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Interview with Mark Shepard

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 November Issue Newsletter

By Cathleen O’Keefe, Winter Conference Coordinator

The following is excerpted from an interview with Mark Shepard, author “Restoration Agriculture” and 2014 NOFA/Mass Winter Conference keynoter, by Cathleen O’Keefe, Winter Conference & Bulk Order Coordinator.  Listen to the interview in full at:

Shepard grew up in Lancaster, MA., 1.47 miles from Johnny Appleseed’s birthplace. He now lives on and manages a 106- acre perennial agricultural forest, called New Forest Farm in Viola, Wisconsin. It’s a planned conversion of a typical row-crops grain farm into a commercial-scale, perennial agricultural ecosystem using oak savanna, successional brush land and eastern woodlands as the ecological models.

Cathleen O’Keefe: What does Restoration Agriculture (RA) mean for farmers?

Mark Shepard: I kind of coined it that way to encompass both ecological restoration and staple food crop agriculture. I graduated in 1985 from Unity College in ME, where I studied ecology. When I graduated, it was during the Reagan administration. What ecological restoration has evolved into is that it’s a very expensive way to take some land, usually farmland, out of production. Then to freeze it in some ecological point in time, say 1720, and say this is what nature is & nature was. So we eradicate all of the plants that were not natural or native and plant all of these natural plants that were native. We use herbicides and scores of volunteers pulling weeds to keep it frozen in time as this ecological wild area. It’s very expensive, it takes land out of production, and it really doesn’t work all that well. It kind of denies the reality that nature is always changing through time. Then [combine that] with agriculture; we all need to eat food. Why can’t we imitate the natural ecosystems, find out what was growing there historically in some period in time, then pick the key species, the ones that have the greatest potential to provides us w/ our food, fuels, medicines, and fibers and plant those? It’s not a pure ecological restoration in the way that restoration ecologists would have it, but it has enough of the key, component species, that it qualifies as a degraded ecosystem. It would evolve tall trees, medium trees, shrubs, vines, and shade tolerant plants, cane fruits, and lots of forage and plenty of animals, assembled into a system that we could actually mechanically plant, maintain and harvest. It’s perennial, a mimic of the natural ecosystem that actually was there, and we’re getting agricultural productivity from it.

One of the crops you promote is hazelnuts. Why is it that hazelnuts haven’t been utilized?

I think what it comes right down to is that Americans don’t believe that [they are] real. Every single aisle of the grocery store has some kind of hazelnut product in it [but] most hazelnuts are coming from Turkey. If we can’t grow hazelnuts and beat Turkey on freight... jeepers. Why don’t people get it that we can actually grow these things and harvest them as an ecologically sustainable, renewable resource? There are incredible benefits from it. [For example], polythemus moths like to nest out in our hazels and polythemus moths are the largest moths in North America…the size of a dinner plate. They’re not endangered but they’re somewhat threatened. So here we can plant a crop that actually helps threatened species to survive, we can sequester carbon, we can grow the same about of protein per acre as soybeans, three times the oil per acre as soybeans, all the shells that we can burn, all the wood that we can burn & people don’t believe it. The answers to most of the world problems are ridiculously simple and that’s why people don’t believe that it’s possible.

How do you get that point across that it is possible?

I’m doing it and have done it on our farm. We started 100% in debt when we first moved to the farm 18 years ago. We transitioned the farm from annual row crops to 97% perennial. We still grow a little bit of some oil seed, sunflower mostly, and produce: acorn squash, peppers, that sort of thing. We made the transition [and] we paid our own way. There are a lot of people out there doing this. Not as fast as I would want it to happen and not as fast as I think it should happen, but it’s happening. Once those of us who are doing restoration agriculture start making money as a group, then we’ll be noticed. When you set up an ecological system, the cost of production goes down to zero, for all practical purposes. We’re imitating the oak savannah. [For] our keystone species, we’re using chestnut, apples, hazelnuts, cherries, currants, raspberries, mulberries, elderberries, grapes, forage. That’s ten crops I just listed, [plus] cattle, hogs, chicken, turkey, ducks and sheep, [which makes] sixteen different crops in the same place. If I grow four crops and each of those crops only produces half of the normal yield that means I get two total yields off the system. When you’re doing a polyculture system, you actually get more total site yield, less individual crop yield.

What do you tell people who are trying to move away from global food system models?

Stop eating. Stop eating right now! Because if you’re going to move away from this global food model, I want you to do that right now. If you can do that right now, great. Now you have a platform to stand on, and I’m going to listen to you. If you can’t do that right now, do you know what that means? It means that humanity right now is dependent on a global food model. I see that we need both. We need to have a global model that trades the bulk commodities that we actually depend on for our livelihood and we have to have an ultra-localized model; the two are perfectly compatible. When our localized model, includes collaboration with one another [by] taking our surplus, aggregating it together so we have a large quantity of it, [then] it can go on a car, truck, plane, or boat and go somewhere. Now we have an ultimately local system and ultimately global system. It’s not one or the other.

You’re coming to the Winter Conference January 11. What are you going to be talking about that day and why should people be excited to hear you speak?

I’m going to be talking about the basics of RA: what is it, how does it work, what is it that you actually do, water management to drought proof your farm - that sort of thing. I’ll also talk about how important it is that consumers get on board. If consumers keep buying the same junk, how can they expect the world to be any different? They do need to start buying products that are not the regular mainstream GMO dent corn. I was recently at an anti-Monsanto rally, and half of the people in the audience were eating products (chips, other name brand snack food products, and drinks) that were all made with the same products they were protesting. How can you possibly object to this system if you’re participating in it? [I’m also going to be talking about sustainability]. What I mean by sustainable is if you have to plant your crops again next year, that’s not very sustainable. By sustainable, I mean perennial crops should have tens of thousands of years’ worth of a lifespan. We should never have to plant them again


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