Friday afternoon I broke away to visit Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm, near Viola, Wisconsin. It’s a mature permaculture farm where many crops are perennial, little soil is turned each year, and diverse grasses and food plants grow together. Order reigns, but not the kind that keeps food crops separate and bare soil weedless.
This is a kind of order that replicates nature. Almost 20 years ago, Mark built swales on the contours of his hilly land to capture and spread water. Between the swales are hazelnuts, walnuts, oaks, chestnuts and apples. Grapevines trellis on apple trees, and alleys between the woody perennials are filled with asparagus, annuals like eggplant and squash, fungi, and sometimes grains. A little mowing keeps paths open, but for the most part grass control is done with managed grazing of cattle and sheep. Chickens have a place in the system, too.
A lot of food comes off this 140-acre farm, and at the same time it supports native prairie plants and wildlife. Erosion is minimal, if nonexistent. Input costs are miniscule. It mimics what nature does to sustain itself, maximizes soil and plant health, and lessens both work and impacts on the land.
I went to see this farm because we’re developing a landscape that will include as much food, naturalized planting, and diversity as possible. Many years of gardening, a permaculture design certification course from Midwest Permaculture last year, and continuous observation have shaped our thinking. But developing a plan at this scale and making it happen takes intention, and it helps to meet someone who’s made it work.
I asked Mark if plants growing up around his woody perennials self-select to improve the soil. He said absolutely; once growth of different heights replicates an open, oak savanna-like environment, native seeds come up, roots thrust deep, and plant communities give nutrients back.
I love this idea. We’re not farming, but food gathering will be easier when we plant what we like close to home. Our plant communities will take a few years to establish, but eventually most will self-sustain.