June 2013, visiting Mark Shephard’s farm

My Chubby Bubs on pasture

the oldest goslings are nearly full size! the garden is nearly all in! where’s the time going?

the oldest goslings are nearly full size! the garden is nearly all in! where’s the time going?

 

Restoration Agriculture, a visit to Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm

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This winter I devoured Mark Shepard’s book, Restoration Agriculture, and it changed my life. In this summary of his work, his approach to life and farming, he explains permaculture’s role on his real working farm, which is located in our region of The Upper Midwest. Most Permaculture books are set in Australia, which is not at all similar to our climate, so the diagrams don’t translate well or even apply to the land of frozen ground for 1/2 the year. When you’re trying to imagine what kinds of perennial plantings and food crops you can build your own Permaculture design around, a drawing of banana, guava and other tropical perennial plantings is not especially helpful. Mark has taken those Australian Permaculture concepts and “nativized” them for us, incorporating cold-hardy food bearing perennial plants into concept, design and practice, and explains how and why and which to grow in our climate. He’s doing it in real life, not just on paper.

New Forest Farm,( http://www.forestag.com ) up close and personal, is an astoundingly gorgeous place, curvy and sloping, vibrant green and just so lush. It’s not a manicured park, but it sort of feels like it in some ways, because the entire 100 some acres has been laid out using the Keyline plan, following the natural contours of this ridge top land. Keyline is a concept I’m still trying to really wrap my head around, but my understanding is it’s all about installing small berms and swales to define these contours of the land to capture, hold, and distribute precious rain water amongst the cultivated perennial species that are installed along these berms and swales. New Forest Farm has thousands of chestnut trees, hazelnut bushes, and other perennial food crops growing, some as old as 18, some as young as 1 year. It’s a constant process, but what I learned most on our tour, was that you HAVE TO START NOW. Don’t wait! Tree crops take a number of years to begin producing, and as I’ll explain, you have to be prepared for failures.

Something that is very charming about Mark is his frank rebelliousness. He told us how he’d called some tree expert when he was about to begin his farm, to discuss chestnut trees. As you may know, the American Chestnut was wiped out nearly 100% by a tragic blight many years ago. The “expert” he talked to said Chestnuts cannot grow in Wisconsin. So Mark planted chestnuts. He planted ALOT of them, and of many varieties- Chinese Chestnut, Japanese Chestnut, & American Chestnut. He’s all about survival of the fittest, and if you plant a lot of non-native trees, more than likely a few may survive, even if they aren’t technically supposed to be able to live here. You never know what kind of microclimates you are dealing with, and you never know what may happen when you also apply the STUN technique “Sheer Total (and) Utter Neglect.” By planting a large quantity of assorted chestnut trees and letting them mostly fend for themselves, he was able to begin “breeding up” his “flock” of hardy Chestnut trees. I could relate to this as I’ve been trying to slowly breed a goat who doesn’t need chemical worming or a grain feed, just by selecting the individuals who do best with this care, as my mother goats. Mark has been saving seeds from his surviving prime trees and planting them, in order to cultivate a Region specific Chestnut Tree. Same with hazelnut bushes- he picks the parent plants which thrive in Wisconsin, with the STUN method, and by propagating those plants’ genetics, he’s undertaking a seriously important role as a perennial food plant breeder for our region. Now that much of his farm is planted with these hardy offspring, he sells seedling trees (sold out this year, but you can get on the preorder list for next year) from his hardy parent plants for others to grow.

One issue is how to make a living farming while you wait years for your crop to begin coming in- nut trees take a long time to begin bearing lots of nuts, nevermind while you are selectively breeding varieties. Chestnuts and Hazelnuts can provide nearly a complete diet, but until harvest, processing and distribution efficiencies are worked out, what do you do? You grow cash crops & incorporate animals to the system. Pigs glean the fallen nuts, and cattle graze and mow the grass between the berms and swales, while leaving their bountiful nutrient dense urine and poop. Mark also utilizes “alley cropping” between some of the berms and swales – planting annual crops of vegetables in the 20-40 foot swaths of open space between the immature trees. Some of these alleys are planted in non-coddled asparagus, which he may or may not harvest. He’s got many many areas to do this, and he doesn’t cultivate even close to a small portion of these alleys in any one season. Actually he showed us one such alley that hadn’t been cultivated in 15 years, where he’d planted winter rye, allowed it to fall over and reseed itself, then over seeded yellow clover in the spring, and next spring the rye re-seeded itself again and came back up, he harvested the rye and the clover grew thick, and on and on. Building the soil without inputs.There’s no need to cultivate soil with this type o soil building. This goes on for years and then once in a blue moon he’ll cultivate the soil o one his hundreds of alleys and plant annual crops there. He’s a big fan of and a vegetable producer for Organic Valley Co-op.

What an incredible experience we had at New Forest Farm! Many thanks to my in-laws for coming to farm sit for the day, so we could go to this tour. I could go on and on about everything Restoration Agriculture, but instead you should buy his book, and read it yourself. It is so inspiring and so powerful. You can do this! Here’s some photos from the 4 hour tour:image

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