Having decided midway through reading this book, Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard, to blog my reactions and reflections, I am starting this post series (will I finish it? who knows) with Chapter 7: The Steps Toward Restoration Agriculture. Why am I going by chapter rather than waiting to finish the book? Because even though the chapters are typically only around 30 pages (with pictures), there are a lot of concepts to wrestle with packed into those pages for someone who is interested in permaculture but knows little of the finer details. Usually I can only handle about one, maybe two, chapters in a single sitting before needing to decompress and absorb what I read.
A brief introduction as to why I’m reading this book in the first place seems appropriate..
I have felt for a very long time that, regarding the vast majority of people, making positive, lasting changes to one’s food-related choices will lead to a happier and healthier life. While my formal education at the undergraduate level helped fill in some of the finer points about how this can be achieved, I was still running up against some significant frustrations such as “Why does our food culture seem hard-wired to be destructive?” “Why do people doggedly continue their detrimental food habits even fully knowing the likely consequences?”. I had become too focused on one part of the process, the food-to-body aspect; a broadening of scope was needed. Through the course of following various druidry blogs that often discuss how our relationship to our food strongly corresponds to our relationship to the planet, I became aware that the problem began much earlier than the choices a person makes at the restaurant or grocery store, much earlier than any person alive today could possibly recount. Investigating how we think about food and go about obtaining it merely begins our journey towards finding the roots of our global problems with food.
One solution that has been proposed is permaculture. The word “permaculture” was coined by Australians David Holmgren and his professor Bill Mollison in 1978 to refer to the idea of having a ‘permanent culture’, a lasting culture. While this covers a wide range of circumstances, more often than not this term is used in relation to our food culture. Three ethics of caring for people, caring for the earth, and appropriate distribution of resources make up the pillars of the permaculture understanding, suggesting that caring for the earth is a vital part of humanity’s health. In a broad understanding, this book is a compilation of Mark Shepard’s understanding of the problems and potential solutions, his own experiences in coming to those understanding and enacting the solutions, and his hopes and recommendations for expanding an agriculture founded on permaculture tenets.
The tone Shepard uses throughout the book is a blend of the idealist and the pragmatist; he seems to want the best possible outcomes for everyone involved but without getting too dewy-eyed and pie-in-the-sky about it. The transition between the two can be a little jarring at times, like when he shifts from praising the harmonious functioning of natural systems into how there are already markets that exist for the crops that can be grown within those systems for human consumption. Perhaps that is due to the not-unwarranted cynicism and mistrust people in environmentalist circles tend to have towards a ‘business mindset’, of speaking about the natural world in terms of resources for human benefit. I do not think that this is about dollar signs for Shepard though. He recognizes the very real financial plight of farmers, our key intermediary between the planet that produces our food and us, in today’s agro-economy; the very real degradation of the planet we rely on for our very existence; and the very real consequences of our mechanically-accelerated disaster not just on our basic survival but also our mental, cultural, societal health.
I hope at some point I can and will go back to share my reactions and reflections about chapters 1-6, but for now I will go forward in this post with chapter 7.
Anyone who wants to go about designing a farm based on restoration agriculture first needs to identify the region’s biome, according to Shepard. For a good portion of North America pre-European settlement, this biome was oak savanna, a savanna being a grassland interspersed with trees and shrubs. As Shepard enumerates in previous chapters, the savanna biome is the most productive biome in which mammals, such as humans, can thrive in and has tended to be the dominant biome of habitation in the recent millenia. The idea, then, is to mimic the functions and principles that define the savanna biome in an agricultural setting in order to maximize and permanently establish restoration of the planet’s natural fecundity while also reaping maximum yield for human use, rather than true restoration simply for restoration’s sake.
Rather than having a single layer of annual crops, which has generally been the standard operating procedure in agriculture for the modern era, using the savanna biome’s multi-layer design is the focus. Intended to make better use of available solar energy, each layer contributes to the function and sustainability of the others. I can really get behind the idea of designing systems that emulate time-tested natural principles; the radical paradigm shift and the possibilities stemming from it seem to leave me breathless with excitement in each chapter. Our current two-part, one-way system of ‘resources –> humans’, in my mind, will eventually lead to our self-destruction, regardless of whatever technological bandaids we might be able to come up with.
Our current model of guarding one particular resource to obtain one particular yield, as in the case of GMO mono-cropping with corn and soy or recklessly inoculating livestock to allow ludicrous conditions of development, seems devastatingly short-sighted to me, especially when, as Shepard discusses in this chapter, “our preserved heritage” (p. 90) of relentlessly-selected genetics developed in these very same natural, multi-layered ecosystem designs that permaculture attempts to mimic. The solutions already exist to be found and utilized in much more stable and multi-yield opportunities. An example Shepard gives is the breeding of the blight-resistance of Chinese chestnut with the cold-hardy American chestnut, which was nearly made extinct by the imported blight and subsequent thick-headed, slash-and-burn attempts to contain said blight. We have the ability to combine and harness traits found in the natural world that are desirable to humans instead of manufacturing quick-fix chemical solutions. While I have reluctance towards some of the importing, transplanting, and crossing ideas from lack of care and forethought by many in the past, I think using our ever-growing knowledge and technological capability to do those things with deliberate care are a better solution than inventing the next round poisonous pesticides/herbicides/fungicides that only perpetuate and exacerbate our problems.
All of this is geared towards developing an agriculture that requires less input from humans in the form of time and work and resources, that will still yield sufficiently to meet the demands of the massive human population, and that can withstand the global changes in climate. “Evidence shows that the current species that make up the North American oak savanna have ebbed and flowed through no less than four different ice ages” (p. 73), so this system seems pretty thoroughly vetted to provide through whatever climate changes we may experience in the foreseeable future. In contrast, Shepard shares stories in previous chapters of the devastation already regularly wrought in the bread basket of Wisconsin, where his New Forest Farm is located, only by flood rains on standard corn fields. More frequent and more severe extreme weather events such as flooding are projected by climate scientists, and I agree with Shepard that we need to take this into consideration if we are going to continue providing for ourselves through these changes.
So far I cannot find too much to disagree with in Mark Shepard’s book. I do try to keep an attitude of critical thinking while reading the book, and I hope that readers of this blog will also engage critical thinking when reading this content. Please share your thoughts in the comments!