Mapping the current extent and suitability of agroforestry in the US Midwest

Progress report for GNC22-344

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,938.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Richard Brazee
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Faculty Advisor:
Daniel Miller
University of Notre Dame
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Project Information


Title: Mapping the current extent and suitability of agroforestry in the US Midwest

Sustainable agricultural practices like agroforestry are necessary to ensure global food security, mitigate climate change, conserve biodiversity, and provide ecosystem services. Such practices can also boost economic profitability, protect human health, and enhance well-being. Agroforestry, defined as the integration of trees into crop and livestock systems, is widely promoted as a sustainable land use practice. However, the adoption of these practices remains limited in the US. The need for agroforestry assessments has been identified in national statements like the USDA Agroforestry Strategic Framework. We have also identified this need through key informant interviews with extension agents, USDA personnel, non-profit organizations, and producers. This project assesses the social-ecological suitability and pathways for expanding agroforestry in the Midwest to support US agroforestry policy and programs.

We focused on assessing the feasibility of expanding agroforestry in Illinois through geospatial analysis, modeling, and semi-structured interviews with producers and program administrators. Given important recent investments in expanding US agroforestry (The Nature Conservancy, 2022), this work aims to provide evidence and an approach to better understand the current extent of trees in the agricultural landscape, identify target areas for agroforestry practices, and describe perceived opportunities and barriers to an appropriate agroforestry expansion based on stakeholder inputs.

High-resolution maps showing the potential suitability of agroforestry based on social, economic, and biophysical factors (“suitability maps”) can be powerful resources for decision-makers to design and target agricultural conservation programs effectively. The results of this work will help inform agricultural policies promoted by governments and organizations, improve targeting of programs, and inform farmers’ decisions based on environmental and economic suitability models. Using a range of relevant environmental and socioeconomic criteria, we found that agroforestry is predicted to have the highest potential for expansion in southern and western Illinois. One of the main findings was the importance of including socioeconomic variables in suitability mapping. When we considered only environmental variables, the central and northern portions of the state were highlighted as the highest priority areas. However, considering that agroforestry is a voluntary conservation and production practice, typically carried out by private landowners, the feasibility of using it as a sustainability solution needs to include the environmental priorities along with social and economic feasibility. This more holistic– and realistic– approach shifted priorities to southern and western Illinois. 

This shift was further supported post-hoc by Illinois stakeholders through semi-structured interviews with producers and program administrators. Prior research on agroforestry’s suitability for Illinois focused on identifying marginal farmlands using environmental criteria. Our suitability assessment set no such constraints. The reason for this decision is that there has been a shift in thinking about agroforestry in recent years as a productive, as well as a conservation, practice: while marginal lands may be socially feasible in terms of agroforestry strictly as a conservation practice, more prime agricultural lands may be most suitable for agroforestry as a practice to grow tree products (e.g., fruits, nuts, and timber). Nevertheless, economics remains an important consideration determining the viability of agroforestry as a competitive practice and as such was included as one of the variables in the model. 

The agroforestry suitability maps were complemented by an analysis of Illinois producers’ and program administrators’ perceptions of agroforestry’s suitability using a scenario of expanding agroforestry to 5-10% of their farmland and to agricultural lands within their county of residence. We assessed the perceived nature values attributed to agroforestry, the role of values in adoption decisions, and the barriers and opportunities in transitioning towards an agroforestry landscape. We found that relational values and non-material values played key roles in agroforesters’ adoption decisions, which has been found in other temperate contexts around the world. In understanding the role of nature values in determining adoption, policies and programs may be designed to align with producer priorities. The assessment of agroforestry’s nature values also suggests that agroforestry could be framed to align with different stakeholder groups and incorporated into policies with aligned missions. For example, the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy currently only includes minimal reference to agroforestry. Additionally, there was a strong perception that agroforestry has the potential to promote rural development and reduce poverty by establishing new markets and agrotourism, which could also help incorporate agroforestry into rural development policies. 

Overall, agroforestry adopters and program administrators had positive perceptions of the agroforestry transition scenario, citing potential benefits to nature, ecosystem services, and quality of life. On the other hand, conventional farmers had mixed views, with overall moderate to strong negative views of the agroforestry scenario, primarily due to concerns over production, economics, and management challenges. A primary difference between agroforestry adopters and non-adopters was their view on the material value of agroforestry: agroforestry practitioners viewed agroforestry as an opportunity to diversify production, generate new revenue streams, and produce nutritious foods and high value/value-added goods whereas non-practitioners (e.g. “conventional” farmers) tended to view agroforestry as taking land out of production for conservation purposes. 

This project contributes to interdisciplinary knowledge on land use science and policy, sustainability science, and agroforestry. First, land systems are interdependent with the meaning and values humans attribute to them. Understanding the diverse values people attribute to landscapes is critical for including multiple values into policymaking to create more just and sustainable solutions. Additionally, in better understanding the challenges and policy barriers agricultural producers face when considering conservation practices like agroforestry, conservation policies could integrate this knowledge generated by producers and practitioners. Conservation policies could be adapted to allow greater flexibility that accounts for the multiple goals and values of potential implementers to meet both the environmental goals of conservation policy as well as the socioeconomic goals often prioritized by the land operators. Additionally, by including multiple social-ecological variables into the agroforestry suitability model (soil erosion, water quality, soil organic carbon sequestration potential, tree species suitability, net farm income, demographic, and conservation norms), the model generated estimates of areas where agroforestry could meet multiple objectives, rather than focusing on singular goals. This type of assessment provides a more holistic view of agroforestry’s potential to provide solutions for multiple interests and garner greater social and political support. The geospatial analysis was complemented by qualitative work to form a more comprehensive assessment of agroforestry’s suitability in Illinois and inform policy and incentive structures to advance sustainability science. 

Project Objectives:

The overarching goal of this research project is to inform Midwest agroforestry policy through assessing feasibility of transitioning land to agroforestry at a large scale using a geospatial suitability assessment and interviews with stakeholders in Illinois. The methods and tools developed through this project will lay the foundation to evaluate the political and economic feasibility of agroforestry in the US.

To achieve this goal, the project includes two interlinked objectives: (1) map the suitability of agroforestry practices and predict priority areas for agroforestry development across the US Midwest, and (2) conduct semi-structured interviews with producers and program administrators throughout Illinois to understand the perceived feasibility of expanding agroforestry in Illinois and assess the roles of nature values in determining agroforestry adoption decisions. The results of these objectives will contribute towards the US agroforestry agenda and provide insights to shape future agroforestry policy.

The expected outcomes of the first objective include reaching researchers and policymakers to illustrate the potential contributions of agroforestry and enable future research quantifying the impacts of agroforestry. We will track this outcome through the citations and downloads of our publications and policy briefs. This work will also improve monitoring of land use change and permanence of conservation practices like agroforestry to better understand the effectiveness US agricultural conservation policies and investments.

To meet this first objective, we have developed agroforestry suitability maps using geospatial analysis and modeling to identify potential priority areas for targeting agroforestry in Illinois as well as the four-state region of the Upper Mississippi River Basin (Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin). This suitability map shows regions where agroforestry is expected to reduce the risk of environmental degradation, support productive tree growth, and be socioeconomically viable. This framework for agroforestry suitability modeling was developed based on agroforestry literature and key informant interviews to identify model parameters and user needs. We created separate maps for alley cropping, riparian buffer, silvopasture, and windbreak suitability. Results reveal considerable opportunities for expanding agroforestry practice within specific regions, where policies could be targeted. The suitability map can be used to inform agricultural conservation policy and decision-making related to agroforestry in specific locations. This work also provides a theoretical foundation for interdisciplinary suitability modeling that can be adapted for use in other global regions. 

The expected outcomes of the first objective include creating and disseminating the suitability map as an interactive tool for policymakers, agencies, and producers. We are developing the decision-support tool as a Google Earth Engine app, which will be publicly available and distributed through relevant organizations, including University of Illinois Extension and Iowa Learning Farms, among others. Preliminary results were shared at the 2023 Forests and Livelihoods: Assessment, Research, and Engagement Meeting in Nairobi, Kenya on October 14, 2023 ( and the Iowa Learning Farms Webinar Series on April 24, 2024 ( Continued conversations with policymakers and stakeholders will help us track all the above outcomes. Repository accesses will also be an indicator of the impacts of this work.

To meet the second objective, we focused on agroforestry practices within the state of Illinois as a case study to examine stakeholder views of an agroforestry landscape transition (increasing agroforestry up to 5-10% of agricultural land). We analyzed the roles of nature values in determining agroforestry adoption decisions to inform more sustainable and reflexive agroforestry planning and policy. We conducted semi-structured interviews with producers (18 agroforesters and 7 conventional farmers) and program administrators (13) throughout the northern, central, and southern regions of Illinois. We examined the perceived positive, negative, and neutral values of agroforestry on nature (intrinsic), ecosystem services (instrumental), and quality of life (relational). We then assessed how the values of participants influenced their adoption decisions and explored the perceived opportunities and barriers for expanding agroforestry in the region, including those related to financial risk and funding, management, equipment and plant material, market access, science knowledge and education, and climate change.  

The expected outcomes of this second objective include delivering summaries and publications to the interview participants. We collected information from agroforester interviewees related to their direct experiences with conservation policy, agroforestry management, and specific challenges and solutions they found in managing agroforestry systems. We plan on disseminating infographics and informal publications to inform agroforestry policy and program needs and share participants insights to agroforestry success.  


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Chloe Wardropper (Researcher)
  • Alexandra Ramirez (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Objective 1: Agroforestry suitability mapping

We used GIS-based multi-criteria decision analysis to identify target regions for agroforestry expansion based on tree productive growth requirements, environmental priority areas, and socioeconomic criteria (Figure 1). We generated suitability maps for the four of the five major agroforestry practice types in the US that focus on tree planting: (1) alley cropping, (2) silvopasture, (3) riparian buffers, and (4) windbreaks. We did not include forest farming in our assessment since the practice primarily transitions current forests to include productive elements, rather than converting current crop or grazing lands.

Summary of criteria used to determine agroforestry suitability . 
Agricultural Lands (Croplands + Pasture lands) defined by 
Cropland Data Layer,
National Hydrology Dataset (for riparian buffers), and USDA/ARS Field Boundary Data (for windbreaks).
Environmental Priority Areas defined by
Soil Loss from Water Erosion (RUSLE-based model, GloSEM), Soil Loss from Wind Erosion (Wind Erodibility Index, gSSURGO), Nitrate Violation Index (EPA EnviroAtlas, HUC12), 
Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration Potential (GSOCseq). 
Tree Growth Requirements defined by
Soil requirements (SSURGO, STATSGO), Climate requirements (PRISM), and Topographic requirements (USGS 3DEP).
Socioeconomic Feasibility defined by USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Data (at county level) using indicators for economic viability and social acceptability.
Figure 1: Summary of criteria used to determine agroforestry suitability

The suitability criteria were each scaled between 0 and 1 for consistency between variables using fuzzy membership classification using the FuzzyLarge (for variables where higher values indicate higher suitability) or FuzzySmall (for variables where lower values indicate higher suitability) function in ArcGIS Pro, using the dataset layer’s mean value as the midpoint and a spread of 5. The overall suitability was estimated using the weighted linear sum method for multi-criteria decision-making. Where appropriate, weights for were selected based on literature reviews, expert input, and, for the environmental priorities, the NRCS reporting of the relative physical effects of each practice on outcomes of interest. The final suitability was classified using fuzzy membership with a quantile function, where value 1 indicated lowest suitability and 5 highest suitability (and 0 indicated not suitability). The regions ranked 5 are the areas where agroforestry offers the greatest potential benefits in terms of environmental risks, tree growth suitability, and social feasibility.

Objective 2: Semi-structured interviews with producers and program administrators in Illinois

We used a qualitative research approach to examine the opportunities and barriers to agroforestry adoption as well as the relative importance of environmental, social, and economic criteria within interviewees’ decision-making processes. The fieldwork consisted of individual in-person or virtual interviews with a diverse set of farmers and ranchers in Illinois. We also interviewed program administrators within governmental and non-governmental organizations (e.g., Farm Service Agency, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, USDA Forest Service, university extension) to understand their perspectives on the policy landscape of agroforestry in the US Midwest. Farmers and ranchers were recruited from southern, central, and northern Illinois, and program administrators were recruited primarily from Illinois but also from among those based elsewhere in the Midwest but with knowledge relevant to Illinois.

We conducted semi-structured interviews as a means to understand individual perceptions of the roles of trees in agricultural landscapes. Semi-structured interviews allow interviewees the freedom to express their views in their own terms, provide space for more in-depth exploration of their views and reasoning, and offer more privacy in their responses.​ We explored different aspects of the topic in depth with each interviewee, and these interviews allowed us to ask follow-up questions and probe interviewees for specific examples and ideas. The consistent questions and structure of the interviews helped provide reliable, comparable qualitative data.​ Additionally, semi-structured interviews allowed us to gather subjective data to analyze participant’s personal values that could not be gathered using other methods.

Our interview guide followed five broad categories:

  1. Farmer and program administrator characteristics and background.
  2. Interviewees’ motivations and values and the values they attribute to agroforestry.
  3. Interviewees’ perceptions of trees in the agricultural landscape and of an agroforestry landscape scenario (transitioning 5-10% of agricultural land to agroforestry in county), including perceived benefits and downsides.
  4. Interviewees’ perceived agroforestry adoption decision criteria and barriers to agroforestry adoption.
  5. Interviewees’ experiences with programs, policies, and other types of assistance, including their perceived gaps and opportunities in policy.

This study was approved by the University of Illinois Institutional Review Board (IRB) for research on human subjects. All participants received a consent form and gave oral consent to participate in our study at the start of the interview.

We used purposive sampling to select initial participants for the semi-structured interviews, relying on internet searches and contacts through key members of our network to collect the initial list. We did not set our sample size prior to conducting our study. Instead, we worked inductively towards theoretical saturation. The initial set of participants represented individuals from the following overlapping groups: agroforestry farm operators (crops and/or livestock), non-agroforestry farm operators (crops and/or livestock), local organizations, state agency personnel, university extension, and regional organizations. The initial set of interviewees suggested new contacts, who they reached out to on our behalf. Purposive sampling using chain referrals continued in this way, and we used a strategic approach to select additional participants until each of the groups were sampled to theoretical saturation. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and imported into NVivo 14 for analysis. We used Zoom transcriptions and TranscribeMe for initial machine learning transcriptions, which we then manually cleaned. We used NVivo to identify and analyze themes in the data through coding into descriptive categories. 

Research results and discussion:

Agroforestry was determined to have the highest suitability throughout southern and western Illinois when using the full social and environmental criteria. When considering only the potential of agroforestry to address environmental goals, central and northern Illinois had higher potential for expanding agroforestry, though we expect that the ability to competitively grow diverse agroforestry species and gain social acceptability would be more challenging in these regions. The shifted priorities from including the socioeconomic dimensions of agroforestry’s suitability reflected the expert expectations conveyed during key informant interviews with Midwestern agroforestry experts. We explore these themes further through formal, semi-structured interviews with producers and program administrators throughout Illinois. Additionally, we found that there are large carbon storage potential benefits through expanding agroforestry on highly suitable Illinois lands. We also identified thousands of acres with potential suitability for agroforestry in terms of environmental objectives, tree growth requirements, and social feasibility that were estimated to be marginal (low crop value) lands. While we procured some expert input on the selection and weighting of criteria, the priorities may shift between users and over time. Accordingly, we aim to translate this analysis into a publicly available decision-support tool as a Google Earth Engine app (beta version for testing with stakeholders will be available August 2024).

Shows maps of agricultural land constraints, environmental risk factors, tree growth suitability, and socioeconomic suitability for Illinois.
Figure 2: Layers used to generate social-ecological agroforestry suitability maps. (a) Agricultural land constraints for each practice, from left to right: alley cropping (cropland plus pasture/grassland), riparian buffers (30-m distance of waterways), silvopasture (pasture/grassland), windbreaks (10-m field buffers). (b) Environmental priority areas for each practice, from left to right: alley cropping, riparian buffers, silvopasture, and windbreaks. (c) Tree growth suitability for nine potential agroforestry tree species. (d) Socioeconomic feasibility for agroforestry adoption at the county level. Environmental suitability is the product of agricultural land constraints and environmental priority areas. Social-ecological suitability is the product of agricultural land constraints, environmental priority areas, tree growth requirements, and socioeconomic feasibility.

Through the semi-structured interviews, we found that overall, there was some misalignment between the perceived value of agroforestry and the individual values held by farmers in Illinois, particularly with the values farmers prioritized in their adoption decision-making. While the early adopters of agroforestry, along with many of the program administrators, viewed agroforestry as a potential opportunity for production and profitability, non-adopters tended to view agroforestry as strictly taking land out of production for conservation. The early adopters were willing to seek out relevant resources and information, take financial risk with the expectation of long-term gain, and be creative in finding near-term solutions. We found that the primary motivations that farmers had for adopting agroforestry were relational values: helping their community, working in harmony with nature, and enjoyment in farming. There were also strong non-material values in terms of supporting a stewardship identity and creating farming systems that provide sustainable options for the current and future generations. While most adopters shared appreciation for the numerous regulating and intrinsic values of agroforestry that they perceived, these were often not the primary motivators of their adoption decisions, except for those who had adopted partial-farm agroforestry to reduce problems with soil erosion.

Key opportunities for expanding agroforestry included: (1) developing demonstration farm networks to both visualize agroforestry within the landscape and conduct research on economics and management, (2) providing sufficient conservation practice incentives with pricing to match rental rates into the long-term (e.g., beyond the typical 10-year CRP contract), and (3) improving education and messaging by linking the potential benefits of agroforestry to farmers’ goals.

Participation Summary
30 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

45 Farmers participated
45 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

We presented this work in the Iowa Learning Farms Webinar Series ( There were 93 participants in the webinar, consisting of a mixture of farmers, ranchers, and agricultural professionals (through the distribution is not known). The webinar has been viewed at least an additional 30 times. There was substantial interest in the decision-support tool as well as the results of the semi-structured interviews, and we will disseminate the agroforestry decision-support tool through this group. 

We have also been discussing the research design through key informant interviews with members of the USDA National Agroforestry Center, the Savanna Institute, and University of Illinois Extension. We plan to share project summaries and reports with these agroforestry stakeholders to use and disseminate. 

We also presented this work to the Forests and Livelihoods: Assessment, Research, and Engagement Network at the 2023 conference in Nairobi. We received positive interest in translating the methodologies to international contexts. 

We plan on publishing this work as at least four academic journal articles: (1) a paper on the agroforestry suitability map for the US Midwest, (2) a paper on the roles of nature values in determining agroforestry adoption decisions and the perceived suitability of an agroforestry transition, (3) a paper on the perceived opportunities and barriers to agroforestry adoption and the policy and program needs for agroforestry in the US Midwest. Additionally, a master's student is working on assessing the role of place attachment in agroforestry adoption, which will be a separate journal article (4). We also plan to publish the agroforestry decision-support tool as a Google Earth Engine app, along with a journal article or dataset description.  


Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.