Dr. Bronner’s Transforms Farmland in Ghana With Dynamic Agroforestry

Last Update: September 27, 2022

Dr. Bronner’s is known for the high standards it applies to ingredients inside every product, and since 2005, the brand has included organic and fair trade certification of all major ingredients. Now, the brand is pursuing Regenerative Organic Certification, too, and piloting a new farming practice in Ghana that has the potential to make a big impact—for local farmers and the environment—and could serve as a global model for sustainable and fair agriculture.

What Is Dynamic Agroforestry?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), agroforestry is an essential element of a global solution to the growing demand for food and the need for sustainable land use. By definition, agroforestry is a land use system where trees are managed together with crops and/or animals. It’s a planned system that can involve both traditional and modern agricultural practices, and ideally, agroforestry land should be designed to consider the ecology of its plants and animals.

FAO believes that widespread use of this method would help “diversify and sustain agricultural production in order to increase social, economic, and environmental benefits for land users at all scales.” There are several methods for agroforestry design and management. According to Dr. Bronner’s marketing campaign manager Nancy Metcalf, “one such approach, dynamic agroforestry, mimics a multi-strata natural forest and includes a variety of tree crops, understory plants, and cover crops.”

Since the 1970s, several groups of agricultural practitioners and researchers have honed modern dynamic agroforestry (DAF) concepts, mostly in Latin America. Swiss farmer and researcher Ernst Goetsch is one of the movement’s early leaders with many accomplishments, particularly in Brazil. One of his students is tropical agriculturist Dr. Joachim Milz, who developed his own organic cocoa farm in Bolivia starting in the 1980s. His firm, ECOTOP, now advises private sector firms and governments on the science, practices, and benefits of DAF. He’s now a hands-on advisor to Dr. Bronner’s DAF programs in both Ghana and Samoa.

Here’s what you’ll find in a section of land that’s farmed using dynamic agroforestry practices:

  • Tree crops: dominant in any DAF system, and include cocoa (as a shade tree in the bottom stratum), fruit trees (mango, avocado, cashew), palms (oil palm, coconut), timber trees (teak, mahogany)
  • Fast-growing fruit plants: offer a near-term income yield (papayas, bananas)
  • Understory plants: annual or biannual ground crops (yams, cassava, taro, maize, various legumes, ginger, turmeric)
  • Cover crops: planted between rows to protect soil from erosion and fix nitrogen (elephant grass, legumes)

Dr. Bronner’s first became intrigued by the potential of dynamic agroforestry when its special operations team, led by Gero Leson, met Joachim Milz at Dr. Bronner’s Serendipalm project in Ghana in 2016. “We found his approach to DAF and its applicability to our palm and cocoa farms so convincing, we swiftly decided to explore its applicability to our raw materials projects and have developed two DAF-demo farms since early 2017,” said Gero.

Dr. Bronner's Serendipalm’s test DAF field plan considers the rate, size and environmental needs of each species grown, and integrates these variables into the dynamic, mixed system to maximize production yields while helping build the soil.

In addition to selling palm oil to Dr. Bronner’s for use in its bar soaps—which lends hardness to the bars and prevents early softening—Serendipalm also sells palm oil to high-profile organic and fair trade companies in Europe, such as Rapunzel and GEPA. Serendipalm also markets organic and fair trade cocoa beans to Rapunzel, among others. DAF offers a system that supports both these crops in addition to multiple benefits, such as higher tree density that achieves product yields over twice that of an oil palm or cocoa monoculture. The high biodiversity of plant species reduces pest pressure, and the rapid biomass growth sequesters high rates of atmospheric carbon dioxide above and below ground.

Converting Land to Dynamic Agroforestry in Ghana

A DAF forest typically covers an area of anywhere from two acres to hundreds of acres, but what does it take to convert land in Ghana to a dynamic agroforest? Established orchards (like cocoa) can be retrofitted by selectively removing trees and filling in seedling from other species that are compatible with the existing crops.

Dr. Bronner's Serendipalm’s professional staff is working to demonstrate the success of Dynamic Agroforestry on their own test farm plots, while educating local farmers about benefits of this new system.

For newly planted DAF fields, the process starts by identifying an aged mono-crop palm field that’s due for re-planting. After felling the unproductive palm trees, their biomass remains on the ground to return carbon and other nutrients to the soil. Next, a planting grid is designed that specifies the tree species and their density, planted in rows. This grid is very adaptable to the local climate, and notably, marketability of the trees and field crops to be grown. When it comes to crop options, banana, palm, cocoa, fruit, and timber trees will be planted along with annual understory crops, like cassava, taro, legumes, and corn, that are popular consumer crops and go to local markets.

Crops are chosen based on how long it takes for them to reach maturity and are planted in a specific order and spacing, with consideration for whether the plants need or tolerate shade. For example, cocoa needs shade, so it’s planted near a banana or cassava plant to protect the seedling from too much sun. A standard feature of a DAF orchard are “biomass trees,” fast-growing trees that are regularly pruned. Their branches are lignin-rich so once they fall to the ground, they’ll convert into humus, a stable form of biomass that improves soil fertility.

Here’s a quick rundown of how long it takes to see yields after replanting:

  • Understory plants (cassava, legumes, ginger, turmeric): 2 to 8 months after planting
  • Banana and papaya plants: 12 months after planting
  • Cocoa tree: 3 to 4 years after planting
  • Timber tree: between 10 and 40 years to harvest
  • Various fruit trees (avocado, mango, cashew): 5 to 6 years after planting
  • Oil and coconut palm: 4 to 7 years after planting

To practice and demonstrate the art of dynamic agroforestry, Serendipalm has now planted two test farms—7 and 15 acres in size—featuring two different soil types. “We’ve seen DAF successfully moved forward at ECOTOP’s 150-acre project in Ivory Coast—we wanted to prove the concept to our field staff and farmers at Serendipalm, and began training both groups,” said Gero. Serendipalm recently received a grant to support its DAF program from the UK-based AgDevCo program, and Serendipalm’s team has set a goal of training around 2,000 farmers in DAF and plant about 200 new DAF plots by 2020. Implementation is helped by Serendipalm’s existing organic certification, which offers regular trainings and advice from Serendipalm’s field officers.

In the project region around Asuom, in Ghana’s Eastern Region, farm plots typically run two to 10 acres in size and are either owned by the farmer or sharecroppers. Since dynamic agroforestry is a new concept, convincing farmers to implement it can be challenging. “Everyone’s a creature of habit,” said Nancy. “We’re focusing on educating farmers as to why they should convert their fields. At the same time, we offer hands-on training in pruning cocoa trees, which is critical to maintaining their productivity.”

The costs to establish a DAF plot are significantly higher than for an oil palm monocrop, so Dr. Bronner’s and Serendipalm are finding sources of soft loan financing for farmers interested in DAF. “Farmers in the project area are already familiar with growing field crops among palm and cocoa to make full use of the land,” shared Nancy. “Where education is required is in the unique pairing of these crops and their ecological needs.”

Dr. Bronner'sFarmers in Asuom will need support, such as soft loans, to purchase healthy new seedlings for replanting their old palm monocrop fields in the new DAF system.

Dr. Bronner’s Serendipalm project currently works with about 600 organic small-holder farmers, and around 200 of them also produce organic cocoa now. With growing demand for organic and fair trade palm oil and cocoa, Serendipalm recruits additional farmers, preferably those interested in adding DAF plots. While converting most of Serendipalm’s farmers to DAF will take 20 years or so, Dr. Bronner’s is in it for the long haul. “We’re convinced that DAF is one of the most promising approaches on the planet to growing our food in a fair, sustainable, and profitable way. It is a win-win for the environment and for local farmers who earn a more reliable income, while reducing exposure to pesticides and herbicides,” said Gero. “Consequently, we’ve also started a DAF program at our coconut oil project in Samoa.”

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Nicole Gulotta

Nicole Gulotta is a writer, author, and tea enthusiast.

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