Agroforestry: Healing Food Systems and Fighting Climate Change

12 Dec, 2012

 by Jake Olzen, via

New Forest Farm “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias,” said farmer and author Wendell Berry.

Or, if you’re Mark Shepard, plant chestnuts. For Shepard, the owner of New Forest Farm and a farming consultant, the long-lived perennial trees are a central feature in the ideal farm landscape. Annuals—i.e. corn, soybeans, and many other vegetables that have to be planted and harvested every year—are labor-intensive and come with steep environmental costs such as erosion, soil degradation, and nutrient runoff.

So permaculturists like Shepard see planting fruit and nut trees and other perennials—which only need to be planted once, and then, once mature, continue to produce year after year—as a key to sustainable food systems. His 106-acre farm in southwestern Wisconsin is filled with hazelnuts, chestnuts, pine nuts, currants, berries, apples, and much more.

Shepard calls his approach “restoration agriculture” (that’s also the name of his recently published book), and his hope is to mimic nature as much as possible to produce high-quality crops while restoring the health and fertility of the land.

“There are two problems with agriculture—even organic agriculture,” said Shepard recently on the phone. “You are either trying to keep something alive that wants to die, or you are trying to kill something that wants to stay alive.”

Using a method he fondly calls “STUN”—sheer, total, utter neglect—Shepard propagates varieties of fruit and nut trees that produce edibles early and often, and continue to thrive in an agriculture system that, once planted, mostly gets ignored until it’s time to harvest. If the plants can’t naturally stand up against the vagaries of disease, pests, and weather, Shepard yanks them out. The resilient ones are bred and planted.

Instead of endless rows of industrially managed corn and soybeans, Shepard utilizes a permaculture technique known as the keyline system to create a series of berms and swales—glorified drain ditches, really—to capture and retain rainwater. From above, the miles of swales feeding hundreds of thousands of thirsty trees and other perennial crops look like mythic crop circles.

Agroforestry—a broad term to describe ways in which forests and forest management are combined with agriculture—is key in understanding Shepard’s system.

“The trees are the producers of the staple crops,” says Shepard. “Chestnuts are nutritionally equivalent to brown rice and similar to corn. Hazelnuts have three times the oil-per-kernel weight and a similar protein profile [as] soybeans. Plus we have the nutshells, which can be burned in a pellet stove or gasified to generate electricity.”

Shepard uses the oak savannah ecosystem—which covered much of the Midwest prior to European settlement—as an ecological model for his farm. Beside larger fruit and nut trees, like apple, mulberry, and pine nut, he grows shrubs like nanking cherry and hazelnut. Berry patches border the forest while other edibles—asparagus, winter squash, or green peppers—fill in the alleys between each row of trees in an agroforestry practice that’s referred to as “alley cropping.”


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