The Road Less Traveled

By Joe Pedretti, MOSES

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Mark Shepard is a unique farmer. In fact “farmer” might not really be the right term. Part ecologist, part forester, part farmer, part pioneer, part experimenter, Mark is really better served by the title “Restoration Agriculturalist,” a title based on his book Restoration Agriculture, published this year by ACRES USA. This book, which focuses on real-world applications of permaculture concepts for farmers, has generated a lot of buzz and attention for Mark’s work on his farm in the Kickapoo River Valley near Viola, Wis. Mark’s workshop at the 2013 MOSES Organic Farming Conference was one of the best attended and evaluated workshops MOSES has ever coordinated. His calendar is full of tours, trainings, consultations, and presentations, balanced with tending his own farm and a new hard cider enterprise. Many people are very interested in what Mark has to share.

After a MOSES farm tour at Mark’s New Forest Farm in June, I found myself wondering what inspired, motivated and led Mark to his unique vision for the future of agriculture. Rather than write about his methods (read the book for that), I thought we all might enjoy an exploration into the twisted path that has led him to this place, and what guides him into the future.

The Beginning

Mark was not raised on a farm. He was born and lived in the inner city when very young. When he was 7, Mark and his family moved to his grandmother’s 10-acre hobby farm in Lancaster, Mass., about 40 miles from Boston. Mark’s mother was raised on a Vermont farm and his father was a Maine woodsman in his youth. “Their dream was to get back to the farm,” noted Mark. Mark’s grandmother was a seamstress at a factory and his grandfather worked at a cannery, but they also worked on their large vegetable gardens, chickens, an orchard and had a family cow.

“My grandma was always doing something–gardening, cooking, processing. I learned a lot of my work ethic from her. This was the time of the 70s oil embargo; we all pitched in to make ends meet.”

The whole family joined in to grow food. They added goats, bees, a two-acre garden, and a composting enterprise. “Everyone came to my dad to learn how to compost.”

“The area was all apple orchards and dairy farms with very few houses when I was young. As I got older, the first subdivision went in. By the time I was a junior in high school, the first McMansions started going up. By college, the area was totally developed–all farmland to suburbia in the course of a few years,” Mark remembered.

College and Early Professional Career

Mark did well in high school and went on to attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute on a scholarship where he majored in mechanical engineering. His first civilian job was for a company where he helped develop the Kevlar infantry helmet. He stayed a year and a half. “I hated it. I had a 45-minute commute each way. It was good money, but a lot of it got sucked up in the clothing, a car and the engineer lifestyle. It was a shallow and expensive way of life that was so much different than what I grew up with. Around that time I began reading Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. That was very influential. Having read that and growing up the way I did–I decided to quit my job. I literally stood up, yelled an expletive and then walked into the boss’s office and quit.”

That is when Mark decided to homestead in Alaska, at least until he panicked and decided it would be more practical to go back to school to be an ecologist. He picked Unity College in Maine, at the time the only 100% environmental program in the country. He chose to study forest ecology. He wanted to study how forests work. “I ate it up. This really interested me. I graduated with the highest GPA in my class,” said Mark. “Unity College was a really cool place. When President Reagan pulled down the solar panels from the White House, Unity College was there to take them and put them back up.”

Alaska and the Book that Changed Everything

Mark never gave up on his Alaska dream while at Unity. During his first summer break, he hitchhiked to Alaska to look at some land 3500 feet up a mountain and five miles from the nearest road. “How else was I going to get land? I was 22 and buried in debt, and at the time, there were no jobs for ecologists.”

Immediately after finishing at Unity, Mark married his sweetheart, Jen, and they both moved to Alaska. They each claimed five acres of land next to each other. To claim their land, they had to build a cabin and live in it for five months out of the year for three consecutive years. They would spend five months in one cabin and then switch, all while working in town. Mark worked at a tree and shrub nursery and in landscaping. They stayed for eight years. “The place was barely sub-arctic. There were a dozen glaciers visible from our land. There was frost and snow every month of the year,” recalled Mark.

The time there allowed for a lot of reflection and thought. “What kind of life would it be to work three months a year and then work on social justice and environmental movements? We had a lot of time to be fulfilled human beings. We were poor, but we were OK. We had what we needed. I did a lot of reading. I got more of an education in Alaska than in college.”

Mark started experimenting with planting nursery stock next to each other; making an edible property. He removed the non-edibles. He took a lot of notes about the results and what he was trying to do. “I thought I might make a book. I took the idea and notes to a friend who said ‘that book has already been written,’” laughed Mark.

That book was Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual by Bill Mollison. “I ate that thing up. Here was a practical application of ecological principles in the human sphere. I committed to the idea that every piece of green should be doing something for us. I was in landscaping and wanted to use permaculture in my business, so I decided to take the permaculture design course at Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Colorado. Once there, I ended up teaching the soils and agroforestry sections of the course.”

“The Nearings [Living the Good Life] were self-sufficient in vegetable production, but they still had to buy their proteins and oils, just like we did when I was growing up. But permaculture allows us to design a farm that can grow all the food crops, including proteins and oils, in a sustainable way. Two of the guys that were at the course with me were enthralled with the idea of such a farm. We wrote up a partnership agreement on a napkin in the sauna at 2 a.m. One of them ended up coming up with the down payment. The other guy chickened out. My new partner was from Milwaukee and suggested the driftless area of Wisconsin as the best place to find land. He found the farm, and we went through with the purchase. We never saw the land before arriving.”

The New Farm

“My wife, my infant son and I moved to Wisconsin in the middle of winter. We were even more in debt now. Within six months my partner’s wife’s grandfather died, and they moved to Italy so we had to buy out their share. We were now 100% in debt,” remembered Mark.

What Mark and his family ended up owning was a seriously abused farm. Renters had allowed erosion to eat away many of the hillsides, and most of the rest was overgrazed by cattle. “We were living in a trailer. We had no jobs. No well. No money.”

Fortunately, Mark discovered that his new 106-acre farm was very near a new organic cooperative called CROPP (Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool at the time). “I signed up to grow squash and Jen got a job at a bakery. I also took on two part-time jobs trucking and bartending to make ends meet. While working, we started building a house and a chicken coop. I also started designing our keyline water management plan for the farm.”

Keyline water management was originally designed by Australian farmer and engineer P.A. Yeoman. The keyline is a topographic feature of a farm “key” to water flow. Through careful design of fields and by capturing water with swales, berms and ponds, which Mark calls “pocket ponds”; rainwater is carefully redirected back into fields instead of running off. “Once the keyline was in place, it set the pattern for the rest of the farm. Each field has a swale with a berm on the downhill side. In between is the alley. We grew as much produce and cover crops in these alleys as we could handle. All the while, we were planting trees, shrubs and other edible plants.”

Mark’s plan was to imitate the oak savannah biome native to the area: chestnuts, apples, hazelnuts, cherries, grapes, raspberries, currants and perennial grasses for livestock. “I was after something radically different–not an orchard, but a farm as an ecosystem.”

Mark was not interested in the traditional Extension-recommended varieties. He wanted varieties that could survive under his S.T.U.N. philosophy–sheer, total, utter neglect. For the first few years, he planted fewer trees as he searched for the best sources of nursery stock. Once he found stock that thrived on his farm, he started ordering larger quantities of plants and then breeding his own nursery stock.

In 1996, Mark took a new job as the produce pool coordinator at CROPP/Organic Valley. “I knew we could sell larger quantities of vegetables, so I came up with a new concept. Instead of everyone growing many crops, we all could focus on 2-3 crops in larger quantities. This allowed us to sell boxes to wholesalers. We made less per box, but we sold a lot more boxes. You need scale. What had started small grew to a point where we couldn’t keep up with demand. The produce pool grew into a monster. I didn’t move to start a career. I moved to start a farm,” stated Mark.

With nursery sales picking up, the farm generating more income, Jen beginning work as a massage therapist, Mark’s parents moving to the farm to help with childcare, Mark decided to quit his off-farm job. “I had been teaching workshops since my time in Alaska. By 2006, speaking and teaching became a significant part of my income. I was ready to devote as much of my time as possible to the farm.”

Permaculture Refined

“I have not diverged from the original intent of permaculture which is as Bill Mollison said, ‘observe nature and imitate nature.’ The main problem I saw was that it started moving toward ‘feel-good’ design, not redesigning human habitats. Permaculture got ‘fluffy’ and was not reality-based. I wanted to distance myself from that permaculture and get more science-based tenets of permaculture and ecology,” noted Mark.

“Restoration agriculture to me is about using plants that thrive in the ecosystem without a lot of inputs, and it is about farm enterprises that are sustainable and profitable. My farm gives evidence that we can revegetate the planet in 15 years with what we need. We do not need to wait for a perennial small grain pipe dream; we have the ability to do it now,” stated Mark emphatically.

Mark believes that any farmer wanting to incorporate permaculture concepts should start with alley cropping and silvo-pasturing, which are simple systems that can be kept simple.

Mark’s final suggestion, “Plant trees everywhere and save the seeds from everything that thrives.”

To Learn More about Mark Shepard and Restoration Agriculture:

Restoration Agriculture Institute
Forest Agriculture Enterprises

Permaculture Resources:

Geoff Lawton
Sepp Holzer

Agroforestry:

National Agro-Forestry Center
Association for Temperate Agro-forestry
University of Missouri Center for Agro-forestry

Books:

The Resilient Farm and Homestead, Ben Falk
Tree Crops, J. Russell Smith
Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, Bill Mollison
Restoration Agriculture, Mark Shepard (available from the MOSES bookstore)

Joe Pedretti is a MOSES organic specialist.

September/October 2013

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