Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm, in Viola, Wisconsin, isn’t your average farm. After twenty-one years of an intentional conversion from 106 acres of corn, beans, and overgrazed pasture to a chestnut, hazelnut, and apple mimic of the oak savannah, New Forest Farm presents an alternative to just about every way of thinking about agriculture that you’ll find out there. Mark, the author of Restoration Agriculture, is not just a nuts and fruits guy: he used the cash flow from his low-input vegetable operation to boot strap his longer-term plantings.
In addition to getting into some of the basics of Mark’s approach to creating a permanent agriculture, we dig into his personal history, how he came to his farm in southwest Wisconsin, issues of scale and finance, and how Mark managed his vegetable operation during the startup of his perennial polyculture. We also spend some time talking about how to take some of Mark’s ideas and apply them to a more conventional market farming setup.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with Mark in various capacities for over fifteen years now, and I’ve been to his farm a few times over the years, and I can tell you, it’s a pretty cool place. And Mark’s got some ways of looking at things that will likely challenge at least a few of the ways you’re looking at your farm and the whole farm and food system.
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Quotes from the Show
That’s the magic of what Organic Valley has done: it allows us small-time farmers to band together, and we get our economies of scale at the aggregation, processing, and distribution side of things.
[By selling to a distributor] I’m not making the same price per pound selling my asparagus as you might with a CSA or a farmer’s market, but I don’t have any more hassle with marketing… It’s someone else’s job to decide where to sell my produce, and I like it that way.
Our goal was to figure out how to create a fully three-dimensional oak savannah based agriculture on this site.
There are huge challenges in the world, and they need some huge answers.
We used produce as the stepping stone and as the cash cow to start a successional process where we started to plant these longer-lived species.
Creditors can’t eat you.
In the investment community, borrowing is called leverage. View buying as leverage, and leverage what you’re doing forward into the future.
The first step is learning about your local biome… learning about the local species represented near you.
The second part is managing your water resource. It doesn’t matter where you live, there is no plant that we know of that can survive without water.
Then you start planting the trees and shrubs in rows following the pattern that your water management system laid out for you.
My wife, Jen, has insisted that I change [the term STUN – Shear, Total, and Utter Neglect]. It’s more like Strategic, Total, and Utter Neglect. In the establishment years… it’s in your best interest to take care of them. Get a little bit of water on them; get a little bit of weed control.
If you do anything on the farm, it’s your time or your money… it’s work-work-work-work-work… for what marginal rate of return? I’ve seen young idealistic growers out here come and go, and I buy their equipment cheap, because they come in and they do everything by the book they do it very well they do it professionally, and it doesn’t pay the bills.
If you were to come out here to southwest Wisconsin – four-and-a-half hours from Chicago or the Twin Cities, and set up on a little three acre piece of property and operated under the illusion that you’re going to set up an Eliot Coleman-style market garden and sell everything direct to the consumer and make $50,000 a year, you’re hallucinating.
If you are a market farm scale, you can still use the perennial polyculture techniques; you’re just going to manage it differently than I do.
Don’t hurry. Hurry is an inner state. Fast is a rate of work.
Mark sells his produce to the CROPP Produce Pool, which was the origin of the Organic Valley Cooperative.
Mark mentioned having been inspired by J. Russell Smith’s Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture.
We talked about the MOSES Organic Farming Conference – which used to be the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, back in the day.
Mark suggested having a look at the ongoing work by the Woody Perennial Polyculture Research Site at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign.