CATAWBA, Va. (WFXR) — When you think of the word, “alley,” it might conjure up thoughts of urban streets. But, thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, the kind of alley we are talking about involves trees and crops, and a better way of growing the food that goes on tables across the United States.

“We have a large focus on agroforestry,” said Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center Manager Adam Taylor. “Agroforestry is a practice of agriculture where we incorporate trees and or shrubs with crops and or livestock.”

Adam Taylor is the manager at the Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center (Photo: George Noleff)

One practice under study at the center is called alley cropping. It involves planting rows of trees spaced widely apart and then planting crops between the trees.

“We’ve created rows of trees, and in the middle of those trees is the alley where we’re planting different things,” said Taylor.

So, what does it do?

When those trees grow they will provide another crop or forage source. They will also protect against erosion, help regulate temperatures, and enrich the soil. For livestock farmers, the trees will provide shade for livestock to graze. All of that makes better crops and healthier animals and improves the bottom line of farmers.

“You’re lowering a lot of your costs,” Taylor said, gesturing to an area of crops planted between two rows of trees. “Once you’ve put in the front costs by installing the operation, over time that cost is going to come back to you because you’re using the cover crops and the trees to kind of build your soil fertility and kind of get rid of your need for off-farm inputs.”

Part of the idea behind farm research is actually failure. If researchers can figure out what does not work, they can pass on the knowledge to farmers. And, when they find success, they can pass that along, too.

Rows of young trees planted in an alley cropping operation at the Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center (Photo: George Noleff)

“We take on these risks and these chances, and we fail so we can tell others about how we failed,” Taylor said. “Once we develop it and you can see it, see the better benefits; it’s more like playing a long game, than the short game that a lot of agriculture we see today does.”