Mark_Shepard_chestnut_tree
Erik Shepard
Farmer Mark Shepard sees perennials such as chestnuts and apples as a way to diversify his crops and protect the soil.

“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.