Restoration Agriculture: Balancing Agriculture and the Environment

Restoration agriculture posits that agriculture and natural environments do not have to be at odds—and that imitating nature may be the most efficient way to produce perennial food crops.

| January 2015

  • Oak savanna
    Post-ice age megafauna (mastodon, giant sloth, giraffes, giant armadillos and more) thrived on the exact same plant systems that are with us today.
    Photo courtesy Acres U.S.A.
  • Savanna at New Forest Farm
    A view across the "savanna" at New Forest Farm. Comprising about 40 acres, this section of the farm is planted to white oak (on 60-foot spacings to provide a park-like savanna in 120 years), chestnuts, apples and a main crop of hazelnuts. Cattle and poultry are rotated through this system throughout the summer.
    Photo courtesy Acres U.S.A.
  • The polyculture block
    A view from the "polyculture" block to the "north ridge chestnuts." The foreground is a polyculture that consists of four rows of hazels, then one row of chestnut, apple, serviceberry, mulberry, black alder and raspberry. The pattern is repeated several times over ten acres. This was done in an attempt to maximize tree canopy area exposed to the sun which should result in greater total photosynthetic yield. At the top of the ridge are young chestnut trees, planted with the intention of establishing a closed-canopy forest over time. Woody crops are planted at very high densities (oftentimes 1,000-4,000 tress per acre) in order to discover the genetic variants that are young to bear, heavy producers, and thrive under a regime of sheer, total, utter neglect. Losers in this human-guided process of natural selection are used as firewood, mushroom substrate or material for local craftsmen and wooden toy manufacturers.
    Photo courtesy Acres U.S.A.
  • Crabapples
    Commercially selected cultivars of plant species can outyield their "wild" counterparts and can potentially support even more mammals than even the late Pleistocene.
    Photo courtesy Acres U.S.A.
  • Polyculture apple orchard
    Not your typical apple "orchard." Daffodils at the base of the trees eliminate sod while repelling rodents and providing early spring nectar and pollen for bees and cutflowers. Iris between the trees also provide sod control while yielding cutflowers and tubers used by a skin-care products company. Comfrey (large green leaves) is used by a medicinal herb company and accumulates potassium and calcium while providing overwintering habitat for predatory insects and substrate for morels. This "guild" of compatible plants is only a small part of the larger system which includes (on the left) chestnut, grape, hazelnut, rugosa rose, Siberian pea and currants and pears, with seedless grapes (on the right). The pattern then repeats itself across the hillside. Hogs are used for pest control when they graze through the system to harvest the pest-infected "June drop" and after harvest when they eat the pest-riddled fruit that pickers toss on the ground.
    Photo courtesy Acres U.S.A.
  • Restoration Agriculture
    Mark Shepard describes a vision of nature-inspired farming in "Restoration Agriculture," based on his experience creating his own 106-acre perennial agricultural ecosystem, and offers advice on how to create a farm that works with, rather than against, the dominant conditions of the environment.
    Cover courtesy Acres U.S.A.
  • Oak savanna plants
    This list of species and their arrangement from taller to shorter is somewhat of a Rosetta Stone for perennial agriculture systems in North America. Evidence shows that the current species that make up the North American oak savanna have ebbed and flowed through no less than four different ice ages.
    Chart courtesy Acres U.S.A.

  • Oak savanna
  • Savanna at New Forest Farm
  • The polyculture block
  • Crabapples
  • Polyculture apple orchard
  • Restoration Agriculture
  • Oak savanna plants

Restoration Agriculture (Acres U.S.A., 2013) by Mark Shepard reveals how to sustainably grow perennial food crops that can feed us in our resource-compromised future. The goal of a restoration agriculture system is to take advantage of all the benefits of natural, perennial ecosystems by creating agricultural systems that imitate nature in form and function while still providing for our food, building, fuel and other needs, and this book is a guide to creating such a system based on real-world practices. The following excerpt from chapter 7, “The Steps Toward Restoration Agriculture,” deals with identifying the natural system in your area.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Restoration Agriculture.

Identify Your Biome

In order to successfully create a restoration agriculture farm, you must first have a basic understanding of what the biome is where the farm is to be established.

Simply defined, a biome is a region on planet Earth that has similar communities of plants and animals, similar rainfall patterns, and relatively similar soil types. If you were to walk around and observe the plants and animals of your region, you would get a specific list for your area. If you live in coastal Georgia, you would expect to be surrounded by certain trees and shrubs. You would expect the temperature or humidity to be one particular way in early versus late summer and to be different in the winter. If you were to be transported instantly to New Mexico, you would realize that you are in a radically different place. The change in biomes would be quite different in this case.



Biomes are identified by particular patterns and arrangements of trees, shrubs and grasses, as well as which species of those plants live there. One species of wide-spaced trees growing with grasses of another, surrounded by particular shrubs might define one biome, while another biome might have close-growing trees creating deep shade, shrubs of another kind and grasses of yet a different species. The spruce, fir and pine woods of eastern Ontario are different than the oak, hickory and pecan forests of Arkansas. Even within the same state and region the difference in biomes is fairly obvious. The spruce, white pine and fir woods of northeastern Maine are different than the sugar maple, beech and birch region of central Maine, which in turn is different than the mixed hardwoods of southern Maine.

In addition to the particular species of a place, biomes are also defined by the particular successional pathway that occurs in that region. The particulars of succession in each biome are different. Different species play out the dance of succession differently in each region. Knowing your biome is important in order for you to choose the particular species for your restoration agriculture project. Knowing your biome and knowing the individual species that take part in the successional progression of your place will give you the highest likelihood of success. Think about it. If you plant trees, shrubs, canes, vines and forage that would naturally occur in your region anyways, don’t you think that they would have a greater chance of success than if you grew other plants that are not adapted to the region? Would I have much success establishing a saguaro cactus farm in the moist, snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan instead of in sunny, warm Arizona? Would I have much success growing bananas at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado? Although we could manipulate the microclimate and build facilities that would enable us to grow bananas in the Rockies (and there are those who are doing this), doesn’t it make a whole lot more sense to grow plants that are adapted to the Rocky Mountains instead, such as the piñon pine tree?






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