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Farmer committed to restoring the land

  • Article by: ALLISON GEYER
  • Associated Press
  • June 28, 2014 - 12:05 AM

VIOLA, Wis. — Just 20 years ago, Mark Shepherd's farm was a wasteland.

The 106-acre property in Viola was nothing but bare, blackened corn stubble, and dry, degraded soil, stripped of its nutrients after years of plowing and tilling for annual crops.

Most farmers would have considered it a bad investment, but Shepherd saw an opportunity to restore the land to its former ecological glory.

"This land was abandoned," Shepherd told the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1yFB0PY). "But we can take some of the worst land and restore it using nature."

Shepherd, 51, is an internationally known expert in reclamation agriculture, permaculture and agroforestry — eco-friendly farming techniques that emphasize perennial crops, natural biodiversity and sustainable land management.

"For years, people couldn't understand what I was talking about," Shepherd said. "But there's been an explosion of this kind of stuff recently."

Educated in forest ecology, he is the CEO of Forest Agriculture Enterprises, author of a book on reclamation agriculture and operator of New Forest Farm, one of the first profitable agroforestry projects in Wisconsin.

He set to work planting trees — oak, beech, chestnut, apple and cherry — between the traditional row crops to begin the farm's transition back to the natural oak savanna ecosystem. As the trees matured, he planted more trees, providing a canopy for other food-bearing plants like hazelnut shrubs, wild plum, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and currants.

Certified organic since 1995, Shepherd never uses chemicals on his plants or irrigation beyond his natural berms and ditches. Instead he prefers a method called STUN: "Sheer Total Utter Neglect."

"I don't want my plants to be sissies," he said. Only the strong survive, and plant genetics improve naturally.

To support the transition from row crops to perennial agriculture, Shepherd still farms about six acres of cash crops like produce and small grains, and he runs a hard cider business, Shepherd's Hard Cyder, using the apples from his orchard. Land management is done with herds of grazing cows, foraging pigs and chickens that spread manure and eat back plants.

Now, the farm is flourishing and home to hundreds of species of plants and animals that all contribute to the health of the oak savanna ecosystem.

New Forest Farm is a company rather than a cooperative, but it's a collaborative venture, Shepherd said. He has five people working the land with him, each managing a different aspect of the farm, and he's in the process of building a new facility to house employees, food processing and retail.

"We're kind of like a fledgling Organic Valley," he said.

Shepherd is a sought-after consultant, speaker and educator. He hosts several farm tours and leads restoration agriculture design courses each season.

Peter Allen came to New Forest Farm about three years ago to do a case study for his UW-Madison dissertation and essentially "never left," taking over rotational grazing on the farm and starting a direct market community-supported agriculture venture in Madison and La Crosse.

He and his wife, Mo, bought a farm a few miles from Shepherd and began farming it using the reclamation and agroforestry techniques. Their operation, Savanna Gardens, also hosts design workshops and educational services in partnership with New Forest Farm.

"Mark is one of the first people anywhere to do this stuff," Allen said. "It's a very young field; we're trying to figure out how to produce food on the planet without destroying it."

And more neighbors are beginning to convert farms.

Steve Carrow, an engineer from the west suburbs of Chicago, bought 44 acres of land in Viola about five years ago. Shepherd in 2012 helped transition 25 acres into a permaculture system, installing rain capture swayles and planting about 1,000 chestnuts and hazelnuts.

"Mark has a deeper understanding of all the issues," Carrow said. "It's a daring thing he's doing."

Shepherd hopes to continue educating and help a new generation of farmers learn sustainable practices for growing perennial crops. Restoration agriculture may seem like an effort to step back in time, but Shepherd says it's the future of food production — and a way to heal the Earth.

"We're just taking the natural model and using our modern understanding," he said. "Either we're going to do it, or our civilization will collapse — and nature will do it for us."

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by La Crosse Tribune

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