It is said that there are a few pivotal moments in your life that will determine its trajectory. Well, I must say I’ve certainly had my share of these on my permaculture journey! The first was when I discovered permaculture through Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton, shortly after I quit my job as a geologist. The next came about was when I stayed with David Holmgren for a while and released that I wanted to go back to my home country and prepare for uncertainties that lay ahead and lastly, when I met Mark Shepard on a recent workshop and decided to …
You might notice a pattern here and no, it’s not that I’m crazy or boldly going where no man has gone before, it’s that all of these men were my mentors in my journey, showing me the paths that lay before me and guiding me in the right direction, albeit unwittingly. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel for myself, they paved the way for me and assisted me in my travels. All I needed to do was just listen, learn and adapt what they were doing to my circumstances.
One of these great mentors is Mark Shepard, he is an amazing individual who, in my book, is living the good life. This is what this permaculture journey is all about to me. It’s about making a living not making a killing, it’s about creating a life that is meaningful and yes, it’s very attainable according to Mark, but …
Achieving this dream doesn’t come easy or quickly – it’s a marathon rather than a sprint, and it took Mark a while to get where he is today. However, we should not be disheartened by this, it’s possible, and if Mark can do it, so can we.
I believe in life you either have excuses or results. While a lot of people offer reasons for failure, fewer show results, and fewer still can guide others to attain them, Mark is one of these few, and when he speaks we should listen. So, why don’t you make a cup of tea, close that distracting YouTube video and learn from Mark and his life experience!
Mark Shepard – New Forest Farm, 106 Broadacre Perennial Agricultural Savannah, 22 Years in The Making
For those of you permies who have been living under a rock and haven’t yet heard of this permaculture icon, Mark is the founder and President of the Restoration Agriculture Development, and CEO of Forest Agriculture Enterprises. He teaches Agroforestry and Permaculture worldwide and is the author of Restoration Agriculture. He runs New Forest Farm, the 106-acre perennial agricultural savannah, considered by many to be one of the most ambitious sustainable agriculture projects in the United States, this is permaculture applied on a big scale.
While all this sounds impressive, his farming journey began in the wilds of Alaska, in the middle of nowhere, I don’t recall the exact story but he mentioned something on the lines of three-hour walk to the closest asphalted road, then 300 miles to the closest town … See, I told you he’s an amazing individual.
After the Northern Exposure episode (pun intended) Mark and his wife Jen moved to Wisconsin and, in 1994, founded New Forest Farm. Today this farm is one of the most developed and productive perennial farms in North America – trees, shrubs, vines, canes, perennial plants and fungi are planted in association to produce food (for humans and animals), fuel, medicines, and aesthetic delight …
This is the greatest example of how permaculture can feed the world and produce staple crops that our civilization needs. This is a model that can be repeated across the world…but let’s get few things straight right off the bat…
The Truth About Farm Economics
In this post I wanted to explain in layman’s terms the exact technicalities how Mark’s farm works and give all the information about size, location, what is he producing, how, all other info about the farm, etc and you can still read it here. … However, I wanted to add a twist to this story and talk about the elephant in the room.
What elephant am I talking about? Well, the making a living solely from agriculture elephant. A lot of us like to pretend it’s not there have an idealised view of what’s possible once you start farming. Here is what I mean …
When I asked Mark if there was one message you would like budding permies to hear, he said: “If you think you can move somewhere, buy land and make your living just from agriculture – you should think again”. But what do you mean I can’t make a living just from agriculture, isn’t Mark the guy who makes all his income just from agricultural activities? Well, you would be amazed how diverse his income really is and how it has changed throughout the years, but more about that later …
During the workshop when Mark discussed farm economics he offered a great metaphor for today’s farming, he said: “Starting a farming enterprise is like going to the casino and gambling with your life savings, the deck is rigged, the house is dealing and the house always wins”. Unfortunately, in most cases the house does win, but not always …
So, if the deck is rigged how do you win at this game, or at least better your odds. How do we enjoy the quality life that Mark is living – that’s what we all want, isn’t it? According to Mark this is exactly what we should be aiming for, and here is what I learned from his example.
How to Start a Perennial Farm and Create a Quality Life for Yourself
Ok, so let’s say for the sake of the argument that you already have a farm or some land, it’s a reasonable acreage and now you want to quit your job and make your living from farm activities alone. Should you just dive in, or perhaps do some strategic planning? Following Mark’s presentation, I must say that it is best done strategically. Here are the steps:
1. First start with your goals
To win at this complex game called life you always start with your goals; this is the first thing you will learn from Mark. You should always ask yourself “what are my goals”. This is important, because you want context-specific solutions, not solutions that work for Joel Salatin, Paul Wheaton, Jack Spirko or Geoff Lawton … You want to have reality-based solutions, and that means your individual reality, not someone else’s.
You’ll see for yourself in time, but everything you’ll want to do on your farm comes back to ‘what are your goals?’ Should you have an orchard, market garden, grazing operation, put in swales? The answer is “it depends”. While this may sound vague, it is because there is no one-size-fits-all template to permaculture success; therefore, I ask again: “what are your goals?”
2. Don’t quit your day job just yet!
When Mark started his farm he still worked part time, he wasn’t rash, like some of us who quit their jobs and jumped into the farming game, thinking ‘I like growing things, how hard it can be to make an income from this?’ One of the biggest faults of us humans are biases and one of the most frequent one is overconfidence. When we think about the future, we tend to imagine it better than it can possibly be in a reality, we are overconfident; we understate what it takes and overestimate our capabilities. How many times have you started a project just to realise that it cost you twice as much and it took twice as long to finish?
Optimists, pessimists or anything in between, humans suck at predicting the future, So don’t quit your job just yet, use the capital you have to develop the woody crops on your farm, do it during the week for an hour or two, more on weekends or holidays. The best thing you can do is to have a part-time job, this gives you some stability while still giving you time to develop your property, Mark has done it this way and so can you. Don’t box yourself into a corner.
3. Analyse your local biome and grow the trees that want to grow
Before you start growing anything, observe your local biome. You want to identify what’s grows naturally in your area and find the so-called ‘keystone’ species. This is what the restoration part is all about, you’re not creating something new, you’re observing nature, in your case your local environment, and trying to imitate it.
This is crucial because it’s about doing less work, and it will be considerably less hard going if you have nature as your ally and grow species that are naturally indigenous without anyone needing to take care of them. This is the one of the fundamental permaculture principles of working with nature rather than against it.
Therefore, as Mark said in his book: “Look around you and identify the plants that are thriving near you. Identify the perennial plants, observe how they grow in relation with one another, then imitate what you observe using selected, productive variants of the wild plants.” Sure, it might not be as sexy as growing Japanese Persimmon or Goji Berry but you want to grow trees and crops that will be happy to grow – meaning less work for you, the whole point is making your life easier.
4. Develop your property using keyline water management
No matter where you go and what mineral deficiencies you have, there are plants who can adapt to these conditions, but no plant can live without water. Water is the ultimate nutrient and acquiring water should be your first task on the farm.
You know that aerial image of Mark’s farm – you see the outlines there? Well, that is the almighty keyline water management pattern. Developed by the great P.A. Yeoman, it’s all about optimising rainfall distribution and, when used in conjunction with a keyline plow, it helps to quickly turn subsoil into topsoil.
Keyline pattern cultivation involves moving water from valley to ridges, and it all starts with finding a keypoint – a point of inflection and deposition in a primary valley. Once you have the keypoint, then the contour going through that point is the keyline – a line that you end up copying across your property.
I won’t try to go into detail on how it works, there are whole books written on this subject and, if you want more information, read this article. It can be applied to small- or large-scale projects, but using keyline design principles for designing the property and using swales as am management strategy is optional because “it depends” – it depends on your terrain and, of course, “what are your goals?”
5. Focus on planting woody perennials and use STUN to select the best-adapted ones
Once you have your keyline cultivation pattern set, you can start putting trees in the ground – in the swales, on top of the swales, on the lower side of the swales, all depending on your local site conditions. The width of the alley between the swales is determined by the type of intended activity and equipment you’ll be using. In Mark’s case, he is growing annual crops and animals in the alleyways, but more about that later …
Because trees take a lot of time to bear fruit or nuts, they take priority over other elements of the farm, so you want to focus your efforts on planting woody perennials. Once you have your trees growing use the STUN method (Sheer Total Utter Neglect) to select for the most adapted ones. STUN entails planting loads of trees uncomfortably close to each other, totally neglecting them and selecting the survivors who are most capable of flourishing without your intervention.
Before I discovered Mark’s work, I put considerable effort into growing my trees, I would dig a hole, plant a tree, apply the best fertiliser I could find, weed the whole area, water it, apply the fertiliser again and… eventually the tree would die on me. Now you can imagine how much labour I put in just for that one tree and then it dies on me. However, after reading Mark’s book here is what I do today, I dig a hole, I plant a tree, spread some mulch and … that’s it! No weeding, reading bedtime stories, special treats … if it survives it survives. It’s survival of the fittest, if it’s a survivor then congratulations, if not, it’s history. Again, it’s about doing less work!
6. Use agroforestry practices to diversify and start generating some income
Agroforestry is a set of practices that include alley cropping, sivlo pasture, forest farming, windbreak and riparian buffers. Mark makes extensive use of alley cropping and silvopasture practices. Alley cropping involves the growing of an annual or perennial crop between rows of high-value trees, and silvopasture is the intentional combining of trees and/or shrubs, forage and livestock.
They both include using alleyways to produce short-term income while the longer-term crop matures, which is great because you want to use the alleys for annual and perennial crops and other opportunistic, miscellaneous projects so you can start generating some cash.
Until those chestnuts start falling from the sky you’ll have to pay your bills somehow and Mark achieves this by growing grains, asparagus, butternuts and raising cattle, pigs and chickens and lots of other crops as opportunity presents itself.
7. Now you start upgrading your infrastructure
Once you start generating some income, you start investing into infrastructure – better housing, fences, roads, etc. Mark said that he had no running water until recently. Now that’s what I call dedication to your cause! You can see the same level of commitment with Grant Shultz Versaland, who lives in a FEMA trailer while putting all his money into planting trees.
The lesson here is that, you want to use your money in the beginning to plant woody crops, they’ll take some time to mature. While you’re waiting, don’t invest in building a nice house, as it might take two-three years before your chestnuts are close to bearing nuts.
In saying this, I’m aware that some people have different properties and infrastructure. However, while housing and comfort might be more important to you than planting trees, think again about your goals: can renovating the house wait, do you really need a Jacuzzi – or you are better off planting 1000 trees?
8. Join a Co-op so you can easier compete with big Ag
Let’s talk about the big X – when it comes to farm economics you need to know where you are situated on this X. Looking on the far left side are big Ag farms producing commodity crops like corn, beans, soy – they get a low price for their products but have to produce high volumes to compensate for that low price. On the far right side is the high-price, low-volume direct marketing game, this would be your value added products, going to farmers markets and selling directly to the customer.
The right high-price side obviously takes a lot more effort to sell and it’s more about branding, marketing, and telling a story about your farm. The other side, in contrast, is more about output, less story, less interaction with customers but your competition is a heavily subsidised conventional agriculture machine that eats producers with an output like yours for dinner.
The best way for small producers to stand a chance against the might of big agriculture is to join forces and start a co-op. Co-ops are able to compete with conventional big Ag as they are composed of lots of smaller producers working together in a mutually beneficial way, pooling resources, sharing their market, logistics, processing facilities. Through their collectivism, everybody gets their piece of the pie, when otherwise there wouldn’t be any pie at all.
In Mark’s case, he has been part of the Organic Valley Co-op almost since the outset. Today, this is one of the biggest certified organic co-ops in the world due, in no small part, to Mark himself. In my mind this is also one of his secrets to success, you can read more about Organic Valley Co-op here.
9. Gradually increase profits from farming and other related activities
Ok, so if you performed all the steps above, and even with its rigged deck, you are about to beat the house, but the journey thus so far hasn’t been easy at all. If we look at Mark’s example in the early years (and when I say early I mean the first eight years) he was growing row crops, annuals, cattle, hogs, he had part-time jobs and has done a lot of miscellaneous things.
In the middle years he was still growing annuals, cattle, hogs, asparagus etc., but now other things started to kick in such as selling nursery stock, woody crops began to bear, he started teaching/consulting and his wife started a massage therapy business to bring in some stable income. In addition to all this, he was also doing a number of opportunistic jobs. This eventually resulted in less part-time work and more farm work.
At present, he is still growing asparagus and annual produce, his fruit and nuts are gradually increasing in volume, he is still working with hogs, cattle, teaching/consulting, his book is also bringing in some income as do tours of the farm. There are no more part-time jobs or any salaried employment, just farm-related activities.
All in all, as I said in the beginning, his income is diversified and, I would add, enduring and fairly secure. As Mark cautions, if you’re in this game, you don’t put all of your eggs in one basket – you put multiple eggs in multiple baskets. This is one of the fundamental lessons of permaculture, and one that’s well worth taking away with you.
10. Quit your Job and enjoy the good life
With all the activities you have going on around your farm, you are at the point where you don’t need your mundane job anymore. You are heavily diversified, each of the business units is bringing in more than enough income for you to lead the life you want.
You’re eating a lot of fresh, beyond organic food and enjoying your life. Your farm is at the point where, even if left to itself, it will transform into an edible forest, not to mention the increase in its real estate value. From this point, you can fill in the blanks regarding how that good life looks for you, as it might be different for each of us.
These were some of the lessons I learned from Mark. They gave me clarity on what I should focus upon, and how to pull off this initially difficult game. For me the end goal is the meaningful, high-quality life. How am I going to get there? Well, I’m going to leverage the opportunities around me – nursery stock development, growing herbs for the market, tourism, teaching/consulting … hell, I might even write a book and go on speaking tours and drink beer with cool people around the world … in my mind, it all counts and all the hard work is a rewarding means to an end.
What is important is your life and your goals and, if you’re a permaculture devotee, I’m sure that the planet and its inhabitants will be a better place because of your activities. Don’t be religious about making a sole income from farming or obsessively dogmatic, always come back to your goals – if you’re into permaculture and farming, ask yourself why you want it and you’ll find your unique path to ultimate success.
So, what do you think about farming today and Marc’s example? Let me know what you think in the comments!