Agroforestry Profile

  Riparian buffer strip.
  Courtesy of USDA NRCS.

By Daniel Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University,
Revised November 2015.


Natural and managed forests are one of the most important components of the Earth’s living and climatic systems. Around the world, forestry and the forest-products industry are of major economic importance to rural livelihoods
Forestry is the means by which trees can be produced as a renewable resource for wood or biomass for direct timber sales, production of trees for ornamental plantings or woody material for composite products or for use as a combustion energy source. Integrated into forest management plans may be other resource-management and asset-generation or asset-recovery options. These may involve revenue generation from hunting lease sales, government-sponsored conservation programs, tourism from winter sports access, syrup or mushroom production for food products, educational activities and other strategies.


Forest-product companies are value-addition engines. Trees produce a myriad of products from foods to building materials to consumer goods. Sound marketing has always been the backbone of successful forest-products companies. The products of the very different wood-based industries require very different marketing strategies, but the universal key is to identify any and all competitive advantages within the particular industry, and this includes the product’s fit with respect to imported competitors, and whether or not it has potential as an export product. Understanding your competitive positions as well as those of your competitors are critical to analyzing the value chain to identify potential competitive advantage. “The 4 P’s of Marketing”: Products, Pricing, Promotion, and Place (Distribution) are great starting points, but manufacturing practices and current resource-use issues affecting the industry also may be useful as marketing points. Economic trends, market history, factors affecting change in the industry and sound marketing research are important components of any business plan.

The FAO of the United Nations has written that the forest products industry is a vigorous participant in global trade since most business models are built on capturing comparative advantages at the right cost. Many emerging countries possess valued forests, aspire for more processing industry and employment, and seek added value to their raw materials. International investors in the forest products industry are their willing allies, but legal sustainable production and proper labor practices are key concerns.


The United States contains roughly 750 million acres of forested land, and almost 430 million acres, or 60 percent, of that land is privately owned. Those privately owned forests supply over 90 percent of the wood harvested in the United States for the construction of homes and the manufacturing of furniture, paper and other wood products. Federal forests supply only 2 percent of the wood used by the forest products industry.

The sale of U.S. forest products (not including Christmas trees and maple products) and the number of farms selling them increased between 2002 and 2007. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (2009), over $595 million of forest products were sold from 47,603 farms. The 2012 Census of Agriculture (2014), stated that over $687 million of forest products were sold from 51,913 farms.

Production by all product types and a through overview of those markets is best reviewed by accessing U.S. Forest Products Anneal Market Review and Prospects,  Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, USDA, 2014.


Forest resources, tree plantations and similar ecosystems usually are managed using scientific techniques. To re-forest a natural area or establish a plantation, selection of species and subspecies varieties, either in “pure” single species stands or mixed-species systems, means selecting genetic stock with the proper microclimatic adaptation and disease resistance. Then the forester must employ skill in the proper handling of seedlings, stand establishment and protection, and management practices that include pruning and thinning, controlled burns and managed extraction of the desired biomass of timber. A number of trade organizations, state and federal government agencies, university extension researchers and private consultants are available to assist with program planning and problem solving.

Management and preservation are important issues regarding America’s forest systems. Forestry is an arena of applied scientific analysis, field-craft technique, satellite telemetry and related environmental monitoring. A related science of managing trees, whether propagating them, managing disease outbreaks or designing plantations, is called silviculture. Silvicultural management once primarily concerned itself only with board feet of pulp wood for paper production or harvestable saw logs for lumber. Today silvicultural forestry must encompass renewability issues, watershed management, recreational and wildlife management issues, and community and natural area aesthetics. Today’s trained forester is an educated environmental scientist trained in botany, plant genetics, climatology, entomology, hydrology and soil science, as well as having interdisciplinary skills that usually encompass complex systems management and socio-political environmental studies.

The importance of the sustainability of these resources and the human and non-human communities depending on them have overriding economic, environmental and social implications. For this reason, most forestry production is highly regulated and management programs should be carefully constructed. In many cases, also an integral part of any operation are the stewardship regulations and programs that stress third-party certification systems that provide independent verification of sound management practices.

Recently, environmental scientists have recognized that all forests, including the treed and treeless boreal tundra, are fantastically huge reservoirs of sequestered carbon. This carbon predominantly is in the form of cellulose-comprised living or dead plant material. When liberated, through direct human activity, global warming (permafrost elimination) or natural processes (forest or range fires, biological activity), it becomes atmospheric carbon-dioxide gas. The release of this naturally “locked-up” carbon is viewed by some authorities to be a potentially catastrophic contributor to global warming. Concerns over sequestered and liberated carbon are increasingly carried over to the arenas of wood use and tree growth, whether biomass utilization for power generation, wood-waste disposal, forest or plantation stand management or the pro and cons of carbon tax credits.


Historically, according to the Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory, lumber production began a downward trend in the mid 2000s. In 2004, the production of hardwood lumber peaked at 69,187 thousand cubic feet, and a year later, production of softwood lumber peaked at 27,562 thousand cubic feet. The continuing downward trend in lumber production reflected economic downturn, particularly housing starts.

The 2010-2014 Forest Products Review states that declining unemployment and inflationary pressures are leading to higher expectations for the U.S. economy. Future strength for other domestic and foreign trade sectors of the wood products in­dustry also is dependent on the general economy and future lumber prices. The improving housing sector, and the strengthening value of the dollar are positive factors. U.S. timber exports to China were strong in 2012 and into 2013. The future strength of the U.S. trade sector was also buoyed by surging exports to Mexico for a resurgent housing industry in that country. As a result of increased tariffs on wood exports in 2007 from Russia, Chinese buyers have turned to Canada and the United States for wood amid the country’s construction rebound.  Within the last few years China surpassed Canada as the America’s leading export market. China, Canada, Japan and Mexico are also major buyers of U.S. forest products. China and Brazil were the second and third largest suppliers of imported forestry products for the United States.

The U.S. furniture industry, in retreat since 1999, contin­ued declining in 2011 as low-cost furniture imports and the global economic recession continue to erode the domestic industry market share. Employment in the domestic furniture industry has fallen more than 50% since 1999. The U.S. furniture industry stabilized in 2012 and has shown continued strength into 2013.

Resources / Other links

Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, USDA.
Global Agricultural Trade System, Foreign Ag Service, USDA.
Sales of Forest Products, Income from Farm-Related Sources: 2007 and 2002, 2007 Census of Agriculture, National Ag Statistics Service (NASS), USDA, 2009.
Sales of Forest Products, Income from Farm-Related Sources: 2012 and 2007, 2012 Census of Agriculture, National Ag Statistics Service (NASS), USDA, 2015.
U.S. Forest Products Annual Market Review and Prospects, 2005–2009, Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, USDA, 2007.
U.S. Forest Products Anneal Market Review and Prospects 2010–2014.  Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, USDA, 2014

Links checked November 2015