Sustainable farming strategy mimics savanna ecosystem

Farmer and author Mark Shepard conducted a workshop in Manitoba last month

Aerial view of swales and berms that are used to trap water.  photo: daniel winters

Garden of Eden-style farming combines strategic water management, 
perennial fruit and nut crops, along with multi-species grazing

Forget “food forests” and the latest genetically engineered crops.

The key to feeding a soaring global population lies in mimicking the most photosynthetically productive natural system on Earth – the savanna, says American farmer and author Mark Shepard.

Unlike a forest, where the canopy shuts out sunlight, a savanna complex is composed of multiple layers of trees, bushes and shrubs that allow sunlight to penetrate through to a grass understorey capable of supporting annual crops and grazing livestock.

And it was from this habitat that Homo sapiens emerged.

Shepard has spent the past 18 years developing his vision for “Restoration Agriculture” on a 110-acre farm in Wisconsin, and has written a book of the same title.


In a recent weekend workshop, the operator of New Forest Farm was sharply critical of both the hippies, for “hallucinating” a future world of vegan backyard vegetable gardeners, and Big Ag, with its calls for more intensive, ecologically destructive annual cropping propped up by an ever-more potent arsenal of chemicals and fertilizers.

“If you were to just eat out of your vegetable garden, you’d starve to death because there’s not enough carbohydrates, proteins and oils,” said Shepard, who has training in both mechanical engineering and ecology.

Modern agriculture, on the other hand, which produces the staple food crops the world depends on, has succeeded in polluting the wells in his area with nitrates and atrazine after only 60 years, Shepard said.

“All civilizations that have relied on annual agriculture have collapsed,” he said.

Systems that don’t work with nature are inherently destructive and inefficient, because they require the existing ecology to first be eradicated and then continually suppressed. In modern times, that’s done by fossil fuel-dependent technologies, and in the past, through endless physical labour.

“I assert that we can revegetate the entire planet in 15 years and produce more food, more fuel, more medicines, more fibre, while cleaning up the water and detoxifying our environment. And we can do that while making a profit,” said Shepard.

Mark Shepard, author and pioneering developer of “Restoration Agriculture” on his Wisconsin farm, leads a recent workshop near Gimli.
Mark Shepard, author and pioneering developer of “Restoration Agriculture” on his Wisconsin farm, leads a recent workshop near Gimli. Mark Shepard, author and pioneering developer of “Restoration Agriculture” on his Wisconsin farm, leads a recent workshop near Gimli.  photo: Daniel Winters photo: Daniel Winters

King Corn

King Corn is often touted as a solution to world hunger, but despite its capacity to produce nearly 14 million calories per acre, it is not nutritionally complete and requires a never-ending supply of non-renewable inputs and fuel to produce, he said.

An acre of designed savanna-style agriculture, in comparison, with its animal component included, can sustainably produce well over five million calories per acre with virtually no inputs, writes Shepard in his book.

On his farm, he has planted 250,000 trees, bushes and shrubs producing edible fruits and nuts selected to thrive in the local biome along a carefully thought-out “keyline” pattern based on the land’s contours to maximize water-storage capacity and minimize erosion. In between the layered rows of trees, spaced to accommodate his tillage and harvesting equipment, he grazes cattle, sheep, and poultry in successive waves.

By arranging his farm to maximize his photosynthetic harvest, and using livestock to redistribute nutrients, he figures that he has increased productivity fourfold without the use of costly inputs or excessive labour.

When designing a “real-world” permaculture farm, Shepard uses the native ecology as a guide for choosing what plants will thrive and offer good economic returns.

Mixed skyline

On his farm, in the Oak Savanna biome of Wisconsin, that means tall, nut-bearing trees such as oak, chestnut and beech, with a large variety of home-raised apple trees taking up the middle layer.

In the niche beneath that, he plants spreading shrubs such as hazelnuts, cherries, plums and peaches, grass-competitive perennials such as raspberries and blackberries, and shade-tolerant gooseberries and currants.

Grapes are thrown in wherever they might thrive, and mushrooms are harvested from dead wood.

Portable electric fences are used to manage grazing, and prevent damage to vulnerable trees.

Suckering roots are controlled with a subsoiler, which he periodically uses to reinforce the keyline pattern. Ponds that were formed by the keyline’s tendency to capture and retain rainfall and snowmelt provide habitat for pollinators and pest-devouring critters, as well as irrigation when needed.

“Let’s take our agriculture and push it into the forest, and bring the forest out into our agriculture to make one, unified system that we’re managing all at once,” said Shepard.

Disease is a major obstacle for perennial cropping. Shepard uses the Luther Burbank method for selection, which involves planting thousands of seeds and cuttings, then selecting only the very best disease-resistant and highly productive specimens for propagation.

In just 400 years, he notes, the North American continent has been transformed by annual cropping from a resource-rich, species-diverse paradise, to a devastated landscape on the verge of ecological ruin.

Many of his best customers are “prepper” survivalists. They are often dismissed as “crackpots,” but Shepard said he admires them for their sense of urgent purpose.

With Peak Oil, a financial system on the verge of collapse, natural disasters, and the looming threat of global war and civil insurrection, he believes that a “new nature of the future” needs to be created to ensure a decent quality of life for future generations.

“This is what the planet does. So why don’t we line up with it and live a really cool life having a blast?”

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