Meet the Midwestern Farmer Restoring the Land by Growing Native Plants - Modern Farmer

Meet the Midwestern Farmer Restoring the Land by Growing Native Plants

“There's all kinds of environmental nightmares going on right now, and we need to do an ecological rehabilitation of this planet in a hurry.”

Mark Shepard and his tree planting crew.
Photography by Mark Shepard.

Mark Shepard didn’t set out to be a farmer, let alone a visionary one. Yet, three decades after securing his first piece of land, Shepard is one of the leading voices in non-traditional farming. He’s also the founder and operator of New Forest Farm, a perennial agricultural ecosystem, head of Restoration Agriculture Development, a land restoration consulting enterprise, and author of two books. In spite of this success, Shepard’s path to farming is anything but traditional.

He grew up in north-central Massachusetts, an area Shepard dubs “the industrial wasteland,” where plastic and manufacturing were a way of life. “The river at the bottom of the hill where we lived ran different colors every day, depending on what color dyes they were dumping into it,” says Shepard. When the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire, the young Shepard asked his mother why it made the news. “I said, ‘Ours catches fire once a month,’ and she explained to me rivers weren’t supposed to do that.” 

An environmental awareness began to stir in Shepard. He got a degree in ecology, and then, in 1989, secured a piece of land in Alaska, five miles away from the nearest road and 300 miles away from Anchorage, and discovered most of his food was shipped from Seattle. That supply chain didn’t make sense to Shepard. “I was surrounded by blueberries and lingonberries and all kinds of different food products that the indigenous cultures ate for time immemorial. So I thought, why not redesign my ecosystem?” 

Photography via Mark Shepard.

Shepard is now 35 years into his program, with hundreds of properties he’s restored across North America, all bought and paid for, free and clear. He operates his farm as well as a diversified enterprise based on smart real estate investments, selling plants, consulting and selling large, whole-sale quantities of a handful of native and non-native plant crops, such as hazelnuts and asparagus. 

Combining principles from permaculture, agroforestry and ecology, Shepard pioneered what he calls restoration agriculture. This new method of farming produces food in a way that restores land and ecosystems by establishing natural communities based primarily on native, perennial plants that are high in nutrients, carbohydrates, protein and oils. 

Shepard’s intentionally designed Alaskan ecosystem, supplemented with animal proteins, supplied all his food while enhancing, not degrading, the land, and he realized that restoration agriculture, a system based on native, perennial plant crops, could work anywhere. “I got good at it,” he says, “and took it right to the corn belt.”

Learn More: Dig into the food forests designed by Forested, LLC

In 1995, Shepard acquired land in Wisconsin that was degraded from years of intensive, industrial agriculture. He put his restoration skills to the test and reintroduced native food crops, including oaks, cherries, hazelnuts, chestnuts, apples, gooseberries and fungi. By restoring the Midwestern plant communities that were present before industrial farming, Shepard noticed increased soil fertility and a better appearance–it also stored water more effectively. 

Cows, hazelnuts, chestnuts, asparagus, grass and alders at New Forest Farm.

His methods stand in sharp contrast to farming annual crops, which destroys soil and existing perennial ecosystems. “You plant seeds that grow for a few months, and it’s done,” says Shepard. “You’ve created a desert, and there’s no longer a rich, abundant ecosystem.” 

Read more: Explore the power of native food crops in Fiddleheads, not Spinach

Shepard’s method manages ecological succession to optimize ecosystem health while using far less labor than traditional farming. “Right now, my ‘farming’ is that I’m a glorified hunter-gatherer, except I don’t have to go out looking for things,” he says. “They’re right where I planted them and they stay within fences. It’s really wonderful.” 

Instead of buying into traditional farming, Shepard carved his own path in a way that felt meaningful. “I wanted to help accomplish massive ecological restoration, at scale, as fast as possible,” he says. His advice for farmers who want to change to a perennial agriculture system is to start researching perennial plants that would naturally co-exist in one’s ecosystem. Plant some of those plants right away, and more over time while still relying on annual crops to make ends meet. He recognizes that it’s difficult for small-scale farmers to make a living, but his methods prioritize restoring ecosystems and using creative, diversified income sources to support the cash flow from farming.

Take action: Check out the forager chef! there's hundreds of recipes for any wild food you can forage or find at your local farmers market


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