Restoration Agriculture project moving forward

Gimli-area farmers to host permaculture expert Sepp Holzer in May

Map of agricultural restoration project.

The design is in, dozens of species of fruit- and nut-bearing trees have been ordered, and now the owners of Prairie Heritage Farm north of Gimli are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the spring planting season.

Last fall, Kirsten Benot and her husband Daniel hosted a three-day workshop featuring perma-culture pioneer Mark Shepard.

Along with classroom sessions where Shepard explained his techniques, theories and philosophies on how to create a truly sustainable and profitable farm based on the photosynthetically rich savanna ecosystem, the camo-clad author of the book Restoration Agriculture also agreed to develop a design plan for their 72-acre farm.

Now, with the design sketched out on paper, the Benots are keen to start constructing a two- to 4.5-metre-high earthen berm along the northwest corner of their pasture to create a more amenable microclimate for tree growth, as well as a series of swales to direct water flows towards a large central pond that may one day be stocked with fish.

Looking for trees

The hardest part so far, said Kirsten, has been finding stock to plant a 350-metre row of as many as 20 different tree species, including Nanking cherry, stone pine, black walnut, butternut, apples, grapes, currants, apricots, pears, and more.

“The cheapest apple you can find in container stock is $26,” said Benot. “If you’re trying varieties that aren’t grown commercially, maybe you don’t want to invest tens of thousands. Instead you could start with a smaller plot.”

Bare root stock, if available, is cheaper, but the total cost to recreate the Garden of Eden — especially for early adopters of the system — could go as high as $40,000 mainly due to the need to create berms to keep tree roots out of their farm’s high water table.

Benot has chosen mainly trees and shrubs hardy to Zone 3a and 3b, but after this past winter’s horrifying stretches of -50 weather, she’s going to hold off on Zone 4 varieties until she sees whether the existing trees in her yard survived.

“You don’t want to put that kind of investment into stock and not have it live,” said Benot.

More from the Manitoba Co-operator website: Sustainable farming strategy mimics savanna ecosystem

Taking root

Three other farms in Manitoba are planning to adopt restoration agriculture, she said. If more join the movement and succeed, the pool of known tree varieties will inevitably expand and that will reduce costs for others down the road.

Benot chose Shepard-style restoration ag for her farm because it incorporates livestock and perennial trees and shrubs, but her studies of permaculture haven’t stopped there. From May 17-20, the Benots will host a workshop led by world-renowned Austrian permaculturist Sepp Holzer on the only Canadian leg of what could be the 72-year-old farmer’s last North American tour.

Some 30 participants from as far away as Virginia and Quebec have already booked at a cost of $950 for four days of intense instruction in Holzer’s unique raised-bed “hugelkultur” system, natural beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, root cellars and other techniques he has developed over four decades.

“People are starting to recognize that the current system isn’t sustainable and that there has to be an alternative way,” said Benot.

Holzer’s methods are “tried and true,” she added, noting that he has been commissioned by governments to undertake food security projects from Portugal to Siberia.

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