Restoration agriculture and letting go of micromanagement to allow nature to thrive (Interview with Mark Shepard of Restoration Agriculture Development)
This is a conversation on Green Dreamer with Kamea Chayne, a podcast and multimedia journal illuminating our paths towards ecological balance, intersectional sustainability, and true abundance and wellness for all. This preview has been edited for clarity. Subscribe to Green Dreamer Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or any podcast app to stay informed and updated on our latest episodes.
Mark Shepard is the CEO of Forest Agriculture Enterprises, the founder of Restoration Agriculture Development, and the award-winning author of Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Mark has also been a farmer member of the Organic Valley cooperative, the world's largest Organic Farmer’s marketing co-op, since 1995, and he's most widely known as the founder of New Forest Farm, the 106-acre perennial agricultural savanna considered by many to be one of the most ambitious sustainable agriculture projects in the United States.
In this podcast episode, Mark sheds light on why we need to let go of persistent concepts and ideals that we made up, and instead, get out more to observe and learn from how natural ecosystems actually function; what is problematic about how we've developed a food system based mostly off of annual crops versus perennials; how he's been able to utilize a hands-off approach to growing food regeneratively, which he calls the STUN method, or Sheer Total Utter Neglect; and more.
To start, get a glimpse below into the conversation between Mark and Green Dreamer Podcast's host, Kamea Chayne.
On why we need to integrate perennial ecosystems into agriculture:
“The majority of agriculture as we know it today is based on annual plants—plants that grow just for a few short months and then die.
Annual plants are part of the economy of nature, and what they’re used for in nature is colonize disturbed sites after a tree blows down and there’s an exposed pit of earth that fills in first with annual plants, or an abandoned parking lot, or an volcanic eruption that puts silt or sediments that gets colonized by annual plants.
But to base a agriculture and entire civilization on annual plants, we are required to continually destroy an ecosystem. Every single year, after the corn crop is harvested, nature wants to come in with perennial plants—plants that live a long time (e.g., 5, 10, 25, 1000 years)—perennial ecosystems want to come in and we have to kill it again by plowing it or spraying herbicides.
I related to this because working in the garden was hard work, and all I got was a couple carrots and tomato… whereas I could go down to the woods and get everything there.
Why not take the natural productivity of a complete, intact perennial ecosystem and move those elements out into what we call agricultural fields?”
On why we need to observe nature to discover the reality of how our ecosystems actually function:
"Why can't we design farms to operate as nature does?
Well, we can.
That's basically my life's work is teaching people how to do that—and to stop getting stuck on believing something just because that's what they've been told and that's what everyone has been repeating forever. [I encourage people to] start actually observing the plants, animals, soils, water, and wind on the planet where we live.
When you really observe nature, you'll see how everything starts to grow like crazy."
On how using our observations of our environment can help us build more sustainable agriculture systems:
"A lot of what I do is I observe nature. No matter where I go, I look for different groupings of plants. I look at them and figure out how they are functionally related in the spot that they're at: south-facing, north facing, short, tall, low growing plants, vine growing plants, and I determine which species they are.
I don't necessarily need to know what kind of synergy they have going on between them. I don't care—if certain groupings of plants show up over and over across the planet, I group those plants together, and they seem to do alright."
Final words of wisdom
“Let's not only dream green, but let's live green starting now, leaving green in our wake and creating the future we want to live in.”
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