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Why aren't farms like Mark Shepard's exploding in the US?

 
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I've been watching alot of Mark Shepard's talks over the years and really dig what he talks about and his delivery style, but most of all is his success in creating his farm and making it profitable.  

Personally I have a small property. It's food forested and has alot of perennials and I've integrated some of the ideas that come out of permaculture, but mostly around perennial systems that Eric Toensmeier touts and that he has great success with (he is in my zone and state).

I'm thinking about taking PDC and possibly digging more into design of systems & farms in the longrun, but when I watch Mark Shepard's talks going back like 6-10 years on youtube I'm blown away that more of these farms have not been started. I mean he basically has the model laid out for anyone that wants to convert large monoculture to a seriously profitable, sustainable system.

I guess not seeing many more of these examples or systems currently in place has me a little weary of taking a PDC and spending alot of time in the permaculture space when I'm seeing alot of people talking about these ideas, but not alot on the ground.

Why in your opinion do you think that there arean't tens of thousands of Mark Shepard-style farms and systems being designed and built in the last years?  

Thanks for the replies.
 
pollinator
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C Gallas,

That's a very good question.   I'm not a farmer but it seems like a great way to spread risk and improve lifestyle.  No chemicals, biodiversity, decreased reliance on a single crop, lower expenses (once you get the land.)  

Maybe it's fear of change or the information just isn't getting out there.   Another ranching concept that seems interesting is Silvopasture.

Mark Shepard



Mark Shepard Alley Cropping



Silvopasture.



 
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I wondered this myself, but then I think most people outside of Permaculture don't even know who Mark Shepard is.  Then there are all the farm subsidies those large corn and soybean producers get.  Change is slow and it takes a generation or two for things to really take off.  It's a rare farmer in his 50's whose going to change the way he does things at this point.  Unless that farmer has a 20 or 30 something kid whose also into permaculture, it's not likely to happen.  We are on the "inside" of permaculture looking out and wondering why everyone can't see what we see.  But everyone else is on the "outside" doing the conventional thing.  Sure we "insiders" think this is great and can see the velocity of change increasing, but if you remove yourself from that "inside" perspective and look at it from the outsiders viewpoint, change is not all that rapid.  

I used to live on the other side of a freeway from a large scale corn/cotton/hay operation and everyday on my way home from work I'd see a young kid driving a huge tractor discing/plowing etc  the fields and would think to myself how much I wish I could teach this kid and his family a different way.  It would break my heart to see all that bare ground, fallow fields, tillage, planes spraying chemicals etc.  
 
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Well keep in mind how HUMONGOUS the US is. The climate in my own state varies wildly based on where you are located. I love Mark Shephard's farm too and I'd love to copy it. I tried even. Can't. It works great where he gets 30+ inches of rain. Doesn't work at all where I get 11 inches of moisture, most of it in snow form or in a single month and the rest of the year DRY DRY DRY.
 
master pollinator
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Farmers and ranchers are in general extremely conservative so change is difficult for them.  Personally I think it is more likely that new farmers will use new techniques, while existing, mostly older, farmers and ranchers will tend to stick to the traditions of their locale, whether that is petroleum/chemical farming or set-stock ranching.

I think if we want these new techniques to take off we need to do all we can to encourage and aid new farmers.

 
pollinator
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All things considered, I think that adapting grazing patterns to permacultural standards is easier for ranchers to do than for a broad-acre agriculturalist to adopt permacultural practices. Also, there's much more pasturable land than agriculturally viable. More land can be made horticulturally viable, but that's a huge shift, whereas making small paddocks to control grazing and pace of regeneration is just a shift in specific methodology in one specific practice.

I think the Mark Shephard question is kinda like the Joel Salatin issue, in that they have come up with systems that work brilliantly well for their situations. Their successes and models don't necessarily apply everywhere, and there are certainly situations where neither are applicable. Their models need to be adapted regionally to make them the game-winners that they are in their "native" settings, and they need permaculturalists to troubleshoot and fix issues of incompatibility.

I think regionality is a big reason. I think you need more people taking those models, adapting them to their regional needs, and then talking about them, and maybe talking about them as Shephard-style or Salatin-style models, and generating content for online consumption.

Then we'll see some movement in this sphere, I think.

-CK
 
C Gallas
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Thanks for your comments.

I can certainly see the points about different bio regions here as well and you can take Mark Shepard's name and plug in Joel Salatin, Jean-Martin Fortier (more on annual organic crops), Eliot Coleman (annual cropping and greenhouse growing), Geoff Lawton, etc.

...but, I feel as if I've been paying attention to this space for over 10 years and there's alot of conferences, talks, online courses, videos, forums like this, books, etc but its just not reaching en mass and yet we seem to be at such a critical time in agriculture, ecosystem management, etc.

As Mark Shepard has mentioned on many talks, putting an herb spiral in isn't going to do much or feed you at all, yet that's probably the most implemented idea in permaculture.

Is this stuff just to complex for people to wrap their heads around?  Would talking about perennial systems and dropping permaculture from the conversation help transition?  I guess that's why I'm weary of spending money & time on a PDC, whereas you can probably learn alot from just doing / reading and implementing ideas in the two books of Edible Forest Gardens if you are focused on food production.


 
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The real issue is the way most people look at farming as an industry.
Mark does not look at farming in this way, he looks at it more from a sustainability point of view and that flies in the face of most "farmers".
Mark uses alley ways, most farmers want to plant at least 250 acres all in a mono crop for ease of harvesting a large crop.
Mark uses his "Main Line" method for establishing swales that move water slowly along, allowing for maximum penetration of that water over the entire water control area.
He is working in several countries now, establishing farms that utilize his methods that he adjusts to the local conditions as much as is needed. This works very well but it is a one piece of land at a time endeavor, that translates into slower going than using the "normal, non sustainable methods" currently mainstreamed over most of the world.
Mark isn't locked into the misconception of " the few feeding the world" which is the "modern agriculture" point of view of what farming should be.

Mark has one or two alleys that grow asparagus, he also has alleys that grow successive crops like barley, wheat, oats, rye that are planted at the same time with cover crops, then once the first harvest is done another is planted at the same time.
The only alleys that don't see two or three crops a year are the asparagus alleys, because that crop requires different conditions than all other crops, except perhaps ginger and turmeric.

Mark started his methodology in Alaska about 40 years ago, that farm is still producing even though he moved back to the lower 48. This tells us that his is a sustainable methodology and once set up it will continue to produce.

Joel is in a similar situation.

If we were still in the early 1800's both methodologies would be main streaming now, because people were focused on feeding themselves with a portion of their production going to market.
Current farming says we are going to grow this crop and sell every bit of it so we can buy the foods we need to eat. This is not how farms are supposed to be set up and it is why farmers go bankrupt every year.
Joel and Mark farm designs are resilient and allow them to weather changes in rain fall, demand for certain items they grow and they can alter quickly their supply amounts to meet their markets demands. Mono crop farmers can not do this and never will be able to do this.

While it might seem that there are not many people adapting these two methodologies, there actually are quite a few, most at this time however are not located in the USA, they are mostly in Europe with a few in South America.

Both Mark and Joel spend a lot of time on the front end setting up their water management systems, for most farmers, this seems like the wrong way around, but if you don't start with water management earth works, you are constantly moving  backwards since that field you planted still needs the earth works installed.
I can see a time coming soon when we will become aware of the dozen or more farms here in the USA that Mark has helped set up for his methods.
I can also see the same coming along for Joel's methods. It is just the human nature to resist change that slows the pace and discovery of how well these two methodologies work and produce income.
Once more people are forced to see that these systems work far better and are less likely to fail because of a single drought or perhaps two in a row, then we will see more and more farms set up along their designs.

Both men promote diversity in planting and harvesting, both promote using animals as part of the farming method, this creates a great circle of life methodology that mimics nature's methods.
While it is coming along and there are others adapting these methods, they are not at the forefront of the news and they aren't writing books or teaching at conferences, they are working their farms and selling their products.

Redhawk
 
elle sagenev
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C Gallas wrote:Thanks for your comments.

I can certainly see the points about different bio regions here as well and you can take Mark Shepard's name and plug in Joel Salatin, Jean-Martin Fortier (more on annual organic crops), Eliot Coleman (annual cropping and greenhouse growing), Geoff Lawton, etc.

...but, I feel as if I've been paying attention to this space for over 10 years and there's alot of conferences, talks, online courses, videos, forums like this, books, etc but its just not reaching en mass and yet we seem to be at such a critical time in agriculture, ecosystem management, etc.

As Mark Shepard has mentioned on many talks, putting an herb spiral in isn't going to do much or feed you at all, yet that's probably the most implemented idea in permaculture.

Is this stuff just to complex for people to wrap their heads around?  Would talking about perennial systems and dropping permaculture from the conversation help transition?  I guess that's why I'm weary of spending money & time on a PDC, whereas you can probably learn alot from just doing / reading and implementing ideas in the two books of Edible Forest Gardens if you are focused on food production.




I had a great talk with a local conventional wheat/bean/hay farmer awhile back. I was bouncing my ideas off him and asking him his opinion as someone who has been raising food in this area for ages. He told me he thought it was all a great IDEA. He'd have to see it actually work and MAKE MONEY before he ever did any of it.

As someone who doesn't need to make money off of my property, it's working for me. It would never work for him, his land and his crops are what feed his family. He wouldn't make any money doing what I'm doing.

I've implemented a lot of permaculture based experiments. I have swales. I have berms. I have krater gardens. I have hugukulture. I have various bio diversity. I mulch my gardens a lot of different ways as I determine what works best, etc. I don't want to say permaculture has failed. My property is way better soil and plant wise now than it was when I started. I just haven't found anything that would be commercially viable for my area yet. If I do I will make sure I become a field trip spot and will teach everyone I can reach about it. Then maybe things will start to change as the money is what will lead the farmer. It's hard not to be ruled by money when a single tractor costs you 300k.
 
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The economy is hard enough for farmers as it is, any new idea has too be profitable. Add a mortgage, bad weather, crop failure, or market failure and you are back to square one. How many new farmers are we getting? Who would load on that much debt for so little profit? I doubt a bank would. So you need to be independently wealthy to start. That cuts me out.
We will see what the future brings, so far humans have not made the best choices....
Better be damn smart too! Permaculture is not as easy as it looks on a YouTube video.
 
Chris Kott
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There's no point in taking a PDC unless you want to teach PDCs. Or at least that's my considered opinion. I am without one and I definitely don't feel the lack. You can get all you need in conversation with the fine Permies on this site.

I think the scope of permaculture is too large for most people to consider it an implementable option, but if you look at individual tools and models under the permacultural circus tent, individuals can gravitate towards the options that make sense to them, have success using those tools, and from there go on to embrace other permacultural options. If you can't take it piecemeal, it's a lot to swallow whole, and much moreso if it's your livelihood we're talking about and not a hobby.

I think they're not exploding because it's not an explosion kind of thing. This kind of movement is like mycelia under the surface of the soil. It needs to reach a critical density or size before we see any of the fruiting bodies.

Permaculture cannot "fail." It is a design science. It can no more "fail" than a shovel can fail if you use it where you should more properly be using a pick or a mattock. What is required to make it work is exactly what Mark Shepard and Joel Salatin and Jean-Martin Fortier, and countless others, are doing. We don't see it happening because they're busy doing, rather than talking about doing.

-CK
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Dennis, Unfortunately the farmer's current methods are one of the reasons their profit margins are so low. Fuel costs are only going up and when you look at how much fuel is used to till the fields, plant the fields, spray the fields then harvest those fields and get the product to the buyer, you can see a lot of waste just in that one small bit of farming budget. Now you add in the costs of all the synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and that red line just gets wider and wider and wider.

Several of the farmers I've worked with have mentioned how they have seen their farm finances finally get in the black just from the savings on fuel, fertilizer and sprays.  
Sure it is a hard sell, they have been entrenched for decades in the "modern" till it lots and add back mentality that the Agriculture corporations have been pushing since the 1940's.
Funny thing though, when they do the earth works and see that they aren't having to run pumps to irrigate nearly as much as before, aren't having to run the tractors every day to spray or fertilize, didn't have to make seven passes to get the field ready for planting.
The farmer starts adding up what he is saving and suddenly their eyes sparkle when they get it. It usually only takes one season for them to start changing over one field at a time so they aren't out of production.  
I never say "you have to switch it all at once", it works better if they go slowly into the new methods. That is how we will get the switchover working and keep the farmers farming.

New farmers are rare and the current group is aging out so if we don't get a new method working within the next 10 or 20 years, it won't matter really, we will be out of food production all over the world.

As for loans, farmers are always getting new loans, so that isn't a real issue.
 
pollinator
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> PDC's...

People buy teaching for many different reasons. In the context of seeing permaculture farms created for real in large scale, the people you're talking about taking PDC's are hard core practical bottom line oriented conservative businessmen. The farm is their life line and if it struggles or fails because of chancing a new method, it's their life on the line. They won't proceed until they see large evidence that the new way will almost certainly succeed and profit them hugely because as any person who has tried to make a business knows, any change is very risky, not matter what. Once a businessman decides to try something he looks for the way to do it fastest, cheapest and with the smallest risk and uncertainly possible. That's where a PDC would come in. Taught courses (on almost any topic), when taken by people who have a good reason and know what they're doing, provide a (relatively) very fast quick'n'dirty way to get a recipe to implement a particular methodology. They fast-track a specific path, used by practical people who have decided their direction and want to move _now_.

They're not, relatively speaking, for the above type of customer, a way to broadly research, sift and evaluate many alternatives, get deep overall perspective, build detail understanding. They're a tool purchased for a purpose, a quantifiable purpose, because that tool will save money and time.But before deciding to take that chance, businessmen require somebody _else_ to play around with the new way, test it out, take the hits lose _their_ shirts and prove that method produces "gold" in quantity.

IOW, mainstream agribusiness  won't bother with  PDC's until they can use them as a tool needed to implement a perceived big opportunity.  It's hard to fault them because their business is huge, complex and interlinked to others (eg. banks, seed sellers, equipment manufacturers, processing plants, etc) that all have to adapt to new procedures, timing and financing. Nothing happens until there's either no choice or they think somebody has discovered "gold" and then there's "gold rush".

They're waiting for you guys to take the knocks, work out the problems, and then they'll move in... <g>


Rufus
 
Bryant RedHawk
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In my experience no farmer is going to take a "PDC" course, the courses are not designed for farmers they are designed for small, homestead, type situations.
A farmer is far more likely to hire an advisor to guide them along the way to higher profitability over taking the time and spending their money to take a course, they want the consultant to have that knowledge and do the implementation.

Like Rufus says, unless the large farm owner (10,000 acres and up) can be shown that the new methods work better and are easier and cheaper to maintain the land fertility, they aren't going to put any money or effort into changing.
This is why it takes time, Mark, Joel, me and others have to find farmers willing to work with us, change one field over and see for themselves that these new methods work and blacken their bottom line better and more often than what they are currently doing.
Usually we are talking about a full year of work to get to that point where we can show them the benefits to their pocket book and that is when we have succeeded.
If we can also show them that they have extra crops that bring in income we have hit that home run and they will want to make the switch, regardless of how much screaming the Ag. corps. do, they will change over and perhaps even go back to the cheaper, old style seeds that produce  better nutrition.
Once the "Big Ag. folks see that they are loosing their customer base, they will switch gears in a hurry.

Redhawk
 
C Gallas
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The thing that is so interesting about Mark's story though is that from what I can tell he has proven the profitability of this type of farming. Just listen to a couple of podcasts or presentations on his start through Organic Valley.

Traditional Ag in the US is subsidized like crazy, alot of these people are against Socialist or Democratic Socialized nations, but farming in the US is one of the most socialized programs we have out there.  Anyways won't get into that.

Watch this presentation which talks about Organic Valley and the start there, the community that has grown around the area where him and his farming buddies have cooperated. He's talking directly to famers in Brattleboro  Vermont, a state where milk production and grazing cows for cheese is a dying industry.



This type of proven success is why I'm shocked that people aren't jumping on this asap and converting corn fields or cow fields into polycultures.
 
pollinator
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While everyone is working the big farmers in order to convert over to these sensible farming practices I would like to see what is being done from the bottom up. I agree with Chris in that I do not need to take a PDC course because I am working only 0.65 acres (but also eyeing the vacant 0.62 acres next door).  I do not have room to do it all but I can control the water that flows from my uphill neighbor who thankfully does not use chemicals.  I can also access a lot of wood chips and leaves. I am learning about fruit tree guilds and soon companion planting. I want to find perennial vegetables for my hot humid area (Zone 7B) North Alabama.
I want to create a dense food production area where I can source most of the food for my family.  If I can do this I think I can convince others in my area to start pursuing the same goals. Why farm lawn grass?  Why not try fruits and vegetables that have little disease or pest problems.  I think when the public starts learning about these methods they will seek out the farmers or form collaborations that implement these methods.  When change is coming from the buyer the provider may jump on board.  
I am finding a lot of useful and applicable information on this site but also am experimenting and learning why somethings don't work here. Sometimes the fun is in the journey but the end game is always the goal.
 
pollinator
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After taking a two day workshop with mark at last years ACRES conference there are a few things that I took away. One of them was that he has a dramatically different approach to the economics of farming than your average farmer. He talked at length about how one of his big leaps came when he began to think of his 'job' as property/real estate development as opposed to food production. This thinking allowed him to approach financing differently and it's something that I think turns off a lot of farmers (especially multigenerational farmers with a deep cultural identity as food producers) and it also involves taking on a lot of debt. The other thing about his style is that it is not really geared toward a single farm taking it's products to market, it is intimately connected (in it's profitability) to his connection to the organic valley co-op. The lifestyle benefits are almost entirely because he is part of a cooperative that frees him from having to do much marketing for his main crops and plug them into a commodity scale supply chain. This is what frees up his time as much or more than the diverse nature of his farm. The third thing is that it is being adopted on more and more farms around the country and the world. He works with a company called restoration agriculture design that does everything from planning consultation through to full installation of a system like his. He relayed stories and pictures of a large number of farms that RAD had helped establish, the thing is most farmers aren't nearly as evangelical as he is. If you think about how many farms do you 'hear' anything about that you don't live right near or see at a local farmers market? Farmers, by and large, are busy people who aren't seeking publicity or proselytizing outside of their circle of fellow farmer friends.
 
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I was trying to explain to a friend about different farming methods, like growing multiple crops on one parcel, rather than monocropping.  She said "But that's not efficient!"

That made me realize that farmers, like most people, want a life/work system that is really straightforward and not complex.  Mow your lawn, spray or don't for weeds, fertilize or not, you are done.  Mechanized and therefore considered efficient in time and effort, as long as the long-term costs are not considered.  Which, of course, they aren't.

At the time this friend responded that way, I was a little dumbfounded.  I didn't know how to "efficiently" explain to her that soil needs more than fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, ammonia and lime to produce nutrient-rich food and regenerative soil.  But since then I've come up with a passable analogy to explain monocropped chem-based agriculture and it's efficiency.

Current agriculture is like having dinner at a table and then clearing the table by grabbing the four corners of the tablecloth - dishes and all - and throwing it in the trash.  Then buying another tablecloth and place settings for the next meal.  This is the sort of efficiency that most farmers currently rely on to survive.  It's hard to fathom why you would learn to wash dishes when you don't need to.

So I think this farming method will continue as long as the resources to reset the "table" are still available.  Once a crunch happens - and lasts... then we will see big shifts to more diverse systems like Shepard's.  Heck, then the big chem/ag companies will be selling turn-key systems to help their farmers switch, replete with value-added products for increasing the efficiency of the new Bayer SMART Intercrop Agriculture Management system. Just wait and see.  ;-)

Kim
P.S. Did you catch the anagram?
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau  Stephen, good points, By the way, Mark owns RAD.  I believe that we will see a return to Co-op farming just as Mark and his friends have done, it only makes sense when you aren't producing the standard grains which end up at the huge company silos directly or through a middle buyer.
Here in Arkansas we have Producer's rice mills, Riceland Foods, Bunge, and Cargil, these are the companies that buy the wheat, soybeans, corn, sorghum that is grown here. The cotton growers have their own co-ops that run the gins and ship the cotton and cotton seed (lint) up north.
 
pollinator
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C,

If you have read any of my posts, you will know I think Mark is a genius. I could just futz around with him for weeks and not be bored at all. I love the way he thinks like an engineer but has the childlike joy of discovery. That being said, the hardest thing is scalability. I can make a widget, but that doesn't mean that the widget will be able to be produced, marketed, shipped and supported and become the world's standard for widgets.

Permaculture is not an easy button. It takes more mental agility than industrial agriculture. I swear, I have been reading some agronomics articles and I can't believe people would pay for a degree in it. The hardest part is not getting apples on your tree, it is turning those apples into pork, or cider or some value-add. Apples on a tree a worth almost nothing.  Permaculture to me is about looking at systems, trying to produce something from those systems, and then decrease the inputs to obtain them using biological mimicry through observation and interative change. "A good engineer works himself (or herself) out of a job" was the mantra of one of my first bosses. I work this year on one system addition, make a big change, and see how it interacts with the existing system. There will often be a number of small changes needed. Mark is a master of this, as you see in his videos it looks different from year to year as he messes with stuff. Now he is into hazelnuts and pork, one video he is doing mushrooms. Each thing is often from a small pilot what he learned something years before.

The shortfall with Mark (and again I think he is a freaking intellectual giant) is that his own farm is really not very profitable. If it was he would tell you. He has been asked enough that he could have put out some numbers but I have watched a ton of his stuff and he always hedges about it. He is probably making most of his income from other streams- and that is just fine. He does consulting, talks, nursery work, probably has some residual from the Organic Valley stuff. He has ten irons in the fire. I am fine with that. Hopefully if we can get an extra plot next to us, I will hire him to consult on the buildout. I think very highly of him.

Joel Salatin is the master of disruption. He has a pretty open-book attitude (he doesn't release exact figures but he acknowledges he is making a high white collar salary), and pulling a bunch of other people into it, because he literally can't cover the supply for the demand he has been able to identify. The ability to identify a complete alternate supply chain is AWESOME to me. The extra step of identifying how to scale it with his benevolent fiefdoms is also his succession plan. How do I do that on 10 acres not 200 acres? That's up to me to figure out. He sometimes sounds a little philosophical, about politics or business management, but I think it is because he really wants to show people that there is no single way of doing it. We can't all rotationally graze cows and have interns. His genius is in gaining as much value from a unit of production or time- all the way through the supply chain. And then building trust-based local networks to improve still further. Mark did this as well with Organic Valley somewhat, I just think Joel is continuing to press this aspect.

Myself? I don't think I would enjoy the continuous improvement aspect. Joel counts steps and measures times for each paddock movement. There are aspects making it more analagous to a modern factory. But he has done a tremendous work, and I think he deserves the money he makes. He can tell you this chicken tractor costs $24 and takes 47 seconds to move 100 broilers, while model B cost $14 but took 42 seconds to move 75 broilers. He is both a good businessman and curious. Most in agriculture are not curious enough to be Mark Shepard, but they can copy Joel. Joel hides nothing, he just puts his data out there. They can take and test it and modify it. Hell, they can ask him on a tour what they might be doing wrong in their setup in Orlando and he gives them some suggestions and two hilarious anecdotes about his trip to Orlando in '95.

They are both giants, and I am grateful for their contributions.
 
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For grazing I think it's inertia and possibly lack of time and land to do some of the grazing methods.

For vegetables cost. it is hugely time intensive to harvest a mixed crop. If I grew my cabbages spread over the field and I come out to pick 50. then I would have to walk and push the barrow several miles to get them all, where when I grow them all together it's a mater of meters. That walking is time and time is COST. I know this from working on an organic farm where not enough planning had gone into planting things together, so when it came to picking cauliflowers we had to go to three different places in the field several 100m's apart. this easily added 10 minutes per harvest simply going up and down and trying to get the wheelbarrow through to carry them, it also meant we missed some and they went over. mixing things up looks pretty and it may well be better for the plant and the bugs but that does not help the bottom line when you find ones that are too old and are now just compost. When you start adding in machinery well then it becomes even more obvious. on the parents in law's organic farm they harvest their potatoes with a machine. it takes (ideally 3) a minimum of two people on it. and it can harvest about 2 ton per hour,  the machine is second hand and cost about $2000 fuel to run the tractor for an hour about $10 wages for 3 people $51  that's 32kg harvested per $1 spent. to do that with hand labour you would need someone who could harvest 550kg per hour! These efficiencies are not just for potatoes anything that is machine harvested, like peas or beans also works out the same way.

And other bit the cynic in me wonders about is how much money these people make from selling produce and how much they make from selling an idea.

And the final reason all the "rockstar" farmers use free labour to help the bottom line, there is a very limited pool of people rich enough to be able to be free labour.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Excellent points  Skandi, many of the people that are teaching and preaching diversity seem to have forgotten that harvesting needs to be the really efficient part of the farming operation, the less time it takes, the fresher the produce and the faster it can get to where it needs to go.

I like to have great diversity especially in my microorganism counts in the soil, but above the surface or in the ground produce needs to be in groupings so harvest is a one stop affair.
We grow carrots, beets, radishes and other root vegetables will be added next year but each of these is planted in a block pattern, carrots are on one side of a row and beets on the other or lettuce is on the opposite row side with beets or beans.
We can harvest by going down the side of the row, no bouncing around the garden area, just down the row and done.

I think the arrangement of the crops is very important not only from a harvesting POV but also it needs to be compatible items so they are complementing each other's growth and nutrient up take.
This method also allows for mechanical harvesting when set up on the large scale.

It is also worth noting that lettuces are still hand harvested, as are many other vegetable products more because of fragility of the crop than difficulty in mechanical harvesting.

(the more people learn about how lacking in nutrients the grocery store foods are, the more they will look for the higher nutrient value alternative food stuffs)

Redhawk
 
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If we are looking for people who have a model for farming that is acceptable, adaptable, and scalable, I'm not sure that Mark Shepard is the poster child.

Guys like Gabe Brown and Joel Salatin have much more credibility with the average farmer than Mark does.  That's not knocking what Mark is about, but he's two or three steps away from where the average farmer is, whereas Gabe Brown is just a step and a half farther down the line.  When a guy like Gabe gets up and speaks at a soil conservation conference and he shows pictures of his grain crops, his livestock and his soil profile, farmers sit up and listen.  When he says, "I don't have the highest crop yield in my county, but I don't pay anything for chemical inputs, so I know for a fact that I've got the most profitable operation in my county", again, people sit up and listen.

Mark Shepard feels a bit too esoteric with his STUN and silvopasture and fancy gourmet mushrooms.  

You have to understand that farmers are by nature tremendously conservative.  They go with what they know, because many of them are only one failed crop away from bankruptcy.  While they may not be satisfied with their yield and the condition of their soil, do they have the heart to take a risk and try something completely new?  Shephard's system feels like a bridge too far for most farmers, whereas a guy like Gabe Brown advocating planting a cover crop after they've harvested their cash crop and then grazing it this fall . . . that doesn't strike them as unrealistic.  "I can do that" --- whereas planting hundreds of trees and watching which ones make it and which ones fail by pure darwinian selection (as Shephard advocates) would appear to feel wasteful.

I bought Mark's book and read it.  There are interesting ideas in there.  (He could have used a strong editor, IMHO).

I bought Gabe Brown's book and read it.  It's basically a summary of his standard presentation, with a few additional thoughts toward the end (an integration of his faith in the last chapter).  A very helpful book and one that I think a lot of farmers would pick up and read.

I bought 3 of Joel Salatin's books and read them.  Good stuff.  HIs ideas are proven.  I think it's time that he stepped back from the smaller topic books (chickens, cows) and do a much larger text on his ag philosophy and the big sweeping themes of how he went about building his operation.  

If I had to recommend one book, it would be Brown's.

 
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Because we have had far too many people come into town and say, "we will show you guys how to farm", and for whatever reason, they are no longer farming, and we still are. Insert whatever new name of farming , here, and we will just roll our eyes because most of the time, what is old is new again, and it is just something old with a new name.

Swales: they were big in the 1930's, big in the mid 1950's, and again in the 1970's. Cover crops were huge in the 1980's, and in the 1970's keyline farming was big...those are just a few examples off the top of my head.

Another aspect is that people do not accurately portray agriculture. Just yesterday I was called out for my limited sheep grazing rotation. It was immediately clear that out of a 10 people posting, I was the only one who had tried mob grazing. In a single reply I could tell a few people had no clue what my modified method of grazing rotation even consisted off, or even what mob grazing was. It is simple, I rotational graze, but add in chop and drop for the nasty weeds.

Even on this thread though, there are negative comments about big tractors, but people have not done the math very well. With my Kubota tractor, I burn 7 gallons per day tilling a 10 acre field that I got, and it takes 3 days to do. That is 21 gallons of fuel. Our huge 9684 New Holland tractor tills it in 20 minutes with is 33 foot disc harrow. We burn 1600 gallons of fuel planting just under 2000 acres of corn. Do the math, that is about 3/4 of a gallon of fuel per acre for the big tractor, and just over 2 gallons for the small Kubota. Big tractors are not fuel burners, they are actually incredibly efficient, but they sure do not look it.

There is a middle ground to all this though, and that is where I need to try a few new things, so I am not constantly doing what is not working, yet retaining some of the old ways that are proven.

But it has to work, I have to pay over 10 grand in property taxes alone every year just to keep what I got. I cannot afford to roll the dice in a new gamble that a new way would work. As Gabe Brown says, "fail often"...well no, I'll gingerly fail, thank you very much.
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After having visited with Mark for a couple days, pestering him with lots of questions, then reading his book, I would say the central idea about Mark's methods is diversity. He does not do just one thing. He does a lot of things that feed into eachother. How do you afford to plant thousands of trees? Buy two thousand wholesale, open a nursery, sell half and plant the other half. You have made a profit on the trees selling at retail, and you made your money back. You know have a thousand free trees. This is just one example.

I can understand why not everyone wants to do things this way, but realistically, farming has gotten to the point where its a race to the bottom. Farmers have been suckered by the big ag suppliers who are the real profit takers in the system. (what's the old saying about selling picks and shovels to gold miners?) You are better off producing value-added unusual and profitable goods at retail or at least for a co-op than acres of wholesale commodity products that can be wiped out with bad weather, global competition, and so on. The end reult of this is that when you are done, the land you have been harvesting from is vastly better off than when you left it. Over time, trees grow that can be harvested, water collects and is dispersed, your land looks like a lush high-end park, it produces animals and fruits and nuts and mushrooms that can be continuously harvested forever. You can add in annuals if you want.

Compare that to monocrop farm land. With no crop growing and no water flowing, it's desert. the soil is dead, the land is dead, and it will blow away with the dry winds. There is no ongoing value in it.
 
elle sagenev
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Travis Johnson wrote:
Even on this thread though, there are negative comments about big tractors, but people have not done the math very well. With my Kubota tractor, I burn 7 gallons per day tilling a 10 acre field that I got, and it takes 3 days to do. That is 21 gallons of fuel. Our huge 9684 New Holland tractor tills it in 20 minutes with is 33 foot disc harrow. We burn 1600 gallons of fuel planting just under 2000 acres of corn. Do the math, that is about 3/4 of a gallon of fuel per acre for the big tractor, and just over 2 gallons for the small Kubota. Big tractors are not fuel burners, they are actually incredibly efficient, but they sure do not look it.



Not sure if it's me you think is being derogatory. I'm not. If I could buy a tractor that big, I would. We just don't do debt so we could likely never afford a big tractor. We just have to settle with our little one. It is a huge thing for commercial farmers though. Those things cost a fortune.


Ok so opinion question for you Travis. A farmer near us has plowed under his winter wheat. He's starting new rows going horizontal instead of vertical. I think he's going to plant hemp. It just became available here. How much money would you have to be able to make to plow under 640 acres of already growing wheat do you think? I'm excited watching this process I must admit.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Travis, why do you have to make us feel inferior with your pictures? You know we all think our Kubotas are big machinery right? After seeing your tractor mine seems like saying "rooorrrr" in the dirt with hot wheels.

It is true that people working at scale are wary of any idea that has not been proven at scale. The margins as Travis and Dr Redhawk have pointed out are very thin in commodity crops. And like it or not we feed the world with commodity crops. I don't see them changing even based on Gabe Brown's work. Maybe.

When I look at the farmscape, as everyone knows, farmers are dying off. There are fewer each year. Their kids look at the margins, being tied to Monsanto/Bayer on one hand and Cargill on the other and often decide to sell. The buyers are the remaining farmers, leveraging their equity, trying to get even bigger to compete on smaller margins. Eventually the farmers will be fiefdoms of the seed and implement suppliers and ADM, from a financial perspective they already are, they are just handy because they are a voting bloc in several states that keep the subsidies rolling in. Eventually they will get automated out of existence, there are already automated tractors that will work through the night with GPS and fiduciaries (remotely monitored), just not widely adopted yet. The farms will be factories of robots just like manufacturing plants. Maybe there is a permaculture solution involving cows in strips of pasture between the rows, or pasturecropping, or something else, but it's not something I can wrap my head around.

My interest is in the scale like Mark. I love Greg Judy's distributed beef operation- sheer genius. I'm trying to set that up with our ten acres and several closeby lots that really aren't used at all other than looking purty. If I can get 100 acres of aggregate pasture, we are looking at 80 head of cattle- real money. Not quit my job money, but half time maybe. There are liability issues, water issues, ownership/maintenance of permanent fencing. But it's at least an intellectual exercise right now. If we can integrate some other productive enterprise in the same square footage, then its a full time gig, maybe monocrop hazelnuts in the alleys or something. Maybe every other alley is a pig feeder mix of apples and grapes like Marks, and they are on an opposite schedule to the cows with the same infrastructure. Then figure out a third and fourth income stream and it's an employment opportunity. Find another 100 acres not too far off to double the output with minimal additional time, and then its a chance to make a difference.

It's heavy management and heavy adaptation. It's also different places and different agriculture. This would all be possible because I'm closish to a metro area to sell beef and pork, and far enough to make the land cost reasonable. Others will have hurdles I don't. Mechanization is great, but the labor market here is tight, so it's a must. I don't plant hazels and expect to pick them at $10/hr. If you are in rural Kentucky, you might get takers, especially if there is seasonal work almost the whole year.

Co-ops are great, but they have to get pretty high tech to get distribution at this point. You sign a contract to get Wegman's 1000 canteloupes the second week of July and for four weeks to follow, you need to know you have reliable people growing to meet that schedule. The margins are better than commodities but still pretty tight. So pick something else! We have a guy near here who sets shiitake logs. He does a couple hundred at a time, sells them for $25, and probably makes $15 per log. He has spent some money to get a machine, and I figure he is paying that off the first year and working for himself after. That same guy is doing something different over the summer. He has a day job. He is part of the Uberization of agriculture. We just have to make sure we own it not the hedge funds. that's what I'm interested in.
 
Tyler Ludens
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In my county the greatest value of agriculture is in keeping property taxes down.  As far as I can tell nobody is trying very hard to make money, just to be able to keep their land until they can sell it for an inflated price.  So unfortunately there is little to no incentive to change to different practices in farming crops or ranching.  It's possible some people here and there may be starting new farms using regenerative practices, but most folks are doing the same things they've been doing for decades and are unlikely to change.  This may be the case in other parts of the country which are suburbanizing/exurbanizing.

 
pollinator
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I think that so much media is thrown at us that says farming isn't profitable, that farming is miserable, and that you'll never be happy. That can be true, but I've seen examples of people being very successful. I know a man who makes $30,000 a year selling chestnuts from somewhere around 10-20 trees (they're about 20 years old). That's only one stream of income he's got going.

Another thing, as Elle and others mentioned, is the conditions. Here in the Northwest almost all of our rain falls from fall through part of spring, and then stops. You can't plant trees here, not irrigate them, and expect them to survive in most cases. We water for two to three years, at which point they're established and no longer need watering except occasionally during prolonged drought. That's not too shabby, considering the return.
 
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James Landreth wrote:l. I know a man who makes $30,000 a year selling chestnuts from somewhere around 10-20 trees (they're about 20 years old). That's only one stream of income he's got going.

.



Theres a saying i heard decades ago here in Texas :

"Plant a pecan tree when your child is born and that tree will pay  for the childs college".

I should put math to it, see if its true. Average yield, price per pound, years to producing age, etc.
 
Travis Johnson
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Not sure if it's me you think is being derogatory. I'm not. If I could buy a tractor that big, I would. We just don't do debt so we could likely never afford a big tractor. We just have to settle with our little one. It is a huge thing for commercial farmers though. Those things cost a fortune.



Oh good gosh no, over the past few months I have gained a lot of respect for you, and for multiple reasons. In fact, just yesterday I was thinking I should send you a private message saying just that, but it is much better to have the opportunity to say it publicly. That is how much I respect you!

Like you, I do not finance anything either, but you stumbled upon another huge problem in regards to this situation. It is VERY hard to scale up, and be sizable. Taking the comment about being a nursery to the trees for free, that is easy for 2000 trees, but what if you are a big farm and need 50,000 trees? Even applying the concept of selling trees to end up with free ones, where is a farmer going to get enough money to pay for 100,000 trees? And even if they could, imagine the logistics of trying to sell the 50,000 to others? And in this day of online sales, if I could buy trees for say $1 per tree, others are not going to but them from me for $2 a tree, when they can go to the same source I did, and get them for $1 less. This is why some of these concepts worked 10 years ago, but no longer do.

And scalability is why organic farming has never gotten big either. There is nothing wrong with compost, but it takes a lot of compost, and a lot of work to make it. On a one acre market garden where the farmer is selling for elevated prices to specific restaurants it works, but that market is saturated now. How in the world are we going to produce enough compost to spread on 2000 acres of corn. And that says nothing about the 2000 acres of grass ground? Yes, if we were an organic dairy farm we would be getting twice as much money for our milk, BUT conventional dairy farms have increased production per cow 100%. The organic dairy farmer is getting half that production, and lacks the ability to scale up. Compared to a conventional farm, even getting twice as much money per gallon for their organic milk, they are still making the same money as the conventional dairy farmer, abd can never catch up.


Ok so opinion question for you Travis. A farmer near us has plowed under his winter wheat. He's starting new rows going horizontal instead of vertical. I think he's going to plant hemp. It just became available here. How much money would you have to be able to make to plow under 640 acres of already growing wheat do you think? I'm excited watching this process I must admit.



None, the farmer probably had crop insurance on the winter wheat, it was stunted, or he claimed it was stunted, and so was paid by the government to till it up as a loss.

The gamble actually comes in based on whether or not the winter wheat was really stunted or not. If it was, then it is no different than if a house burns and it has insurance on it; it is a insurance payout. But if he fudged the numbers to get crop insurance money so he could grow hemp, he might have made a mistake. With the floods in the mid-west, the prices of wheat could skyrocket, and he might have been better off letting it grow. Heck, at this point it would have to have been really stunted wheat in order for his strategy to pay off.

The price of hemp would also play a role. Here in Maine we have been hemp legal for a few years, and an interesting thing has happened. The hemp shops that use to make a profit as licensed dispensaries are starting to really lose sales because anyone can grow it in their backyard now. Walgreens has just made an announcement too that they intend to start selling CDB in their stores. That means CDB is about to go mainstream, and into major agriculture. If that happens, and enough farm land gets diverted from food production to hemp production, like it did when ethanol was subsidized, then the price of wheat will rise even more, and the price of hemp will drop. Your farmer neighbor will be okay in the short term granted, but there is no doubt about it, CDB is going mainstream, and these tiny mom and pop stories are going to be hurting in a few short years. There is no way they can compete with people growing it in their back yards, and for those that can't, from them going to Walgreens to buy it. Walgreens will get into bed with big agriculture and be able to buy it cheap that these mom and pop stores just will not be able to compete with.
 
Travis Johnson
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This thread holds interest for me because my farm (my personal farm and not my family's farms), is in a complete state of idleness. I am starting to feel better after having (2) bouts with cancer, and yet to get through that I have sold almost all of my sheep off. I got some pasture I am letting a friend graze her sheep on now, so I do have sheep grazing, but I doubt Katie and I will get back into sheep in any meaningful way again.

This leaves me with 100 acres of grass and corn ground, and none of it under written or verbal contract with any area farmers. I do not even have plans for it, and put my crop report in as leaving it fallow this year.

I got another 70 acres logged off and in a state of rotting down so that in a few years I can stump it and have 70 acres of more fields. I do not have any intention at the present time of clearing more forest into field, and will just let the wood lot grow.

Katie and I also made the decision 2 days ago to free up some cash and sell two of our houses. Assuming they sell, we won't be wealthy, but set for life since her baby-sitting business pays for our household bills (Food, insurance, phone and electricity).

So this leaves me with 170 acres of fertile farm ground and no idea what to do with it.

I would like to put it into hops, as the micro-breweries are screaming for more hops, BUT establishing hops is around $6000 per acre. I do not have a million dollars to devote to hop production, and hate debt, so I will not go that route. I am thinking about POSSIBLY getting into artisanal grains because a micro-combine, and grain storage would not be that expensive to buy, and I already have the tillage equipment. But that is all I have for an idea at this point.

I do have some mineralization on my farm, so I thought too about extracting that in a micro-mining sort of way. Maybe try my hand at phytomining? Maybe drive a drift? Maybe just dig as deep I can go from the surface? The seams are running about 20 feet apart, and have an almost vertical dip, so I could trench, and then back fill with the waste rock?

But it is frustrating because people ask, "how is your farm going", and all I can say is it's not. It's just...idle, and I have no clear direction to take it. It is kind of sad.
 
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I have watched some of his videos and gather he is in Michigan on 110 acres with a tractor.  That is a lot of opportunity to work with.  So not very many have those recources and conditions thus no real explosion, but he has very nice ways of setting things up.  Went to his website and could not find his location there.

Paul
 
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The reason no one farms like Mark is like the old story about the guy who kept cutting the end off the roast each year for Christmas.  His wife finally asked him one year why he did this...so he asked his mother.  His mother didn't have an answer.  So she asked *her* mother...and she mentioned that she cooked a roast like that because she had a very small stove, and that was the only way they could get the roast to fit in the oven.  There was no need for his mother, or him to cut the ends off all the roasts all these years...however - it was the way they both learned how to cook a roast.

Most farmers don't know any different, for this is the way they learned and the way they've always done it.  Working on a farm full-time, I can personally vouch for how challenging it is to incorporate change...especially with operations - even if the change can result in sustained profitability and a regenerative system.  This isn't the norm.  Moreover, it's a bit more challenging to get funding utilizing alternative methods of farming...but it can be done.  Changing operations on this scale requires...well, change.  Most simply aren't willing to walk down that road.  The familiar is "safe."
 
paul salvaterra
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i try to set 7 to 15 % of my land and time to trials, new things and well experimenting with methods and  different varieties.
 
Tyler Ludens
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wayne fajkus wrote:

Theres a saying i heard decades ago here in Texas :

"Plant a pecan tree when your child is born and that tree will pay  for the childs college".



Definitely decades ago cost of college!  

Looks like one mature pecan tree these days might gross $500.
 
C Gallas
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paul salvaterra wrote:i try to set 7 to 15 % of my land and time to trials, new things and well experimenting with methods and  different varieties.



That's also something I was thinking about as this thread has progressed. Lets say you have 1000 acres in subsidized commodity crops, wouldn't you want to get off that train at some point and put say 5-10% of that into something different?  You could put 15 acres into polyculture and see where it goes, if you did fruit trees, look up a brewery/winery in your area and give it to them at cheap prices, your going to make more than you would on subsidized commodity crops.  

I've had multiple businesses (one in farming annuals on a small scale) and you have to put aside some budget for R&D of new ideas or you will get left in the dust.

I'm still not convinced why subsidized commodity farmers just stick to this crappy system, if you watch the documentary called "King Corn", you will see that these guys generate $100 on an acre of GMO corn for the season in revenue - ONE HUNDRED BUCKS that's it.  Wouldn't you look at new ideas and get off that $100/acre train?
 
Why does your bag say "bombs"? The reason I ask is that my bag says "tiny ads" and it has stuff like this:
It's like binging on 7 seasons of your favorite netflix permaculture show
http://permaculture-design-course.com/
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