Working with and within nature using perennial food crops and restoration agriculture.
Mark Shepard has created something of an environmental oasis at his Wisconsin homestead, New Forest Farm. Shepard, a farmer and author, is a longtime proponent of restoration agriculture, the practice of recreating healthy, naturally occurring, economically viable perennial farms. Packed with biodiversity, these restored ecosystems are a far cry from the large scale mono-cropping so prevalent today. However, according to Shepard, who literally wrote the book on the subject, “Restoration Agriculture,” this radically natural approach to farming is exactly what the earth needs.
Read our fascinating interview with Mark:
What is restoration agriculture and how does it differ from farming practices most commonly used today?
Restoration Agriculture is essentially producing staple food crops in systems that are designed after natural native ecosystems. For instance, if your land is within a region where Oak Savanna (a type of lightly forested grassland where oak trees are dominant) is naturally occuring, then the ideal agricultural system would imitate the structure of an Oak Savanna. You’d plant three-dimensional systems including a tree canopy layer, a smaller tree sub-dominant tree layer, shrubs, vines, canes, shade tolerant plants, ephemeral plants, fungi forage and livestock – all designed to be harvested. These natural systems aggrade over time, which is the opposite of degrade. Plus they increase in species diversity and soil fertility, and are pretty much care-free. Since these systems mimic the native ecosystem, they qualify as ecological restoration.
However, the majority of the agriculture today is based around annual plants that grow very quickly for one short season and then die. Annuals require bare soil in order to grow, which, once upon a time, would have meant a mudslide, fire, trampling by animals, trees getting blown over, etc., all of which expose the soil. Modern agriculture exists today because the native, natural ecosystem has been intentionally destroyed, and the existing perennial vegetative cover wiped out by tillage or herbicides.
Most of agriculture today also relies on large fields of a single species of plant like corn, beans or rice. These monocropped annual plant systems are the most at-risk for catastrophic outbreaks of pests and diseases because there are no natural controls. The ecosystem is gone, and we are left with an ecological wasteland that continues to degrade over time. Soil fertility declines catastrophically and plant fertility has to be imported from elsewhere. Annual agriculture, whenever it has been used to provide the staple diet of any culture, has always led to ecosystem collapse and eventually societal collapse.
New Forest Farm has been called one of the most ambitious sustainable agriculture projects in the country. Since ambitious often equals a lot of hard work, tell us about a typical day on the farm.
Well, once upon a time people might have thought it was, but New Forest Farm is merely one 110-acre Wisconsin farm. The whole restoration agriculture movement is really taking off. There are now tens of thousands of acres of restoration agriculture happening in the states.
As far as a “day on the farm” is concerned, it changes season by season and throughout the years. Early on we spent a lot of time establishing edible woody cropping systems. In our case this meant mostly imitating Oak Savanna and Northern Hardwoods systems. We also grew a lot of annuals between rows of woody crops, mostly small grains and produce.
As the years progressed, we were able to put less emphasis on annual plants and shift to the perennials. Some of the earliest perennials to yield were asparagus, raspberries, currants and grapes. Now emphasis has shifted more to tree fruit (apples, pears, cherries) and nuts (chestnut and hazelnuts). All of the original crops are still grown and harvested, there are just more now than there used to be. The system is intentionally designed to use harvesting as the primary method of maintenance. We have to harvest yields in order to maintain the system.
The seasonal pattern on a restoration agriculture farm will vary with its location, but in our neck of the woods yields begin in late winter with the sale of nursery stock. We then move into asparagus harvest, field prep for annuals, annual produce harvest with crops such as zucchini, peppers, eggplant throughout the summer, followed by winter squash in the fall. Beginning in late summer hazelnuts and apples are harvested followed by chestnuts. Livestock sales happen periodically throughout the summer with the majority happening in late fall. Throughout the year apple cider is fermented into alcoholic apple cider. The system has some sort of cash-flow no matter what the season.
Your family has an interesting story. You came from Boston and previously worked as an engineer designing body armor for the government. Your wife and partner, Jen, was a food scientist. How did you both make the leap to creating a permaculture food farm in rural Wisconsin?
Wow! This question would make for a fascinating story of its own! My engineering “career” was incredibly short-lived. I didn’t like working out of a cubicle inside a concrete building with no windows. I wanted to live outdoors. Being a respectable suburban kid, the only way that I knew to have a career outdoors was to return to school to study ecology. Then I could at least study the outdoors.
While at Unity College in Maine, I read about the closing of the federal Homestead Act in Alaska and decided to hitchhike north to claim some land. So my best friend in the whole wide world became my wife and we homesteaded in Alaskan “bush” for eight years. When our first son was born, we agreed that we wanted our kids to be raised in a rural setting, but not 300 miles from town, 5 miles off the road and 3500 feet up the side of a mountain. So, we bought a piece of degraded, abandoned crop land in southwest Wisconsin. You can read the rest in my book!
Some of your crops, like chestnuts, elderberries and currents — have all but vanished from the daily diets of many Americans. Will a more sustainable future also mean some sort of campaign to re-popularize and reacquaint people with the foods of our past?
In part yes, but for the most part no. The whole “foodie” movement is wonderful marketing for all of the stuff we grow, and people are developing a taste for something other than McFoodproducts. But what is really revolutionary about what we’re doing is that all of the crops we grow are currently industrially raised foods with huge national and international markets. One of the things that most people are not aware of is that processed foods are derivatives of actual food. You can just as easily mechanically grind, chemically sort and separate the basic building blocks of a chestnut or hazelnut as you can corn. You can make high fructose acorn syrup if you want to. What you need to do this, though, is scale. Conveniently, what restoration agriculture needs is hundreds of millions of acres of Oak Savanna and Hazelnut Shrubland and Pine Nut Barrens.
In cold winter climates, obtaining fresh produce in the middle of winter requires a trip to the grocery store – and for the produce it requires a trip around the world. What crops do you produce during this season for people who want to eat local, seasonal food?
Our “winter crops” are storage crops: winter squash, meat, chestnuts, hazelnuts and hard apple cider. Most people even in the coldest climates can grow all of their vitamins and minerals in a tiny little veggie patch in their front yards. Surplus can be canned, frozen, dehydrated, fermented, jellied and jammed.
What are some of the environmental dangers inherent in annual monoculture farming?
The list is huge, and quite frankly depresses me so I’ll keep it quick. Annual monoculture farming erodes the soil and depletes its natural fertility, all while destroying wildlife habitat, wild pollinators, birds and beneficial insects. It puts farmers at economic risk, making them victims of a single, internationally controlled market. It produces food that is nearly devoid of nutrients and is causally related to both the obesity and diabetes epidemics in this country. On top of that, it is increasingly reliant on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) that have not had long-term clinical testing for their effects on humans, and are critically dependent on fossil fuel inputs for fertilizer. These fossil fuel based fertilizers wash into streams and rivers and are responsible for the premature death of large lakes around the globe, and are the primary cause of the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.” Annual agriculture is also one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gasses next to automobiles, and the largest contributor of nitrous oxides and methane — both of which are many times more powerful greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide.
Restoration Agriculture systems are in the business of creating the natural resource abundance, (clean water, clean air, food, fuel, medicines and fibers) of the future instead of extracting the abundance of the past. As these systems grow they actually increase site fertility and species diversity, provide wildlife habitat, and take greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and turn them into biomass which can then be used as energy.
You draw many links between oil consumption and the need for complete and sustainable ecosystems. How are the two linked?
Annual agriculture requires things like herbicide, tillage, weed control, insect control, and chemical fertilizer every single year, year after year, always and forever. All of those steps require fossil fueled tractors and sprayers, and the fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides and pesticides are ALL derived from fossil fuels.
In a restoration agriculture system, annual tillage eventually ceases. You plant the system once and it’s there for 1,000 years. I’ve personally touched hazelnut bushes in Spain that were 1,400 years old and I’ve visited the chestnut tree in Sicily that is 4,000 years old. Their perennialism has paid back their cost of establishment many thousands of times over.
At New Forest Farm, reduced tillage and use of grazing animals for grass and brush control allows us to devote less than 3% of our crop land to oil crops in order to supply all our tractor fuel. We are actually part of an oil-crops collaborative where a dozen farmers and at least one large business fuel their tractors and fleets entirely from locally grown vegetable oil.
You’ve said that agriculture only really asks two questions: how do I kill this thing that wants to live; and how do I keep this thing alive that wants to die? How does restoration agriculture address these questions?
One way is by mimicking the local plant communities. If we see wild cherries and apples covered by a tangle of wild grapes, surrounded by blackberries in a sea of grass on the roadside, instead of clearing the land to plant an orchard we should imitate nature. We can then intentionally plant the things that grow effortlessly in our region with zero care and zero costs other than harvest. Instead of going back in time and becoming hunter-gatherers, humanity now needs to become active participants in the design of the natural world of the future.
How can those with only a small, urban backyard participate in restoration agriculture?
Aside from imitating nature in their own backyards, urban and suburban folks can find and support local perennial crops farmers, and buy more perennial foods like tree fruits, nuts and berries. I actually advocate going cold turkey and abstaining from annual grains and legumes for 30 days as a trial run. Many people first react by saying “Oh, but nuts cost $7.00/lb and rice is $7.00/bushel. I get so much more food per dollar if I buy grains.” This is not exactly true.
Annual grains and legumes are deficient in so many vitamins and minerals it’s not funny. When you switch to buying perennial crops, you actually get more nutrients per dollar. To get all necessary calories and protein you only need a small amount of nuts or grass-fed meats, eggs or dairy. That’s when you get to load up on produce like cabbage, kale, bok-choi, swiss chard, lettuce, spring green mix, peppers, carrots, beets etc. You “fill the hole” left behind by annual grains with nutrient packed vegetables. You won’t need vitamin supplements any more because you are actually being nourished by your food.
How can readers learn more about Restoration Agriculture and New Forest Farm?
You can follow what’s going on at the farm by finding Mark Shepard on Facebook or checking out the New Forest Farm and Forest Agriculture Enterprises websites. Also, my book “Restoration Agriculture, Real-world Permaculture for Farmers” is a great place to start.