“Let us not spend Nature’s accumulated fortune in riotous farming”: some thoughts on Shepard’s ‘Restoration Agriculture’

The lovely quotation in my title represents the words of a perceptive 19th century Kansas farmer, which I came across in Geoff Cunfer’s fascinating book On The Great Plains. I’ll talk about Cunfer’s work in an upcoming post, but here I’m going to be looking at another book – Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture For Farmers (Acres USA, 2013), which the quotation helps illuminate. I’m writing two posts on Shepard’s book – so I’ll come back to riotous farming in the next one. And to the person whose comment (which I can’t track down) here on Small Farm Future first drew my attention to Shepard’s book, thank you sir.

Now then, first of all let me say that there’s a lot going for Shepard’s book. He has some really nice analyses of what’s wrong with contemporary agriculture, and some great suggestions about how to remedy it – both through farming practices and marketing. And in contrast to some of the more excitable get-rich-quick voices in the alternative farming scene, he’s also refreshingly level-headed about the realities of farming. Bottom line: however you farm, you won’t make money – now get over it, and farm the way your heart says you should. Easier said than done perhaps, but no less true for all that.

On the farming practices I mentioned, Shepard is a big fan of perennial polycultures. A very big fan. I like his commercial focus on planting things for which there’s currently unmet demand – oak and sweet chestnut in particular, he reckons. I think he possibly overstates the extent of this unmet demand, or understates the profound transformation in diets and thinking that’s required if farmers are to pursue this route en masse. But anyway, the point is, if it’s perennial, it’s in. Nut trees, fruit trees, fruit bushes, perennial pastures – these are the good guys of the agroecosystem. Annuals, on the other hand…well, they suck. “Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed. Every single one. Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself, is now gone” (p.xix)

Shepard harbours the possibly well-founded suspicion that our society may be next, and he doesn’t want to die wondering:

“The urgency of our times calls for us to plant polyculture systems everywhere and to dispense with naysaying, procrastinating, talking the subject to death, or making excuses as to why we’re not doing this. We must practice what we preach. Do it first, then talk about it” (p.296)

Well, I hope that I demonstrated in my previous post that we’ve planted a whole lot of mixed perennials at Vallis Veg – over 4,000 trees and shrubs by my reckoning, including hundreds of oaks and sweet chestnuts. So I’d like to think that indeed I’ve done it first. And now by God I’m going to talk about it.

What I want to talk about is some traps that I think Shepard and others in the permaculture movement fall into when it comes to perennials. Don’t get me wrong: I like perennials, and I think Shepard’s book is really, really good. I’d (almost) unreservedly recommend it to anyone, and besides I like a fellow who sticks his neck out and pushes a bold argument. If I were writing a measured review of the book, I’d produce something much more even handed. The fact that I’m going to focus on three areas where Shepard errs isn’t because I like to be ornery. OK, well it probably is a little. But more importantly it’s because he directly confronts issues that interest me and that I think the permaculture movement too frequently gets wrong. So let’s look at them one by one – two in this post, and one in the next.

Of Annuals and Perennials

The main case against annuals familiar in the alternative farming movement is that their large-scale cultivation has a destructive effect on soils, and I’m not going to argue with that. But some of the virtues Shepard finds in perennial plants are more debatable. He enthuses about trees and the productivity of edible matter therefrom on the basis of their enormous size – apparently forgetting that most of this bulk is stone dead wood. Useful stuff in itself, of course, but nobody’s idea of a tasty snack. And why do they grow so tall? Well, partly because they’re battling their neighbours for light. Whereas Shepard argues that a 3D woody polyculture gives you much more than an acre of growing space per acre, I’d question the strength of that claim…and I’d question it more for each degree of latitude you travel from the equator. So for example Shepard says that it’s good to mix trees and pasture because dappled shade helps promote grass growth through the hot summer months. Well, no doubt it can (and I’ve got to say I’ve enjoyed developing my ash/sheep silvopasture) – but here in the roiling clouds of 51o22’N, we don’t like our grass too dappled. Of course, big plants can produce big yields. But do you get more yield from fewer, bigger perennial plants in a given area, or from more, smaller annual ones? As I’ll show in my next post, the latter – at least by certain metrics. And just a note in passing on the matter of shade: Shepard correctly points out that some plants are shade tolerant whereas others aren’t. Plant corn under a forest canopy and you’ll get nothing; plant redcurrants and you’ll get something. But the basic laws of thermodynamics still apply. Less light energy coming in means less sugar coming out. The redcurrants in the shade won’t yield as much as the corn in the sun.

A key difference between annuals and perennials, which I’ll look at more closely soon, is that annuals adopt a ‘live fast, die young’ approach in which they invest strongly in reproductive allocation (seeds). Perennials invest in reproduction too (seeds, fruits, tubers), but their lifestyle is different, and more careful: they favour their own long-term survival, rather than riskily punting their accumulated carbon in dangerous sex. They’re the sensible kids of the plant world – while those feckless annuals are screwing around the place, the perennials listen to mama and wait until the time is right. For a perennial, there’s always next year. And since staple crops are based on the reproductive parts of the plant, from a human point of view this difference is quite significant.

Shepard makes the interesting point that perennials, being better established plants at the outset of the growing season than the puny seeds left by annuals, can more quickly throw out new leaf and capture solar energy that the annuals will miss while they’re sitting around waiting to germinate, and therefore produce more annual biomass. Well, this is undoubtedly true in some cases, but I’m not sure it’s always true (I’ve looked in vain for research to substantiate these claims either way). Maybe sometimes those daredevil annuals are programmed to germinate early so as to ensure they complete their lifecycle in the growing season, while the prudent perennials hold back, not wanting to waste precious resources on pointless activities that late frosts will reduce to naught. Or maybe they’ll photosynthesise early but lock the carbon away in various structures that enhance their survival prospects – their concern is with their own survival, not pleasing hungry humans.

So all in all, while Shepard makes a persuasive case for including more perennials in our agricultures, he doesn’t convince me of the unalloyed superiority of the long-lived ones on every conceivable metric. And his comment on the collapse of annual-based societies seems similarly overstated. Doubtless one can identify exhausted annual agricultures as a contributory factor to the demise of many a great civilisation – Rome being an obvious example. But what happened after Rome fell? People carried on growing wheat. Sure, they had to retrench and adjust. Some of them suffered – especially the elites whose writings about the terrible tragedy of their straitened circumstances have come down to us and coloured our contemporary attitude about the horror of civilisation’s end. Still, here we are – still growing annuals, still facing the prospect of collapse, but unquestionably not yet ‘gone’. I don’t want to minimise the worrying levels of soil-destruction that can result from annual cultivation, but nor do I think it should be over-generalised, or inferred that growing perennials is the only solution.

Of Nature Mimicry

Shepard proposes that his restoration agriculture system involves mimicking nature. In particular, whereas annual farming resembles a situation of primary succession on disturbed ground, his system works further down the successional timeline. “The simplistic, reductionistic annual crop system is being replaced by the next successional phase. Like gravity, the process of natural succession is unstoppable, and life on earth is beginning the turnaround….You can’t stop succession. You know this in your garden because you’ve never been able to stop the ‘weeds’ from taking over” (p.298).

I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I think Shepard may have had some early life trauma associated with gardens. He contrasts the hot, sweaty and unpleasant toil of working to raise annual vegetables in his parents’ garden with the cool and pleasant shade of the woodlot, where nature’s bounty was available for the taking. Let me begin my alternative line of argument by counterposing a different experience. I spent a year living in the coniferous rainforest of western British Columbia, and though it’s a landscape I love, boy, after a winter of deep dripping shade and a year of meagre forest mushroom and berry harvests the thought of a sunny vegetable garden was like a warm, productive Eden. And though nature’s bounty was certainly there for the taking in BC’s forests, there was nothing very cool or pleasant about the history of logging them.

The bottom line is that the most productive terrestrial habitats for producing food for humans, as in fact Shepard acknowledges, is treed but open savanna. And this is not some stable, ultimate successional state but is actively maintained either by natural processes (aridity, browsing animals, wildfires) or quite often by human labour (livestock, firestick farming). I accept that there are often good reasons to try to shift agriculture away from (primary succession) annual fields towards (secondary succession) savanna, but there is no ecological law of successional superiority in agroecosystems. If you can’t stop succession, well then many of us are destined to try to scrape a living in mature woodlands, which provide slim pickings for human livelihood.

The fact is, you can stop succession – it’s what farmers have done for millennia, but it requires work. Were all these generations of farm folk stupid, not realising that they could save themselves a lot of work by allowing succession and snacking off its bounty? The simple answer is no, but we need to come back to this later.

Reading between the lines of Shepard’s account of his own Wisconsin farm, in fact you can discern the outlines of a different story about nature mimicry and succession. For example, you learn that 6 acres were planted to annuals as a ‘high-return cash crop’ (p. 273): Shepard’s focus in this example is on the high input costs of the annuals, but presumably the high returns made it worthwhile. Elsewhere, Shepard extols the benefits of annual subsoiling (pp.192-7), and discusses the need to nose-ring his pigs to prevent them indulging in their natural behaviours, which would make a mess of his pastures (p.123).

I don’t question the potential usefulness of such practices, but I do question their fit with the idea of succession and nature mimicry as the basis of successful farming. How do nose-ringed pigs and annual subsoiling exemplify nature mimicry? Perhaps you could say that not everything has to be a faithful copy of what’s found in nature – nature mimicry is an inspiration, not a commandment. OK, but then couldn’t you call a field of Bt corn nature mimicry? I could probably be persuaded that Shepard’s farm is more mimetic of nature than the Bt cornfield, but the whole idea is starting to get a bit slippery and rhetorical. My farm is better than yours because it’s more nature mimetic, except where it isn’t. How useful is this line of reasoning?

A while back I disputed with Ford Denison and Andy McGuire some of their criticisms of nature mimicry and ecological balance concepts current in the alternative farming movement. I don’t want to renounce those arguments. I think Andy’s post in particular goes too far: there’s no natural balance, so anything goes. But in the light of Shepard’s book I’m less persuaded by the usefulness of advancing ‘nature mimicry’ as a golden thread informing agriculture. The concept is just too protean.

I do agree with Shepard though that modern agriculture is following a perilous course, and it could learn a lot from closer observation of nature. One lesson we learn from nature is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch – a sad truth that remains a truth even if it’s been over-promoted by right-wing economists. The basic choice nature offers us in our farming is more natural succession, less work and less food, or less natural succession, more work and more food. But that’s something I’ll look at more closely in my next post.

15 thoughts on ““Let us not spend Nature’s accumulated fortune in riotous farming”: some thoughts on Shepard’s ‘Restoration Agriculture’

  1. Chris,
    We read this work in our farmer discussion group a little over a year ago. Although you write with better eloquence and cohesiveness on the topic than our group discussed it, I’ll blame the beer and banjo playing, we came to similar conclusions. Our group is composed of farmers who by and large subscribe to some aspect of permaculture production. But we felt Mark went off the rails a bit when making certain sweeping generalizations.
    Perhaps, and here comes my sweeping generalization, we as a species do tend to go off the rails when we create ideologies out of general ideas. I picked up the British permaculture magazine recently and found an advert for a book on child-rearing the permaculture way. Geeze!
    Thanks for the post and I’ll look forward to reading more about the Great Plains book.

    • Thanks Brian – you have a reading group of beer-drinking and banjo-playing permaculture-inspired farmers in your neighborhood? When can I move to Tennessee? (See, I even spelled ‘neighborhood’ like a local!)

      • Anytime, Chris. BTW We read Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead after the Shepherd book. We found it more engaging and useful.

  2. Chris, I liked the post. In response to Shepard’s “societies that rely on annuals always collapse,” I wonder if that is only because to develop a beyond-primitive society, it takes agriculture, and agriculture means annuals. Are there non-primitive societies that developed and were sustained on his perennial polyculture? Fruits and nuts might have worked in Eden (you have written about that) but in order for populations to increase, cities to be sustained, and technology to be developed, it takes a food system based on annuals.

    And I think you are right; less like nature, more work, but more food for us. Grasslands and agroforestry systems can be closer to “nature” but they are extensive (vs. intensive) and so less productive, at least in terms of human food.

    • So Andy, If I raise cows and sheep on pasture I might be considered a pastoralist. But does this definition preclude my activities being considered agriculture?

      Almonds, pecans, olives, pears, and peaches; apples, cherries, and grapes too; asparagus, berries of all sorts… these may get classified as horticultural crops at the university (though even this classification is under siege) – but the deliberate culturing of these crops smacks of agriculture to me. For the most part I’m sympathetic to your case… but I think you push it TOO hard. Just as I think Mark Shepard pushes the perennial agenda too hard.

      Variety is the spice of life. Let’s get spicy!

      • Clem, you are right; cows, sheep, almonds to asparagus are all agriculture, and not all of them are extensive (as opposed to intensive) so I guess the distinction I was making is based on calories that much of humanity depends on, those from wheat, rice, and other annual grains. Has an advanced society ever developed that was not dependent on these crops? If not, then of course every example of an advanced society that has failed will also be one that was dependent on annual crops. But that does not necessarily mean that they failed because they depended on annual crops, although this was probably, through erosion of topsoil, a factor in the downfall of some.

        • And it’s easy to see why we early on went for annual grasses. Easy to plant, cultivate and harvest, crop within months, possible to select for desirable traits on an annual basis. I remember seeing a chart from a geneticist for wheat crop yield improvement just over the last 100 years. Astonishing increase.

          But given what we know now, particularly with quicker, genomic analysis based economic breeding tools available, (and here I’m not talking about GM; just what we’ve been doing for the last ten thousand years or so with a bit more science) what could be achieved for carbs and protein yields/hectare using tree based crops? Particularly how these might fit into more complex agrosystems such as silvopasture, bee-keeping, timber production etc and possible other benefits such as soil retention and biodiversity.

          What we could do with is a Calculus of Agrosystems (TM).

        • Andy, at least one advanced society did indeed develop in northern Peru that did not grow grains. They had a unique collaboration going where the inland farmers grew fruits, vegetables and cotton, and the coastal fishermen exchanged those for fish protein.

          These folks built ingenious pyramids but probably via volunteers who held massive parties after a completion of a part of a project. Look under Caral or Norte Chico. The pretty much coexisted with Sumer if I recall right.

  3. A few comments, Chris.

    Agree with what you say about the need for yields to support non-conventional farming practice. Ideally, this would be increased yield measured across a range of outputs. This is difficult to do with conventional reductionist approaches in agronomics or ag science controlled trials. But I think you still need to have some metrics. People here get very keen to put in swales and keyline, for example. But there’s not a lot of objective, peer-reviewed data around on these practices. And this study, for example, found no benefit from keyline:


    What’s needed is much more data from objective measurements of the before and after, quantification of the costs and benefits and comparison with the same level of effort applied to another selection from the non-conventional agriculture palette or even from more conventional practices. I attended a biochar seminar for farmers a while ago. The guy giving the seminar was not able to give trial results comparing application of amended char (mixed one way or another with other nutrients) and directly applying the amendments without char. Or costs vs increased financial return.

    Another point I don’t understand is why we’ve put a lot of effort into selecting fruit trees but not so much into nuts. I’ve seen some estimates that there were up to10k apple cultivars in the 19th century. Why don’t we have a large number of, for example, chestnut cultivars? Hominid preference for sugars over carbs and protein? (AKA sweet-tooth 🙂

    Possibly something to do with when firm decisions on selecting nut trees with desirable traits can be made against the period necessary for selecting fruit trees. I recollect that Shepard is doing some work with a university on earlier selection of nut trees based on genomic analysis. I’ve been involved on the computing side with ag science projects doing statistical inference between genome and phenotype with a view to earlier selection of organisms with desirable traits. This has remarkable potential for breeding trees more quickly.

  4. Thanks for the comments above – all very interesting. I’m interested in the contrast you draw between fruit & nut selection, David – just human preference, or anything ecological going on? And thanks for the keyline link – perhaps one to file with Patrick Whitefield’s ‘the death of the swale’: http://patrickwhitefield.co.uk/one-permacultures-holy-cows-death-swale/

    Andy and Clem: Good to see you taking the annual/perennial battle into some new dimensions. Andy, there are some aspects of the primitive-advanced distinction that I struggle with (one of which is that in many ‘advanced’ societies, it’s only the privilege of the few to be advanced) but yes it’s hard to see how civilisation would have followed its historic course without annual cultivation.

    My article on the ecology of perennial grains has just been published in the journal ‘Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems’ so I’ll shortly posting more on annuals and perennial in that context. I hope you gentlemen will continue reading – I’d be interested in your further comments on this topic.

    • We’ve chosen not to use swales on our block. We have steep slopes in places leading down to creek flats. Without tree cover – this land falls into Ecological Vegetation Class Wet Forest – it’s very prone to slips particularly when we get one of the occasional spectacular rainfall events that can see 300mm fall in a day or so. Having swales make the soil more waterlogged would likely be counter-productive. Similarly with keyline, I’d be nervous about perched water storages up the slope.

      But if we were in dryer country to the north or west of the Great Dividing Range I’d be interested in running controlled experiments with swales and keyline.

      Congratulations on the paper.

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