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Restoration Agriculture, Real-World Permaculture for Farmers by Mark Shepard

In Brief:

Restoration Agriculture is a book for anyone looking for a new way to grow healthy, better food and build a better farm. Mark Shepard delves into our current agricultural practices and evaluates the good, the bad, and the ugly of the way commercial agriculture works for and against farmers, hurting as much as it helps, and questions whether there isn’t a better way before introducing us to his fairytale farming solution – his actual farm ‘New Food Forest’. If you’re looking for a way to grow enough food to live off of, full of the best nutrition, raise healthy livestock, and have enough left over to help support your hobby then the permaculture principles in Restoration Agriculture are not just a breath of fresh air, but a blueprint to a brighter, healthier farming future.

Are you interested already? Pick up your copy here! Or keep reading for more information.

Building a Permaculture Paradise

Reading Restoration Agriculture happened almost by accident. Grammie picked up a copy along with another fantastic book called Holistic Management. She gave them to me to read in preparation for building the place in South Dakota. Honestly, at first glance, I wasn’t that impressed. The cover didn’t inspire me – it’s just stock images of different plant life. Nothing about it screamed “Read Me!” so I started with Holistic Management. Somewhere through that book, however, it became time to break away from Allan Savory’s thesis on homestead management. It was time to work on a little bit of focused permaculture theory.

Restoration Agriculture is more than just permaculture theory. Author Mark Shepard speaks from the wealth of his own experiences and education. With a background in mechanical engineering and ecology, he knew we had to do better. Using permaculture practices, his theories and beliefs on how to grow a better world turned 106 acres of dust into a thriving sanctuary of healthy trees, shrubs, livestock, and people. New Forest Farm took what was once fields that grew only corn and now grow fruits, vegetables, medicines, meat, and fuel. He is living what he writes, and that understanding suddenly opened my eyes to the glorious possibilities. The Black Hills region of South Dakota is very similar in climate to the part of Wisconsin where New Forest Farm is growing. Mark Shepard’s ideas were immediately doable.

Why Permaculture?

The big question that Restoration Agriculture answers is why we might want to consider permaculture agriculture over modern commercial agriculture. The answer, at its most stark, is encapsulated best in this quote,

Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself is now gone. And the rich, abundant ecosystems where their temporary societies once flourished have been rendered into dust.

Mark Shepard, Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers

It’s a shocking sentiment echoed in other texts on permaculture that I have read. Our farmlands show these words to be frighteningly accurate. We must apply heavy doses of fertilizer to keep growing our crops. Decreasing soil quality leads to nutrients leeching away. We are trapped in a system that perpetuates its demise. If we want to survive as people, we must consider a different way. That other way, Mark Shepard declares, is through permaculture, a holistic form of land management that creates a complex ecosystem that simultaneously grows a variety of foods, sustains numerous livestock, and creates healthier, happier, and more nutritious soils.

It sounds crazy. Looking at the ‘dust bowl’ of the Midwest, it sometimes feels crazy. Restoration Agriculture takes ideas that feel like nothing more than fever dreams and breaks them into real, actionable ideas. To prove they can work, you need only flip to the beautiful pictures of New Forest Farm in the back of the book to see just how good things can be.

Feed the World?

One of the most compelling arguments Mark Shepard makes is the idea that modern agriculture does not FEED the world. Yes, we produce large amounts of corn. And yes, we send it across the globe. After carefully reading through the nutritional information of corn versus the variety of foods produced on the same acreage of New Forest Farm, it’s easy to see that corn is not feeding anyone. Corn is mostly just… filling. I’m definitely not going to argue that it’s delicious. However, the damage we are doing to our soils is not worth the pitiful amounts of nutrition corn provides. Not when we have an alternative that is better for us all around.

In fairness, Shepard also takes time to point out the flaws in the permaculture system. One of the greatest of these is the difficulty in harvesting in the permaculture system. A modern farmer can break out his combine harvester and drive through his fields, harvesting acres in a day. In a food forest, harvesting is much more hands-on. And Shepard points out how to avoid issues like Salmonella – for example, don’t harvest the food that’s fallen to the floor, leave it for your livestock.

Complaints about Restoration Agriculture? Other readers certainly have some…

One complaint that I have seen over and over again in other purchasers’ reviews – Mark Shepard often refers his readers to other reading materials rather than delving into the deep details in his book. I have seen many others complain about this. I have also seen complaints that his information is heavily Americentric rather than universal. Restoration Agriculture is an exposition of what Mark Shepard has done to prove that permaculture does, indeed, create a profitable and functional farm. I found no problem with either of these issues.

Not Enough Detail?

In so far as lacking enough detail, Restoration Agriculture is already 300 pages long with images, charts, and appendixes. Providing more detail would have created an overwhelming tome of information. I feel that these same readers would then complain the book was too detailed, overbearing, and hard to follow. In fact, to counter the lack of detail, he provides the titles of the books he used to create New Forest Farm. All of these books are readily available, and I have purchased them. The most important of these is a pair of books used as textbooks. This drives home the point that providing more information in Restoration Agriculture would be too much.

American Only?

I find this complaint to be disingenuous in no small part because looking for one book to provide you with a complete understanding of how permaculture works everywhere in the world is unrealistic. In mainland Europe, there are eight different climate zones. In the United Kingdom alone, there are three. Each of these will have its own biome, its own needs, their own – as Allan Savory would put it – brittleness. Restoration Agriculture is admittedly written for those who live in what is known as oak savannah, but that doesn’t exclude other biomes. Far from it! Critical thinking, reasoning, and reading skills demand that reading this book and putting the ideas into practice will require one to extrapolate the information and adapt it to their environment.

Get Your Hands Dirty, Learn Your Biome

You must actively adapt and apply permaculture practices no matter where you live. After all, the land on which your home is placed is not the same as your neighbors. What works in your yard will not necessarily work in your neighbors. The history of each parcel of land affects what it needs to be a healthy biome. You must apply individual research; this book is only one tool of many. Reading Restoration Agriculture and saying it is too American implies that using Ken Yeoman’s Keyline Designs cannot work because they were established for farms in Australia. It is a narrow-minded view that implies Allan Savory’s principles of holistic land management must not apply in the United States because he writes predominantly of his experiences in South Africa.

The ideas of permaculture are still relatively new and being developed. Those wishing to be involved and farm in this way take the onus of innovation on their shoulders. They cannot look to others to provide a simple, ten-step plan for success.

Conclusion of Restoration Agriculture

If the idea of creating a permaculture paradise appeals to you and you’re looking for proof that profitable permaculture can be done, then Restoration Agriculture is for you. The pictures of what can be done through the careful application of permaculture are inspiring. The information about mixing all types of food – from plant to animal – is priceless. I recommend it as a starting point for anyone getting started on their new farming journey, those looking for the best way to hobby farm, and those wanting to make the most of a smaller space. Pick up a copy for yourself today!

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