest is the town Micanopy, it is the
second oldest town in Florida. The name "Alachua" is from the Seminole word for jug -
most likely named for the large sink in Paynes Prairie. Population of the county is
196,106. The per capital annual income is $18,424. The county is 85 miles south of the
Georgia border, 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and 67 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
The average temperature in January is 51 *F and 81 F in July. Average yearly rainfall is 50
There are 1089 farms in the county which account for 34% of the 964 total square
miles of land. Agriculture is an important part of the economy of Alachua County and the
State of Florida in general. As mentioned earlier, cattle grazing, pine plantations, and fruit
and vegetable crops are some of the most important land uses. Most of the soil of the
county is sandy and therefore drains very well, hence the dominance of pine and mixed
hardwood forests. An exception is the Paynes Prairie and much of the surrounding lands
that are very wet. Here one can find cypress domes. Topography ranges from lakes and
lowland swamps in the southeast to rolling hills in the northwest.
The Alachua County Property Appraiser's office was contacted in order to identify
potential land holders to be interviewed. They listed all the agricultural land holders in the
county. From this list we identified land classes that may have agroforestry practices in
place. We determined that classes 52, 53 and 66 would be the most likely candidates for
The county was divided into four areas: NW, NC, NE, S. Virtually the entire
county was covered during transects The information was gathered in three ways:
transects, telephone interviews and scheduled in person interviews.
Transect. Transects were conducted over a weekend. Four teams of three people each
were assigned different quadrants of the county to observe. During the transect, each
group drove around their respective section, observed, shared information and took notes.
Two on-the-spot interviews were conducted. Altogether, 1275 total miles were covered
by the four teams during the three weeks that included the interviews.
Telephone Interviews. While calling area growers to set up meetings, six telephone
interviews were conducted. This type of interview did not allow the entire team from
participating in the process.
In-person Interviews Interviews, scheduled by phone, were made at homes, farms or
businesses. Interview length ranged from a few minutes to two hours. These interviews
entailed groups posing questions and making observations. During this activity, no notes
were taken by group members at the time of the interview. There were 21 total
After transects, phone interviews, and scheduled interviews, group members relocated,
compared observations and compiled notes on the various interactions. After each day of
transecting, all of the groups converged, sharing notes, observations and impressions.
The overall farm size varied from 6 to 1000 acres. The majority of the farmers
own less than 100 acres. However a considerable number of farms have between 100 and
500 acres. In the area covered by the sondeo team, only two farms had 1000 acres with
full mechanized operations.
Nevertheless, on some of the farms not all of the land was under cultivation and on
others the land was being rented out to tenant farmers. Most of the farmers' land was
inherited from their families and around half of the interviewed growers stated that they
wanted to sell all or part of their land. Most are not acquiring land to increase their farm
size and what is now in their possession has purposes other than farming.
Major Land Uses
Our interviews in Alachua County revealed three main types of land usage: crops,
livestock, and forest (mostly pine trees). We found that there are a few agricultural
practices that seem to be very common throughout the county; however, there is also a
great deal of diversity. One of the most common agricultural practices involving trees is
the growing of pecans. Pecans are found in nearly all parts of the county and are found on
both large and small land holdings. Another prevalent crop is blueberries which are also
grown by both large and small-scale farmers. Other crops grown in the area are sweet
corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, peas, cabbage, squash, peanuts, eggplant,
watermelon, cantaloupe, and strawberries. Some farmers also grow corn and hay for
livestock. We found that by far, the most prominent livestock are beef cattle, although
there are also dairy cattle, horses and goats. We also found a tremendous amount of pine
trees grown for timber and pulp in this county, as well as some natural forest that is used
in the same way.
Land taxes appear to be a large incentive to either enter agriculture or stay in it if a
person owns a large amount of land. Many people told us that they planted pine trees to
either keep or receive an agricultural land classification. The approximate taxable values
for Alachua County land are as follows:
Taxable Value (S/acre):
Land Pine Pasture
Poor Soil $1500 $100 $85
Average Soil $1500 $120
Good Soil $1500 $225 $150
There is a tax advantage of having land classified as pine or pasture land instead of
Our interviews revealed a few different types of agroforestry (as defined earlier).
We found mostly silvopasture, one instance of intercropping and a few riparian buffers and
windbreaks. We also found some practices that are not agroforestry by definition, but
they are included for this discussion.
We found the most common agroforestry practice was pasturing beef cattle among
pecan trees. Growers said that this was done because of the advantage of having manure
for their trees and also as a means of receiving more income from the same area of land.
During the time when the pecan trees are sprayed, the cattle are simply moved to another
pasture or grove of trees for about two weeks until they can be moved back. In this
combination, pecans appear to be the main income source. We also found that horses can
be pastured in pecans, however in this system horses are the main income. One
intercropping technique that is used with pecans is the growing of rows of squash between
the tree rows. The squash is harvested before the trees are, eliminating the problem of
damaging the crop when harvesting the trees. The trees we saw did not seem to be
damaged by the interplanted squash.
A few riparian buffers were noted along drainage ditches to help prevent erosion.
One was simply a tree line on either side and one was a mix of different trees, shrubs and
grasses. We also saw some wind breaks that had been planted to protect crops from wind
We noted two agricultural practices that are not considered agroforestry;
however, since they both use forestry by-products and incorporate them into agriculture,
we considered them agroforestry for this study. One such practice is pine needle baling.
Pine baling is the harvest and baling of pine needles that will be used in gardens and
landscaping. The needles are harvested for the first time when the trees are eight years
old, and it is recommended they not be harvested more than four times in the life of the
The second practice is the use of pine bark by blueberry growers. Blueberries need
soil with low pH and high organic matter content. Unfortunately, the only areas in Florida
that have soils with these characteristics are low lying areas with a high water table, and
blueberries need well-drained soils. To combat this high water table, some blueberry
growers began putting a layer of pine bark on the ground before they planted their crop.
This seemed to help tremendously, and has been kept as a practice in this area.
Our interviews showed two distinct opinions about the profitability of
agroforestry. Most growers feel that monoculture is much more profitable than any
agroforestry technique. They think that two different crops or a crop/animal combination
would compete for nutrients, space and management time. Also, the spray programs for
different crops might not coincide. Because of these problems, they believe that
agroforestry would not be economically profitable.
Another view is that since agroforestry uses the same amount of land for multiple
enterprises, agroforestry is profitable. The combination can also serve as a risk reduction
for growers. If one crop fails or receives a poor price, the other can make up the
economic difference. One particular agroforestry practice that we found profitable was
the baling of pine needles. This adds income to pine trees which otherwise only provide
income when they are cut (about once every 8 to 20 years). It appears that certain
agroforestry techniques can be profitable provided that the competition between the crops
or between the crop and animals can be kept to a minimum.
Constraints to Agriculture
There are many constraints to agriculture in Alachua County that were brought to
our attention. One common problem is related to water. In blueberries, the problem is
too much water, while in pecans we found some growers who said they needed to irrigate
and some who said they had too much water and needed a drainage ditch. Another
constraint is labor; pecans, blueberries, and many other fruits and vegetables can be very
labor intensive. For larger farmers, this requires the use a good deal of machinery or a lot
of hired labor, both of which can be expensive.
Frost can be a large problem for many farmers. A late frost after a period of warm
weather in early spring can kill blossoms of both pecans and blueberries. One large
blueberry grower had a frost protection system to deal with this problem. The frost
protection system functioned by using high volume sprinklers to keep the plants from
Financial considerations seem to be a constraint for many growers. This is
especially a problem in enterprises which require large financial inputs such as machinery.
With regard to cattle, a constraint is the low beef price. We talked to several people who
stated that they used to own cattle, but they sold them because they were not making any
The final set of constraints we found had to do with the farmers themselves. We
talked with several people who said that they do not do much with their crops, because
they work another job and only farm part-time. This prevents them from taking care of
the crop as carefully as they would have if they were full-time growers, and probably
lowers the income they receive from the farm. Full time farmers should be able to manage
their crops more carefully, and therefore receive more income from the farm. Also, we
found many farmers near retirement age who said that their children were not at all
interested in agriculture. Because of this, they were not really interested in making
changes to the farm since they would just be selling it to someone else in a few years.
Constraints to Agroforestry
There are also many constraints to implementing agroforestry in the county. There
are several reasons why farmers said they did not intercrop with trees (pecans or pines).
One reason is the competition between the two crops for nutrients and space. The
growers also said that shading would be a problem, and tilling the soil between trees might
damage the tree roots. Further, mechanical harvesting of pecans requires that the rows
between the trees be cleared. Intercropping with blueberries may not be possible because
the low soil pH required by blueberries is not compatible with most other crops.
There are also reasons why growers did not like livestock/tree combinations. One
reason is that if livestock are put in with young trees, the trees can be harmed by the
animals rubbing against them. Some growers did not want to bother with moving animals
when they sprayed the trees. Also, when harvesting pecans, it is necessary to have the
grass mowed down; however, if cattle are going to be grazing there over the winter, it is
desirable to leave the grass long. Finally, since cattle are not very profitable, many people
do not want to own them.
One constraint mentioned earlier as an agricultural constraint is also a constraint to
agroforestry. That is the farmers near retirement age whose children are not interested in
agriculture. They are not likely to want to introduce agroforestry to their farm when they
may be selling it soon. Other constraints to agroforestry in general are that it tends to be
more labor intensive, there may not be much knowledge about it in the area, and there
does not seem to be much readily available information on its profitability.
There were many things that growers stated that they would want from an
agroforestry system and some things that they requested to be included in the agroforestry
database. One request is for information concerning which combinations of
trees/crops/livestock were most economical, and which soil types worked best with each.
Another request is for examples of livestock other than cattle that can be used in
agroforestry. Farmers are interested to know what trees will grow in soils that are
characteristic of their land (for example: high and dry, low and wet). Information about
fertilization and pest management of various trees was requested, as well as information
about labor requirements of different systems. Marketing information and comparisons of
the advantages and disadvantages of various agroforestry techniques (for example: alley
cropping, silvopasture, etc.) was also requested.
The Sondeo team covered land classes 52, 53 and 66 (2nd and 3rd class cropland
and orchard, respectively). This classification is according to the type of soils and
growing potential. Although land is the most important agricultural resource in Alachua
County, land use varies from place to place.
All across the county, pine trees are the most intensive cropping system observed.
Pecan trees were the main fruit trees found predominately in the central and northeast
parts of the county. In addition, cultivated crops were predominant in the north-central
and western regions of Alachua County, while pasture was found scattered throughout.
It is pertinent to consider that growing pine trees has different purposes. In
general, these operations are being done mainly for the purposes of keeping the
agricultural classification of the land--which guarantees a lower tax payment-- and lower
maintenance costs. Moreover, the intensity and use of the products are different from
west to east. On the west side, which is predominately upland soils, pine tree needles are
harvested as well as timber.
Much of the east side, however, has wet, swampy soils on which slash pine trees
are produced in monoculture for wood products by timber companies such as Georgia-
Pacific and Nekoosa. Note that for this soil the slash pine is the most suitable tree. These
soils provide fair conditions for cattle grazing and also have limited conditions for
cultivated crops because of the existing clay hardpan. In other parts of the county, soil
conditions are more suitable for crops such as vegetables and fruit trees.
Few of the farmers lived on their farms and they are mostly part-time operators.
The age of farmers is also a factor affecting agroforestry in Alachua County. A large
share of the farmers interviewed by sondeo teams were generally older. Their general
opinion is that the next generation is not interested in farming. Already in some areas of
Alachua County, farmers are cultivating pine trees instead of annual crops. They harvest
pine trees every sixteen years. This option may appeal to older farmers because pine trees
are less labor intensive than annual crops. Another advantage to growing pines is to keep
an agriculture land classification for tax purposes. This can be done, for example, by
incorporating pine into an agroforestry system instead of using the land for other purposes
or keeping land fallow. Thus the age of farmers is a factor which must be considered for
agroforestry. The age trend of farmers in Alachua County may help or hinder the
expansion of agroforestry. An older grower producing annual crops could benefit from
the introduction of pine in an agroforestry system because of the decreased labor
requirement. Conversely, a farmer with monocrop pines who switches to an agroforestry
system will increase labor requirements.
There are various factors which may affect the agriculture of Alachua County.
Tax policy is an important factor among these. There is also a scarcity of hired labor. The
next generation is not interested in agriculture. Present farmers are older. In short, low
labor intensive agriculture is feasible for them. An example of this is pine cultivation,
which has started in Alachua County. Because it takes sixteen years to harvest a crop,
little labor is required and farmers receive a large amount of money at one time. We can
conclude that any agroforestry system introduced in the county should take into
consideration the role that pine can play.
The Future of Agroforestry in Alachua County
Advantages ofAgroforestry Agroforestry allows farmers to diversify their
operations while, in some cases, lowering their labor requirements. There is also a tax
advantage over leaving the land unused.
The Issue ofMonoculture The majority of farmers interviewed were raising trees
as a monoculture, and perceived agroforestry as "difficult." Some farmers felt that it
would be troublesome to combine cattle with fruit and nut crops because of chemical use.
There were also doubts that mechanized agriculture would be compatible with tree crops.
One example was a grower who had to harvest his pecans by hand because mechanized
harvesting would entail mowing the orchard floor, leaving no winter forage for his
livestock. Thus, it appears that because farmers are less willing to raise trees in
combinations with crops and/or livestock, the acceptance of agroforestry could be
Misperceptions In relation to the issue of monoculture, there seemed to be many
misperceptions among interviewees about agroforestry. Some commented that shade
would impede growth of annual crops. Others voiced concerns about competition
between crops, animals and trees for nutrients and water. Still others spoke of animals
damaging irrigation systems or the trees themselves. While we felt that some of these
concerns were untrue or misperceptions, they are, nevertheless, views and beliefs which
will largely affect whether agroforestry is accepted or rejected in Alachua County.
Awareness ofAgroforestry Many of the growers are simply not aware of what
agroforestry means or how it could fit into their particular production scheme.
Additionally, the definition of agroforestry is self-limiting. The majority of the farmers
(and the person baling pine needles) who were interviewed were involved in some aspect
of forestry. Yet very few of the interviewed farmers were actually practicing agroforestry
Target Audience and Incentives: Unanswered Questions The target audience of
this USDA program is unclear. What size of grower is it meant to impact? Will those
growers who are not linked into Cooperative Extension or other formal and informal
informational networks (especially those considered as "marginal" farmers) be aware of
and able to use this database? Three other pertinent questions also come to mind: 1) Will
cost-sharing programs which subsidize tree planting honor agroforestry systems? 2) Will
retirees or part-time farmers be willing to use an agroforestry system? 3) Will land taxes
actually be higher or lower than they are now for a given grower participating in an
* The USDA may need to work with the property appraisers to establish reasonable
tax assessments for agroforestry systems.
* Cooperative extension agents need to be educated about agroforestry so they can
converse knowledgeably about it.
* The assessment of farmer interest in agroforestry needs to be expanded beyond
* The agroforestry profession needs to explain clearly the advantages and
disadvantages of the system to the potential clients. This would include the costs
and benefits of modifying existing systems.
* Consideration should be given to expanding the concept of agroforestry systems
especially taking into consideration such activities as baling pine needles.
* The database should be made available to farmers and others in forms that are
easily accessible to all.
* Socioeconomic and biophysical research needs to be conducted on appropriate
systems for the diversity of conditions in the southeastern U.S.
Alachua County home page. http://www.co.alachua.fl.us
Association for Temperate Agroforestry (AFTA). 1997. The status, opportunities, and
needs for agroforestry in the United States. U. of Mo. Columbia, Missouri.
Hildebrand, P.E. 1981. Combining disciplines in rapid appraisal: The sondeo approach.
Agri. Admin. 8:423-432.
Nair, P.K. 1993. An Introduction to Agroforestry. Kluwer Acad. Pub. Dordecht, The
Netherlands. 499 pp.