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Mark Shepard on Yields, Getting Started and STUN

Mark Shepard
Posts: 44
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1. What is your estimate of total yield per acre at the 5 year, 10 year and 20 year mark of your system?

Mark: Unfortunately, I don't have accurate data on this... the most significant reason being that I have so many different configurations and so many of the plants are still in their eary years of bearing. Another reason why I don't have accurate information, is that numbers are wiggly things... What you can sell a product for has a lot to do with how far away you are from a major metro area and how much of a product you actually produce... We are 4hrs from the nearest "Real" market (Chicago) and so our most reliable markets are wholesale markets. The larger the market typically the lower price per pound. Wholesale produce around here reliably nets around $2500 per acre with occasional spikes when conditions conspire to create shortages elsewhere and abundance where you are... CSA and market growers would no doubt get ulcers if they had to "settle" for such low prices...
Another reason why the numbers are so squirrely, is that we don't really know what the future will bring... Will these plants yield the same as conventionally grown? We don't know yet....
Also, through the years the animal component of the farm has fluctuated wildly... It haas taken a considerable amount of time figuring out how to manage the animals in this system and to figure out the timing that works best for pest control, fertility management and food safety. BUT.....
One of our SIMPLE systems is asparagus alleycropped between rows of chestnuts. Asparagus can regularly yield two tons per acre on the right soils and chestnuts can yield one ton. 4000lbs of organic asparagus at $3.00/lb wholesale = $12,000. + 2000lbs of organic chestnuts at $5.00/lb for $10,000.00 and you've got some pretty nice numbers... In the early years the asparagus dominates, then as the asparagus declines the chestnuts are coming into their own. Once the asparagus is gone, (30yrs) you convert to pasture and raise 2 cattle, 4 sheep, 4 hogs and 100 chickens and it still looks pretty spiffy....
We have yet to net $22,000 per acre, but the potential is there.
A HUGE benefit is the fact that we have extremely low expenses...
No heat bill, no electric bill, veggie oil for fuel costs half the price of petro diesel, and we don't have to plant or do fertilizer, herbicide, fungicide, pest control or disease control ever again...

3. What was the biggest mistake you made early on?

Mark: As a Permaculturist I take to heart the Permaculture Principle: There are no mistakes. There is only feedback. Since I don't view feedback as "mistakes", it's tough to think about it that way, but if there was one thing that I WOULD have done differently is to DO IT ALL AT ONCE!.... Plant WAY too much in the early years. IN the Permaculture Designers manual it describes "rolling permaculture" where you start with a nucleus and keep adding to it as time goes on... This is what we did in the early years, but it's a KILLER!.... If you don't plant enough stuff, you don't have the total genetic variability to choose from, (try rolling a Yahtzee with only 3 dice... You can't do it!) Also, the establishment years are the most work, so in year one you're establishing. THen year 2 you're establishing AND maintaining last years stuff. THen you're planting, maintaining and maintaining. Then you finally start to get some yields from the first planting so now you're planting, maintaining AND harvesting which is three times the work than what you started with. PLUS, the plants that are yielding aren't that many so you don't have enough to actually make very much money. In fact, it might cost you more to harvest the itty-bitty yields of a few plants than what you'll get for the product... This "problem" of not having enough product to sell combined with the "problem" of continually having more work on the establishment side of things...
My personal approach is to jump in the water all the way... Establish for a few years, then maintain for a few years then harvest a LARGE yield that will provide you with enough to justify it all.
All the while, be Alleycropping or Grazing between the rows to cash flow...

4. Aside from the kids, what are you most proud of?

Mark: I'm most proud of the fact that I had the courage to walk away from the world of jobs and careers and to actually DO this instead of just wishing... Whatever you do, or dream you can do BEGIN IT! Boldness has Genius, Power and Magic in it! (A Goethe quote, I think)

5. You talk about STUN. How much time do you spend actually doing "work" on your farm?

Mark: This is where Jen (my wife) and I have some subtle disagreements... I don't think that I "work" much at all... Most of what I actually do is observation and "nudging". When I'm walking around I'm looking at a ZILLION things and all of what is going on is swirling around in my brain. I'll also be snipping a plant here, training a vine there, while I'm on my way from one place to another. On the 3-5 Acres of annuals that we do, I do quite a bit of work. In fact most of our fuel expense is because of the stupid annuals... tilling, cultivating, mowing, seeding, etc...
Let's see... I prune trees, dig and sell trees, harvest asparagus, establish and maintain an acre or three (once upon a time did 12 ac) of winter squash & or green peppers, harvest produce, check to see when crops are ripe, harvest hazelnuts, apples, chestnuts (I fell behind on this this year...bigtime) Move fence and animals, water tanks & temporary pipe, press and ferment cider,
butcher livestock, harvest our "processing crops", Jen and I both do the canning (salsa, spaghetti sauce, lacto fermented veggies, pickes, etc) consult or do a weekend workshop twice a month, go on vacation to the Boundary Waters or Maine or Alaska, run numbers through spreadsheets & manage "the books" so I don't actually do much work at all, right?

6. What is it like when you have a conversation with the farmer that grows Soy and Corn?

Mark: When I chat with conventional ag guys I typically chat through the lens of the USDA Agroforestry practices of Windbreaks, Riparian Buffers, Alleycropping, Silvopasture and Forest Farming. The Agroforestry practices are USDA accepted and encouraged practices and even cost-shared. I encourage them to put marketable woody crops in their Agroforestrry systems.

7. What three insights would you want to impart on someone that wants to follow in your footsteps?

Mark: 1) (somewhat humorously) Don't go barefoot unless you like stepping in shit or on a chestnut burr or getting stepped on by a 2500lb steer.
2) Begin to develop your credit rating NOW. Dispense with the pipe-dream that you will be able to do this without debt. Don't be afraid to borrow money to do ENOUGH of whatever it is that you want to do and to have decent enough tools to do the job well. If you design from a poverty mindset of "I can't afford this" then you will meet your own belief face to face and you will not be able to afford it. If you do your homework, build and flex your credit, then DESIGN for success including paying your bills, you can do it... Small might be beautiful, but might not be enough to pay its own way...
3) DO IT!.... There is no more time as a species for us to be diddling around thinking about this or discussing whether this will work or not.. The time is NOW for BILLIONS of us humans to STOP destroying our planetary life-support system and to begin restoring our Planet Eden back to a rich, full, non-toxic and abundant perennial paradise. If I can take 100 Acres and do this in a mere 15years while paying my way, so can you! In a mere 15 years we can be living on a planet carpeted with perennial, food-producing ecosystems. The only way it will happen is if you DO this.. Start where you are with what you have and keep on planting food systems everywhere you go no matter what... It will only take 15 years. It may "cost" a million bucks to do it, but what are the costs of NOT doing this? I refuse to go along with the destruction of my planet and will do everything I can to turn it around...

R Hasting
Posts: 183
Location: Mineola, Texas
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Many thanks Mark.
Julia Winter
Posts: 1667
Location: Moved from south central WI to Portland, OR
bee bike chicken food preservation hugelkultur urban
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I like that: do it! do it now!

I've only one acre under my control right now, but I'm doing what I can. I just printed an article about mob grazing for some folks who have 800 acres near Spring Green and said they were considering grazing. . . if that nudges them toward what I think is a restorative practice that will be more than I will ever accomplish on my own small land.
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