Restoration Agriculture: A New Approach to Growing Food

Oct 24, 2019

Mark Shepard sits outside Nauset High School, where a new food and research garden abuts the sports fields. There’s a soccer game going on and Mark has just given a community talk in the garden. He thinks the way we grow food is crazy. 

He points to a recently tilled patch of bare dirt.   


“This bare black dirt garden—whenever you destroy a living perennial ecosystem to expose the soil you’re just off-gassing tons, literally tons of carbon dioxide right into the atmosphere. So this kind of agriculture, plow-land agriculture is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere that we can measure and know of.’ 

And it isn’t even producing food.

Most of our farms work like this garden, Mark says. We clear forests or fill in wetlands—destroying complex ecosystems—and we plow them up to plant annual crops. We have to seed and weed these continually, and we use tons of inputs like fertilizer and pesticides to keep them functioning. He thinks growing food should work more like a forest. 

“The Beeman oak for a while held the record in Massachusetts for the largest diameter oak trunk, it was in Lancaster, Massachusetts this was like 40 foot across you know 100s of years old. That thing took carbon out of atmosphere, pumped carbon into soil—and—as a bonus, free of charge it would throw out nuts for whoever to eat, whoever would bother to eat them.”

Mark first started thinking about this as a kid in the 1970s. His family was in the lower economic rungs in a rural area of Western Massachusetts hit hard by declining industry and the oil embargo. To make ends meet he had to help out:

“So what I’d have to do after working the garden in the sun getting sweaty and dirty I’d now have to go off in the woods and cut firewood where I’d pick blueberries and strawberries and there’s flowers all over the places and really cool animals and grapes and hickory nuts and hazel nuts and the big quest was to find a chestnut that was still bearing chestnuts. I experimented with eating acorns.”

Mark noticed the productivity of the forests and started wondering: What if he combined the intentionality of a garden with the permanence of a perennial ecosystem? He moved to Wisconsin, bought 100 acres of spent cornfields, and started experimenting. 

He planted tall food-producing trees like chestnuts that would become the canopy, and then shorter trees like apples, cherries, and plums underneath, and beneath those shrubs like hazelnuts and raspberries. Then he planted sun-loving vines like grapes to climb up the trees and seeded spores of edible fungi onto the ground. Finally he introduced grazing animals onto the grassy areas between tree rows. He not only restored the land he also produced a lot of food.

“So we’re mimicking natural plant community types. And instead of going for a walk in the woods and looking for a berry here or a nut there we know where it is because we planted it, this is our farm, but we’re going to manage it more like a natural ecosystem. Meaning that we’re not going to control every single weed and pest and disease that comes through it, we’re gonna kinda going to let it run a little wild. You don’t realize all the food that’s out there.”

In Mark’s system, which he calls restoration agriculture, the nut producing trees and the animals provide the staple foods. Some argue animals don’t have a place in sustainable agriculture and climate solutions, but Mark disagrees. He says we need to stop working against nature, and start working with it. 

I asked him if these methods could feed the current human population of the world.

“Currently right now our agricultural system is NOT feeding the world. And if you look at the Midwest there were way more bison on the hoof in a perennial grassland ecosystem than there are cattle in feedlots now. So we go out there and we destroy millions of acres of prairie to grow corn and soybeans and then we put these cows in confinement operations in manure up to their neck and the corn and bean farmers aren’t making any money so we subsidize them with taxpayer money and then the beef producers are barely getting by and they’re in debt up to here.” 

Mark says that system isn’t working. "That's a pointless question. We can transform the world. We can re-vegetate the planet in 15 years at a profit for everybody involved and produce more food than is currently being produced if we just get off our *sses and do it.” 

You can learn more about Mark Shepard's farm here and read more about his approach to "restoration agriculture" here