Review: Restoration Agriculture

R. Salisbury

Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard is a book that brings together many topics familiar to us--ecological destruction (climate change, but far more than just climate change), food and water security, corporate rule, genetic modification, the decline of public health, the rise and fall of empires, and others, into a unified critique of our modern agricultural system. Even more importantly, he offers the possible solution to many of these problems, in a way that can "feed the world" while restoring ecosystems and producing healthier, more diverse food crops, along with fuel, fibers, and medicines.

Following in the footsteps of others in the permaculture tradition, particularly Bill Mollison and P.A. Yeomans, Mark Shepard, a jolly, sarcastic farmer from a farming family, is not a hardcore environmentalist, but is clearly socially and ecologically aware. He is pragmatic and prefers not to let his main point be distracted by the "climate change debate" or right-left politics, so while there is a clear undercurrent against capitalism, ecological destruction, and so on, the book is overwhelmingly focused on praxis. He very strongly urges people to become farmers and/or adopt these practices, as much and as soon as possible.

He places credit for most of these problems squarely on the very way we do, and always have done, agriculture. It's not only the monocultures, fertilizers, pesticides, or industrial form that agriculture has taken, but the basis of agriculture on growing annual crops. Annual crops, while growing very quickly and producing lots of calories, require destroying entire ecosystems in order to begin planting. They eliminate the diverse biomes that are responsible for producing all the organic matter that becomes topsoil, that are responsible for "pest management" and "weed control" in environments ordinarily untouched by humans. They don't emerge until long into the warm season, and leave cropfields as bare brown dirt for the majority of the year, making farmland highly vulnerable to soil erosion.

In other words, Shepard's view is the social ecology of permaculture: The reason our food security is threatened, the reason agriculture is so destructive to the environment, and the solution to these issues, lies at the very root of how our agricultural system relates to nature. Our problem is trying to dominate nature by knocking down and ripping up and plowing through all living things, dropping some grains or beans in the ground, then engaging in chemical and biological warfare with nature in order to grow a field full of corn or soybeans. The solution is to realize that we are part of an ecological system that is extremely powerful and resilient, but we are a part that can positively reshape that system in our favor, rather than trying to resist it with increasingly advanced and destructive technologies.

Shepard favors the savannah biome, as it's the biome that can support the highest number of mammals compared to any other. Our domesticated animals are descended from those that occupied savannahs. The US, prior to the arrival of the European settlers, was covered with oak savannah, and the settlers, knowing only annual agriculture, destroyed that environment in order to plant their huge fields of nothing but single species of grains and legumes. Mark says we need to use savannahs as our food-producing systems, raising perennial, woody crops that produce not just calories, but complete nutrition. Animals are extensively included here, as they are significant contributors of ecosystem services that allow healthy plants to grow, build topsoil, control weeds and pests, and finally produce or become additional food for us.

The basic philosophy or method behind Shepard's agricultural practice is STUN, or "Sheer, Total, Utter Neglect". He points out the extreme inefficiency and lack of reason behind our current agricultural practice: Farmers spend the majority of the growing season running huge, fossil fuel-powered equipment across their fields dozens of times, plowing and spraying, and each pass through costs money, time, energy, and resources, all for a single harvest at the end of the season. The STUN method has the aim of creating resilient, self-sufficient, ecological cropping systems, where the only work needed to keep the system productive and in balance is to harvest from it.

He points out that farmers are really solar energy, water, and air harvesters, because it's these three components that are chiefly responsible for building plants' bodies and eventually producing the food and other biological resources we need. Annual cropping is the least efficient way to accomplish this--annual crops are relatively short, they don't emerge from the soil until long after perennial plants have left their dormant stage, and the monocropping systems harvest essentially nothing but a flat plane of solar energy. In contrast, a fully-realized savannah biome has grasses, shrubs, vines, and trees of varying height, that begin harvesting energy much earlier in the year and much more efficiently thanks to the three-dimensional nature of such a system.

He emphasizes, as did his mentor Bill Mollison, that permaculture needs to not only be about ecology, but also human benefit. If there's no good reason for us to engage in permaculture, why would we do it? The restoration agriculture practices that Shepard outlines in this book give us lots of great reasons to become engaged. We would have full, nutritious diets of a large variety of foods, meat that is not only ethical but ecological, as well, fuel and lumber from coppiced wood and nut husks that can be used in most existing infrastructure and is carbon-negative, and various fibers and medicine all from the same system. This can be not only prosocial but also profitable, as farmers can grow some pricey niche crops in the same space as staple foods, while hedging the risk of crop failures or low market prices against the literal ecology of other products that they grow.

A diet of apples, chestnuts, hazelnuts, raspberries, currants, grapes, beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, pork, milk, morels, shitake, and maitake is possible to produce within the same agricultural land. And contrary to the current environmentalist narrative, not only will this not cause harm to the land, it will restore the soil and local ecosystem. Advanced permaculture farms that adopt similar techniques are functional farms, but also havens for local wildlife. Fuels can be made from nut husks, which are compatible with existing wood-burning furnaces or more advanced gasification technologies, and are as energy-dense as lignite coal. The resulting char is both a potent fertilizer and a way to treat soils with heavy metals in them, locking up the heavy metals in biologically inert forms permanently. These are the sorts of solutions we need to appeal to both environmentalists as well as more typical liberals and conservatives.

After years of sullen, ascetic conservatism concerning environmental matters, Mark Shepard is one of a new wave of ecologists that supports positive, radical change of ecology in order to save it, rather than impotently trying to keep it the same, to keep it "natural". He emphasizes that life is evolutionary, and that trying to maintain it in a fixed state is a futile effort that will lead to weak, underdeveloped systems and yet more ecological problems. This is especially the case today, where humans are causing profound, unprecedented change to the environment, which living systems will have to adjust to one way or another. As a radical, I support radical change of not just human systems, but ecological systems in relation to humans, as well. Radical change of our relation to ecological systems that not only improves human lives but improves non-human lives as well is the political holy grail.

Rating: 5/5. Shepard's method is radical and offers real hope to solving ecological problems. His writing style is warm, fun, and inspirational. The book offers enough detail for someone with agricultural knowledge to start changing their ways immediately, while not being overly prescriptive. He effectively builds on previous efforts, being neither too abstruse to someone unfamiliar with permaculture nor too repetitive to someone who is. I would call this a must-read for social ecologists.