Review – Restoration Agriculture; Real World Permaculture For Farmers – by Mark Shepard (Published by Acres USA)

Drawing inspiration from classic texts such as J Russel Smith’s ‘Tree Crops’, Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘One Straw Revolution’, plus the work of permaculturists David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, Restoration Agriculture reminds me in many ways of Kathleen Jannaway’s classic ‘Abundant Living in the Coming Age of the Tree‘. This was a visionary publication that proposed an entirely new paradigm for the evolution of humankind beyond the age of oil dependency, annual grain agriculture and animal exploitation. It pointed the way towards a tree-based culture very different from anything seen thus far in history, wherin virtually all our needs for food, shelter, fuel and fibre are met from managed woodlands and food forests. We can’t of course know what such a future would look like, any than more than our ancestors would have been able to envisage the world after the advent of the plough or the internal combustion engine, and Jannaway’s slim pamphlet (deliberately) provides little more than a tantalising sketch of a world based on values of true compassion and ecological harmony. Yet ‘Restoration Agriculture’ is a significant step towards fleshing out and adding colour to her broad brushstrokes in the here and now.

With lucid facts and figures based on experience gleaned from his commercial 106 acre New Forest Farm in Wisconsin, Shepard dismantles the myth of feeding the world with annual crops as a long term sustainable option, presenting instead an extremely convincing argument for polycultural and perennial plant-based food production. Monocultural grain-based farming works against nature, uses more energy than it produces in terms of food calories, and generates often toxic wastes. It erodes soil and degrades the earth’s resources, while yields inevitably decline drastically over time, requiring ever more inputs of oil-derived artificial fertility. Polycultural alternatives on the other hand are integrated, diverse systems which are resilient and mimic nature, restoring rather than depleting ‘natural capital’ such as soils, clean water, biodiversity and air quality. Shepard takes the example of the prevalent cool temperate eco-system of his north American bio-regional home (oak savannah, by and large similar to our own climate region in the UK), and explains how diverse alley-cropped trees and bushes such as oak, chestnuts, hazel, apples, blackcurrants and fungi can produce up to 6 million calories of nutritionally dense food per acre annually, and how such farms can not only be financially viable but restorative of local communities and economies.

Shepard does not exclude animals from his polycultural model, although the systems of management he proposes for integrating cattle, pigs and birds into broad scale food forests are based on understanding and meeting their natural behaviours and needs, thus ensuring a high quality of life. This is unlike current industrialised factory (or even ‘organic’) farming methods that maximise profit above any considerations of welfare, resulting in cruelty, misery and the diminishing of both the animals, and we humans as producers and consumers. To my mind these parts of the book are enlightening and well worth reading. Yet at the end of the day, even though his animals have ‘had a good life’, they still wind up dead for the purpose of providing human sustenance. This is where, as a vegan committed to a belief in the intrinsic right to self determination for all sentient beings, I part company with the methods Shepard advocates, although it’s easy to skip these chapters without losing any of the overall concept. Indeed Shepard himself cheerfully admits that the polycultural model he proposes is fully adaptable to a veganic system, and will provide more than enough of an abundance of high quality food without (captive) animal inputs. I find it very refreshing that he avoids adopting an antagonistic stance towards the vegan point of view, something that perhaps cannot be said for some of the other proponents of regenerative agriculture (eg, Joe Salatin and Alan Savory) and their insistence that domesticated animal ‘components’ are ‘essential’ to building and maintaining soil fertility.

My only criticism of the book concerns the illustrations. There are some black and white photos and  a section of beautiful colour plates that clearly illustrate his theories put into action at New Forest Farm, but speaking as a largely ‘visual’ learner there were places where a well placed diagram or two amongst the text would have been very helpful. For instance in the chapter on water management, Shepard goes into great length describing PA Yeoman’s ‘keyline’ system, asking the reader to compare it to the musculature structure of the human back. After 2 pages I still couldn’t really visualise what he meant, wheras a simple line drawing would have made the concept clear straight away. Similarly his one acre cropping plan consisting of ’34 apple trees, 86 chestnut trees, 120 grape vines, 208 hazel bushes, 416 raspberry canes and 520 currant bushes’ would have been greatly enhanced by a a visual schematic to help me get my head around what this might look like, and wouldn’t take up too much page space. Perhaps this could be considered for future editions of this book, of which I hope there will be many!

Restoration Agriculture is a truly inspiring work, at once a polemic, a practical manual and a manifesto for a new way of feeding the world, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Order it here

Graham Burnett

This article originally appeared in Growing Green International magazine