An Important Piece of the Puzzle

“[The planting of crops that are annuals] destroys topsoil. Period.” –Mark Shepard, in “Restoration Agriculture”.

Replacement needed.

Replacement method needed.

I think I’ve found it, and I’m excited—an important missing piece to my mental image of where we are trying to get to. It relates to agriculture, and a problem that has confounded me for a while; years even. I touched on it last month in “One Tough Row: Agriculture“, with its lead photograph of soil erosion. To wit—I can imagine how to wave that magic wand around (yesterday’s post) and fix a lot of problems, but I’m not sure how to fix agriculture. How in the world do we make agriculture sustainable? How do we solve the fertilizer problem? How do we solve the erosion problems? How do we solve the pest-control problems, and how do we power future farm equipment without fossil fuel? How do we fix this system where it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to create every usable calorie of food? How do we solve the problem of diminishing groundwater? Of the cruelty, inhumane treatment, and disastrous environmental effects of factory farming? Of agriculture-related water pollution? The lack of bio-diversity? The crowding out of wildlife?

I’ve had some clues, some inkling of the direction to move in. I read about Joel Salatin’s farm in Virginia in “An Omnivore’s Dilemma”, by Michael Pollan, and my wife and I visited his farm a few years ago. He uses a form of polyculture—rotational grazing of livestock in a leader-follower system, and it enables him to raise beautiful beef cattle that are entirely grass-fed, eggs, chickens for meat (the chicken I had that day from his farm was the best I’ve ever had), and pastured pork in a symbiotic, harmonious system that out-produces neighboring farms by several-fold, uses no chemicals or pesticides, and rebuilds the soil from what Joel described as a “worn-out hill farm” with protruding rocks and barely enough grass to mow, to what it is today—one of the most beautiful farms I’ve ever seen, with rich soil and verdant grass.

Other clues—reports of farmers in Asia doing similar things with rotations of geese and ducks through rice paddies, with fish in the mix. A book just out by Judith Schwartz (interview here), “Cows Save the Planet”, about soil building through rotational grazing. Recent emails with a farmer in North Hero, Vermont, about soil-building through a combination of grazing livestock, subsoil plowing, and foliar feeds.

But there were holes in all of these. Grass-fed beef and fresh eggs are great, and healthy pasture is wonderful, but we need cereal crops to feed the world, or at least something like them. We need that massive production of carbohydrates, and of fats and oils, to help provide the energy for human life. And with polyculture in general, we have efficiency problems; as farmers step away from specialization, efficiency and productivity drop, and they have to know more and more about a huge number of subjects.

restoration ag coverBut then, last week at SolarFest, I attended a workshop by a young farmer named Josh Brill, entitled “Savanna and Forest Farms of the Future”. He is farming with a form of permaculture, and this system has the potential to solve every single one of the problems I listed above, and could even help reverse global warming. It could almost literally save the planet. His talk was fascinating, and it turns out that most of what he does and was discussing comes from the work of a farmer in Wisconsin named Mark Shepard, who has written a book called “Restoration Agriculture”. So I read the book. It’s important.

It’s also too much, perhaps, to capture in a single blog post, but let me try to impart the basics. To begin, take a look at the image at the top of this post of a field being disced. This is a form of how humans have done agriculture for 10,000 years—removing all other vegetation in order to plant seeds for annual crops. After you realize that there is a better way, however, the activity in this image starts to look like the agricultural equivalent of mountaintop-removal mining. We remove every living thing, and obliterate entire ecosystems, to prepare these large fields. Then, the wind blows away the bare soil, or the rain comes and washes it away. Then the planting begins, along with all of the problems I started this post with.

The “better way” is a form of permaculture using long-lived, perennial crops that only have to be planted once. First, using a technique called keyline design, water catchments and contour-level swales catch all the rainfall and distribute it sideways from the valleys. Then, a row of large nut trees is planted along this line.

Chestnuts.

Chestnuts.

In typical North American systems these would be black walnuts or blight-resistant chestnuts. Then an alley of grass is left to each side of the row, maybe 25 feet wide or so, and then another line of trees is planted parallel to the first, but these are slightly smaller trees—apples or pears, and then another alley of grass, then a row of hazelnuts, then another alley, then a row a raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, or currants. The plants in each row grow less high than the row before it. After the berries, the rows go back up again, to hazelnuts, apples, and finally chestnuts. Planting in this way results in a three-dimensional growing area that captures a maximum amount of solar energy. Then, with the help of electric fencing, the alleys are grazed with a leader-follower, rotational grazing method using cattle, followed by hogs, then turkeys, then sheep, then chickens. The cattle get the highest quality forage, the hogs clean up all the dropped fruit, nuts, and leaves, the sheep then do the “finish mowing” of all the weeds and any woodier sprouts. Finally, just as Joel Salatin does in Virginia, chickens are brought through, and they eat all the bugs and grubs and scratch apart all the manure piles and distribute the manure. By the time the animals are through, they have mowed and cleaned and fertilized the whole alley. The alleys wind around the contours in a sort of perpetual path, so both the animals and any tractor activity is efficient; no sharp turns required.

White charolais cattle.

White charolais cattle.

The end result is nothing short of amazing. Such a system could yield, conservatively, 1,000 lbs of chestnuts, 42 bushels of apples, 400 lbs of hazelnuts, 1,000 qts of berries, per acre, in addition to beef, pork, chicken, sheep, and eggs. This is as much caloric value as the for-human-consumption portion of a modern field of corn yields, with orders of magnitude more nutrition, all while building soil, removing carbon from the air, stopping erosion, creating a huge amount of animal habitat and biodiversity, stopping nutrient runoff, ending pesticide and fertilizer use, humanely raising animals, and even recharging groundwater systems. Once the system is in place, no planting, fertilizing, or spraying is required. On top of all these systems, grapes, mushrooms, and honey bees can be added, all beneficial to the system.

In terms of food value, the chestnuts are high in carbohydrates and low in fats, and have a nutritional profile something like that of brown rice. The hazelnuts are very high in oil, making them more like soybeans in terms of use, and they even have the potential to be made into liquid fuels to power agricultural equipment. In addition, their shells have a very high BTU output when burned, and can be used in pellet stoves and hoppers with only slight modifications. There is more to the whole system than I’m relaying here; I hope my short version does it justice.

I’m not sure all the answers are in the book, and the author clearly admits this. But he’s on to something important; this is the first approach I’ve seen or read about that I can see truly being a substitute for how the planet grows food now. (In other climates the types of plants change, but the basic principles remain). It is complex, and doesn’t completely solve the specialization and efficiency problems inherent in all polyculture methods. BUT—the rotational-grazing portion is proven, and all the crops are in rows, where existing nut and berry picking machinery could be utilized. The idea is a huge step forward. (And he actually does it at his farm. Photos, info and more at his website, here.)

Interestingly, in the end of the book he concludes with some tenets that could have come straight from this blog—the situation is urgent, the time is now, each of us must act, we must vote with our dollars to demand the items that will effect change, that countless individual actions will result in real change. His particular call to action is for everyone, everywhere, to plant perennials, whether farmers converting wholesale to a new system, to landowners like me planting nut and fruit trees, to city dwellers planting in abandoned lots and railroad right-of-ways. I think he’s on to something big, even if there are many economic and production details that need worked out. And if he wants me to join him and plant nut and fruit trees, then I’m on it.

Image credit: rfoxfoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: dorazett / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: gozzoli / 123RF Stock Photo

5 thoughts on “An Important Piece of the Puzzle

  1. Rain

    ” we need cereal crops to feed the world, or at least something like them. We need that massive production of carbohydrates, and of fats and oils, to help provide the energy for human life” No we do not need massive production – we need many many many small or medium size farms producing a huge variety of food. we do not need mass agriculture, the way it happens now, even if it is a permaculture version. and we don’t need to eat so many cereal grains.

    I’ve studied Permaculture and totally support everyone’s use of the techniques!!!

    1. Taborri Post author

      Rain,
      Thanks for the comment. It would be great if we could have many, many small and medium farms, but we have to solve some efficiency problems if we’re going to feed all 7-billion-plus of us that way, especially with a million more people on the planet every three and a half days. Big farms survive because of huge economies of scale, and they specialize, which gives them many additional efficiencies. Somehow we need some sort of middle ground… It isn’t an easy problem. I wrote about this the other week, at http://sustainableus.org/2013/06/28/a-middle-ground-for-agriculture/ . -t

  2. Chris

    Thanks for the great review of Restoration Agriculture. Mark Shepard’s work is amazing, inspiring, and it’s my hope that his model is replicated thousands of times throughout the country.

    1. Taborri Post author

      Chris, sorry for the delay in approving your comment– it got stuck in the spam file. -t

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