Restoration Agriculture gives us a glimpse into the future of large scale, sustainable agriculture.
In his book, Mark Shepard discusses the myth of feeding the world with annual crops and provides an alternative that is not only practical, but can be used as a transitional blueprint. He weaves his wealth of experience with scientific facts and technical knowledge, providing answers to some of the most discussed topics in Permaculture today.
Restoration Agriculture tackles the myth that our current agricultural system is the only way to feed our planet and provides an intelligent counterpoint to the typical arguments against large scale Permaculture. Mark explains how many of the so called advances in modern agriculture have actually contributed to our current dilemma and offers practical ways that Permaculture can be implemented into large scale, productive food systems.
We're excited to use the information and precedents in it, in your work in Wisconsin and Illinois, and other examples of AgroEcology to implement experiments and demonstrations in Nevada. Thanks for sharing your depth and breadth of practical experience.
I thought that this was really a great book. Some permaculturebooks just say all the same stuff that you've heard a million times before. Mark has a real, distinctive take on permaculture. He is a little oriented toward real farming, whereas "Gaia's Garden" by TOby Hemenway applies really well to people who have gardens and other jobs more. They're both great books but different.
Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers by Mark Shepard
Publisher: Acres U.S.A., www.acres.com
Reviewed by Craig Soderberg
This book offers a healthy, easy, economically viable option to families who want to live a more self-sustainable lifestyle by growing their own food. Shepard defines restoration agriculture as the process by which we accomplish ecological restoration and agricultural production simultaneously. Shepard also demonstrates the viability of a farm based on permaculture principles by providing some helpful information on tree spacing, plant yields, and grazing techniques. He also suggests a recommended number of cows, hogs, turkey, sheep, chicken, and geese per acre.
Shepard has been doing permaculture since the mid 1990's, and has turned an old deteriorating cornfield into a productive property with fruittrees, nut trees, fruit shrubs, berries, vines, mushrooms, animals, and bees. His findings give me hope that there truly is a different way to feed large numbers of people in a way that builds rather than destroys soil, is comparable to annual agriculture in caloric yields, is superior nutritionally, requires far fewer fossil-fuel based inputs, and is better for people. The type of thing he is doing seems to be the foundation of a localized economy that empowers the common person rather than enriching elites.
I have always felt that perennial agriculture (farming which focuses on plants that don't need to be replanted each year) would be easier since it would not require as much work as traditional conventional agriculture which does require continual replanting. Shepard calls conventional agriculture "agriculture of eradication" since the entire plot or field needs to be continually dug up and replanted.
Farming has changed drastically recently. In less than one lifetime, farms went from being self-contained ecological production systems, to debt-ridden, input-dependent "agri-businesses" that soon required massive government subsidies to keep them afloat.
Conventional agriculture is plagued with the following problems: the need for continual tillage, reapplying herbicide, pesticide, fungicide and fertilizer. All of this makes more work for the farmer. Other problems with conventional agriculture include: soil compaction, loss of organic matter, erosion, chemical contamination, flash floods, and the rising cost of fossil fuel for farm equipment.
The benefits of a perennial system (permaculture) are reduced cost in seed, gasoline or diesel fuel, and tractor maintenance, along with drastically improved soil, minimal tillage, greater capacity for photosynthesis, and an astonishing diversity of yields over a greater period of time. Permaculture still produces all the carbohydrates, proteins and oils that we need for our food. But it is much easier to manage and maintain since it does not require repeated tillage, replanting, reapplying fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides etc which are necessary with conventional agriculture. Once established, the input costs of a perennial restoration agriculture system approach zero.
The first six chapters of Shepard's book outline the present reality of conventional agriculture and why permaculture is needed. The remaining ten chapters get into the specifics of how to establish and manage restoration agriculture.
One interesting part of the book was Shepard's description of how Monsanto creates genetically modified food and the dangers of the whole process. Shepard notes that when spraying insecticides on crops, not all of the insects will die. A very small number will survive. The ones that don't die could possibly have the genetic make up that renders them immune to the poison being used. They could then reproduce and pass on this pesticide resistance to their offspring. Continued insecticide use kills the insects that aren't resistant and all that are left are the pesticide resistant insects, the superbugs. The same process applies to bacteria in livestock. Antibiotics that were perfectly effective at "controlling" disease a few decades ago are no longer effective because of the developed resistance and new antibiotics need to be invented. Similarly weeds become immune to herbicides.
Our modern agriculture that relies on annual plants, planted into an eradicated ecosystem in vast seas of uniformity, actually creates new strains of insects, viruses, and new forms of herbicide-resistant weeds. It is actually creating weaker food plants and stronger pests and diseases. Modern agriculture has forced the breeding of plants that can only exist in weed-free environments that will only thrive when bathed in dangerous chemicals.
Im just winding down to the end of this book and feel compelled to go ahead and announce that it is my new 'go to' bible for inspiration. I am looking at buying some 20ha soon (in france) and this book has evolved and refined my philosophical approach to how permaculture principals can meet for-profit farming and take care of the earth all the while. Mark is intelligent, well read, well spoken, insightful, goes into adequate detail when needed, but his biggest advantage is that he is down to earth. he's the guy next door who experimented to do something different and i believe his project at New Forest Farm is a super beautiful example of how we can all be successful land-managers and earth caregivers if only we strive with ingenuity and creativity.
He broadly defines his plan for a new agricultural system, and he speaks to everyone, using his farm only as an example at select times, providing ample suggestions for those living in regions and temperate zones different from his own. this is KEY, i believe, in a successful book. He is, in one hand, trying to sell you on the idea of land conversion (giving background and historical information as to why the current system doesnt work and how his -our- system can change that), and on the other hand he is giving you all the keys you need, even as a novice farmer, to learn how to 'experiment' on your own land and using your own given resources. This is a book for everybody.
His book is not one of recipes, hard data, charts and graphs (ok some charts and nutritional info yes, but its not heavy with too many numbers, and they are all listed in the appendix), but rather taste-tests of very useful tips and hints in getting you started in your own RA project. He is excited to teach you and he makes you excited to learn more. This book is a jumping board for those ready to dive into the deep end of the pool.
I rate it 10 out of 10 apples (my first 10x!) this book holds a special place on my shelf next too One Straw Revolution and Gaia's Garden.
I read this book in one breath, and found it great. Mark Shepard is a farmer that makes a living from his land, he's come round to teaching after years of hard work in the field. This is of great importance.
I like the fact that he's walked the path the other way round, from practice to theory.
Mark started as an organic farmer and then moved on when he realized theat even organic wasn't enough. He moved on with observation and passed from organic to permaculture designed restoration agriculture.
The book is well constructed, it's not a recollection of notes as sometimes happens with field authors, no Mark has well worked on many ideas in a direct and clear way.
The book explains how we must stop immediatly to exploit the soil and how we must change from an annual based diet to a perennial nut based diet.
The author is very passionate about the shift we have to do, and I loved the way he gives historic examples of evolution of agricultural practices. The subtitle is explicit: real-world permaculture for farmers. Thats a highlighted concept for readers. You wont find great theoretical work, no, here the author will take us in a journey in real life experience and work. The book is intended as a guide for big acreage farmers, here we're not speaking of garden's or urban spaces, but acre's of land that have to be put to income. It's a guide to transition from normal farming to restoration farming, from depleting the soil to giving back fertility and earning a living at the same time. To speak of income in permaculture for someone for sure is a sort of blasphemy, but maybe they should read the book, beacuse a good income, a living is not something that goes in contradiction with permaculture base design, but sets life back in our hands, farmers are always more tied to subsidy from the state, and the only way to shift from this situation is to gain control of our land again, taking a decision. We have to think about the fact that in the States today the percentage of people that are farmers is about 3% and 50 years ago was nearly 60% or more.
Mark takes us down the pathe of getting our work back in our hands, it's hard work but at the end fo the day when you look at what you have achieved it's worth the sweat.
The decision is to change the view we have of natural systems and learn from nature, first of all switching to perennial based systems.
The book is a milestone in the growing set of published work that comes out always more often.
I think the book maybe read even from those that have small plots, or live in cities, go out get the book from the library but read it, everyone can find very interesting information on many subjects, and keep on thinking.
I have also read Restoration Agriculture and found it to be very useful in planning processes.
Yet, I think the best idea from the book is that if we're going to change agriculture in any real near-time framework, we have to start applying regenerative principles at the broadacre scale ... and earn a living while doing it.
As Lorenzo mentioned, Shepard's text is reasonably well informed from both a practical experience standpoint as well as the theoretical. I also enjoy his interludes of historical context. Are we all going to start hazel nut farms in every part of the world? No. But what we learn from Shepard's example is broader than the specifics of what his farm is growing. I think too often people just want a list of what to do and, in our case, what to plant where. However, the real lessons of Shepard's book is how to think.
I'll be as bold as to say this is the second most valuable permaculture book to have in your library (and in your head) behind only the PDM.
This is the permaculture book to give to people that are already trying to work a farm/ranch but haven't been introduced to permaculture or aren't very receptive to the more 'purple' incarnations of permaculture.
Although a little lighter on theory than other books out there, this book does show an example of how to run a farm using permaculture that won't scare conventional farmers away. A lot of concrete examples of how Mark used permaculture to solve a problem or decrease effort/inputs required.
"Instead of Pay It Forward I prefer Plant It Forward" ~Howard Story / "God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools." ~John Muir
Do we all have acorn power, or do we have to earn it? I don't know, but I'll give 10 out of 10 acorns.
This is my favorite book...of all books, all genres. In the realm of Permaculture books in general, I would rank Restoration Agriculture third, with Tree Crops and PDM tied for first. (I haven't read Fukuoka yet.)
RA is my favorite because it's the one that's most directly applicable to my climate, and it's something I can point to and say "Yes, it is possible. It's already been done!," when talking to people (and especially farmers) who think that bare soil, corn, beans, and all manner of synthetic bullshit is necessary.
Here are some of his great quotes: (started with just two, but that wouldn't do it justice so decided to pick one from each chapter)
-The Perennial Agriculture Vision chapter, photo caption p. 5
"What you eat and how that food is grown is responsible for nearly every single crisis that humanity faces today."
-Our Present Reality chapter, p.26
"It is time to stop working in the garden and go for a walk in the woods."
-Standing on the Backs of Giants, p.35
"Permaculturists understand as a given, the truth that if we don't take care of our planet and its living systems, the planet won't take care of us." & p.36 "How might the clarity of scientific thinking be used to create a harmonious blend of the natural, the traditional, and the futuristic?"
-Challenges Facing Agriculture, p. 40
"Restoration Agriculture is a massive-scale culture-wide adjustment to ecological reality that will create a new economic and social reality."
-Turning Things Around, p.47
"A concept is a human-created idea formulated to hopefully explain and to help us understand actual reality."
-Farming in Nature's Image, p.60
(After half the growing season is over) "hardly any photosynthesis is happening in the corn and none for sure on the bare soil."
-The Steps Toward Restoration Agriculture, caption p.99
"Fungi are the magical soil-building bridge that turns inedible wood into a gastronomic delight. Farming the decomposition cycle!"
-Other Biomes chapter, p.103
"As ecosystem optimizers, restoration agriculture farmers help to increase the photosynthetic productivity of a site while simultaneously growing staple food crops and restoring ecosystem services."
-Livestock & Restoration Agriculture, p.128
"Geese are very well adapted to a perennial polyculture and can oftentimes provide a higher-value income stream than sheep."
-Including Bees chapter, p.146-147
recipes for honeyed cherries and lilac honey!
-About Nutrition chapter, p.158
"With what we know about the ecological devastation caused by annual grain farming we would be wise to relegate corn to the status of a niche crop that yields well but has far too many undesirable nutritional and ecological side effects to be relied upon as a staple food."
-Nutrition & Perennial Agriculture chapter, p.181
"...when trees are planted in a pasture in what is called a silvopasture system, forage yields do not decline. In fact when designed well, forage yields can actually increase."
-Getting Started chapter, p. 191
"Water is life and on restoration agriculture farms every drop of rain that falls is slowed down, spread out from the valleys toward the ridges, and allowed to soak in recharging the groundwater table."
-The Transitional Strategy, p.215
"Mulberry leaves, in fact, are more nutritious than alfalfa and come with a delightful co-product - mulberry fruit."
-Managing a Healthy Farm Ecosystem, p. 239
"I do also propose that as a species human beings once again reconnect with the reality of planet Earth and adapt our agricultural production practices to nature, rather than forcing nature to bend to our intellectual concepts."
-Plant & Animal Breeding chapter, p. 243
"The aforementioned Native Americans and Luther Burbank all did their plant breeding wizardry before chromosomes and DNA had even been discovered."
-Making a Profit chapter, p. 270
"Annual agriculture destroys topsoil. Period."
-Making a Profit chapter, p. 280
"Destroy the ecology and you will destroy the economy. Restore the ecology and you will restore the economy."
-Creating Permanent Agriculture: A Call for New Pioneers, p. 298
"It all starts with you."
Mark Shepard's Restoration Agriculture is anti-purple permaculture. It's what you need to point to if/when anyone you're talking to thinks permaculture is just pie in the sky, spiritual...whatever.
Now, onto Alcohol Can Be a Gas which is probably tied for third on my scale! I couldn't finish it before the library due date, but it's a definite buy- it just ties everything together and is eminently relevant to everyone, not just farmers and not just in the Midwest.
"...he is the greatest patriot who stops the most gullies." - Patrick Henry
Anyone can put the number of acorns on his or her own review.
I think Mark does a nice job of explaining the practical power of how it works. I don't think he spends a lot of time denouncing people who are playing music, singing or talking about community. There is a difference between a positive explanation of practical science and being anti-purple, which is putting down people who enjoy music, culture, art, poetry, parties, and social life as part of their permaculture.
I think he just leaves out purple permaculture, which is fine by me. I am also fine when people want to experience purple permaculture.
Good point, John. That does sound more negative than I intended. The book is very-much-not purple. It's very practical and down to earth is a better way to say that.
He doesn't spend a lot of time denouncing but just the right amount. His emphasis is on truly making a major difference by changing how staple crops are produced, rather than only growing your own veggies and fruits (a small part of most diets, as measured by calories) while supporting organic monocultures.
I don't have a problem with people wanting to experience purple permaculture either...or wanting to experience anything, for that matter. I'm very biased by where I am. I desperately want to see Iowa live up to its full potential rather than the toxic shithole that we have, and that purple stuff ain't changing many minds 'round here. I think it actually kind of hinders things, but rather than harp on about that I should be a "Restoration Agriculture thumper." "The good book says...[see above quotes]"
"...he is the greatest patriot who stops the most gullies." - Patrick Henry
Maybe we need different kinds of permaculture in different places. Here in the western suburbs of Portland, Oregon, there are thousands of computer engineers. The Atlantic Monthly just ran a big article on the suicide rate in Silicon Valley. I think the emotional environment is different where I live than where you live. There are a lot of suburban families who are working like dogs, make a lot of money and are chronically meaningless and depressed, despite the large salary. They spend a lot of money but they don't even know what they are chasing. Some of those people would be happier if they had a garage band, a transition group, a poetry club, a movie watching group, an art club or a social group they could go to and find like minded souls. Many aren't going to sell the house, quit the job and move to the country. Some will. For those who won't, making your own vegetables, fruit, pies, sauerkraut, and mushrooms can be a really fun hobby, a tremendous boost to their health, and an outlet that will help them see the humanity until they can retire and live the way they want to.
Most Americans live in the suburbs, and the idea of growing a field of wheat or corn isn't really in the cards, but a garden or a small orchard is, and it will benefit their health much more.
We need everybody to find what they can do to make the world a more sustainable place, in a way that works for them. Then they can share what they are doing with others, and make something even more interesting.
I came across a youtube video entitled "Regenerative Agriculture - Eric Toensmeier"
Toensmeier starts talking about Mark Shepard's Restoration Agriculture system at about 31.5 minutes. He has plenty of praise but also an erroneous complaint, "...a marvelous, marvelous effort. Some of the numbers in his book are totally wrong...um, inaccurate or making the wrong comparison between his systems and corn production. He does not get more calories per acre than corn, although he claims that he does. I'm hoping he's maybe just bad at math."
I gather Toensmeier is just bad at reading comprehension. Shepard did not make the simplistic, easily-disprovable claim that his system beats corn in calories per acre.
On p.154 Shepard writes, "Corn yields are impressive- massive, actually. ...one acre of average fertility crop land planted in corn can produce around 13.9 million calories of food energy. That's a lot of food." On p.180, the total calories per acre on Shepards farm is listed as just under 6 million calories per acre. He never makes the ridiculous claim that 6 million > 13.9 million.
Shepard's claim is more nuanced and far more important- it's not about quantity of industrial raw ingredients produced per acre, it's about producing large quantities of quality human food.
p.155 "...monocrop systems of annual grains do not have enough nutrition in order to feed people."
He goes on to point out that people don't eat much of that corn, you can't survive on corn alone, and the livestock that we do eat don't make very efficient use of those calories. So to make an apples-to-apples comparison between corn farming and restoration agriculture, the 13.9 million calories is whittled down to 3.06 million calories per acre.
(see attached scans)
I suppose the whittlin' down to 3.06 million might be debatable, but it's completely disingenuous to claim that Shepard said anything like, "In absolute terms, with some added pigs, trees, etc. I can grow more calories than a corn farmer."
"...he is the greatest patriot who stops the most gullies." - Patrick Henry
The distinction you are pointing toward is a very important one. The "American disease" of calories without nutrition leading to all kinds of health problems starting with obesity is spreading around the world. Mexico has apparently surpassed us in obesity, and many other countries are heading that way. This is also part of a larger problem of treating people like objects to get money and power from. Many GMO farmers have their huge acreage where they sell worthless calories to the corporations for bucks, and their own field, coop and orchard on the side where they feed food that is good enough for their families. In the old days, people had a cow or a horse that provided power or milk and nutrition for the fields. They didn't make a distinction between what I grow to make profit off of, and what I would feed my family.
We don't have a lack of calories in the world, we have a distribution problem of quality food.
I love this book! The practicality, real life examples, and just the right amount of urgency conveyed is perfect. I really appreciate how Mark made the distinctions of appropriate plantings for your biome. Using the worldwide climate analogs along with using the cultivar analogs that are native to your region were the big take away for me. In order to replace staple crops on a large scale we have to truly mimic nature and grow the crop that wants to grow in our specific local(i.e. pines as the overstory for pine nut harvest up here in Idaho instead of something like chestnut), do not try to manipulate nature into growing out of context (just to much work to make that work on a large scale!).
Although I do not have a large farm, this book has opened my eyes on new possibilities that were waiting to be discovered on my small homestead. Instead of fighting nature by trying to convert existing pine monoculture into almost urban permaculture garden, I started to look at a local plant communities and use this information to go with nature rather than against it.
If I ever had a large farm, that would be the way to go for me, exactly by this book.
This book has raised my interest in forest ecology as well, so I'm taking Mark's online course now, which is impressive.
His book helped create the vision for my 16 acres.
Success or failure will be determined well after I'm gone. The deciding factor is whether it becomes a housing subdivision, and whether they will cut gown down mature(producing) pecan trees, peach, plum, mullberry, fig, blackberries, asparagus to build those houses.
I would give this book a 7 out of 10
It was a fantastic book and had so may great ideas and lots of inspiration, but not as much "how to" as I prefer. However, watching his live webinars has been helpful in gaining a little more insight into the "how-to" end of it. He is currently teaching a weekly webinar series on Forest Ecology and how to use forest ecology principles in starting a Restoration Agriculture farm.
You can come along and see the webinars for free too, you just have to sign up here: https://www.eatcommunity.com/a/2752/pLFZqpjQ He's teaching today and for the next few Wednesdays. You should be able to also view one or two replays by signing up. If you want to see all the replays, they are available but they require a paid subscription. You can find that here: https://www.eatcommunity.com/a/2754/pLFZqpjQ
I reviewed it for The Cleveland Review of Bookshere: "Even while lamenting the ecological and economic costs of commodity-crop agriculture, many Midwesterners seem unable to conceive of our landscape without it. Wisconsin farmer Mark Shepard, however, refuses to take this claim at face value, arguing persuasively that 'restoration agriculture'—a style of farming that models itself after the natural ecosystems of the Midwest rather than a manufacturing facility—can not only restore biodiversity but provide better nutrition and a better economic foundation for our communities."
I think this is a great policy and inspiration book, and if it's a bit short on how-to for us practical permies, well, it's not really a how-to book. I do wish Shepard would write a followup with more how-to, but he seems to be doing that through other venues.