Raising awareness of agroforestry and permaculture

Photo courtesy of Suzanna Konecky.
Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is one of many land-grant universities consulting Shepard.

Mark Shepard farms in the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin between Madison and La Crosse. In 1995, Shepard and his wife Jen left their homesteading life in Alaska and began transforming 106 acres of overgrazed pasture land into a living laboratory of permaculture-based agriculture.

Hazelnuts, chestnuts and apple trees are the three sisters of Shepard’s perennial system that naturally spills a cornucopia of related crops and value-added products such as scions (sticks from the nut trees for grafting onto root stock), cut flowers such as daffodils in early spring, asparagus, raspberries, morels and more. Appalled by the fossil fuel waste, erosion and the general unsustainability of the Midwest’s corn and soybean culture, Shepard says hazelnuts can provide the protein and oils and chestnuts the carbohydrates to replace these crops.

With others in the Midwest, he is breeding hazelnuts that cross European varieties with rugged native species, and he culls heavily in favor of early-producing plants. “If you don’t perform after a few years and really perform well, I get rid of you,” he said. At five to seven years, hazels produce in earnest. In late February, pickers go through the hybrid bush hazelnuts and pick off the catkins that are not desirable so they will not cast pollen in the spring. Shepard explained, “It’s like I’ve got some prize cows out there and I only want the prize bull to inseminate them.”

Wide variety of crop designs

Shepard trained as a mechanical engineer first and then as a forest ecologist. The farm had no trees when they arrived, he said. “All the woody crops we put here: the chestnuts, the hazels, the apples. If I say the word orchard to you, you get a picture in your head of what an orchard is; it’s not what we’re doing. We’re growing jungle. The ecological model actually is the successional shrub land. We’re imitating the savannah phase before it closes into a closed-canopy forest. We have sections on the farm that are designed to be closed-canopy forest, but it’s going to be years before they ever get there.”

They are trying a lot of different cropping plans, Shepard said, “with a bunch of classical agroforestry layouts, alley-cropping with cash crops between rows of plants. Other areas we’re doing silvopasture [grazing animals] between and among woody plants. These are mostly single-species plantings, only chestnuts or only hazels.

Photos courtesy of Mark Shepard, Unless Otherwise Noted.
Mark and Erik Shepard under a chestnut tree.

“Then, I’ve got a couple of blocks of various polycultures that go from hazels with chestnuts, hazels next to chestnuts, to the extreme of apples and hazels and chestnuts and raspberries and grapes all in the same row with each other. There’s all kinds of configurations we’re trying out. Probably a third of the woody crops we’re doing are in polyculture with other woody crops.”

Polyculture means poly-income streams for the farm. A few cattle and a gang of pigs graze in the summer before the rush of autumn brings peppers, winter squash, hazelnuts, chestnuts, apples and even elderberries at one time. Showing his knack for finding profit, Shepard squeezed the elderberries for wine and sold the pumice to a tea company. Other farm products include roots for hand cream, dried comfrey leaves, hard cider and $3,000 worth of morels last year, picked under apple trees not sprayed with fungicide.

Hazelnuts rule

Hazelnuts are the queen crop, and Shephard sees the hybrid-bush varieties as a crop with revolutionary potential. “The point with hazels is that it’s a totally mechanizable process. We can switch from soybeans starting tomorrow and we can still drive our tractors, plant it mechanically, maintain it mechanically, and harvest and process mechanically.”

Shepard said the hazelnut is nutritionally equivalent to a soybean with three times the oil and 50 percent more weight per acre in the form of a shell, which burns well. You chip (cut back) the hazelnut bush every 10 years and let it rejuvenate, and you never have to plant it again.

One reason that hazelnut production can be mechanized is Shepard has invented machinery as he and about 30 growers in the area are growing and developing these hardy hybrids. “Since I got started first, I’m the first one that’s going to run into all these barriers. And, because I’m also the one that’s invented all the equipment, it’s in my building. This is the first processing hub in our area. There’s at least three other growers that have used the equipment here this year. As more come on-line, we’ll be able to get the last piece of equipment.” One sticking point is the last piece of equipment for separating the shell from the hazel kernel is a $100,000 machine. It’s the key to unlocking the profitability of hazelnuts. Shepard said, “That makes a huge difference. The difference between a hazelnut sold to you and a hazelnut kernel sold to you is like a factor of 10 in price.”

The farm has a New Holland four-wheel drive tractor with 40 hp, a mower and a subsoiler. They still do several acres of produce with soil bed preparation and planting. The Shepards have two sons; Erik, 15, and Daniel, 13. Erik has invented a hazelnut-shell-burning cook stove that works like a Coleman cook stove. He also fixed up an old tractor that he wants to run on the same gasification and maybe even the farm’s processing plant. Already the farm is energy net positive, producing all their own electricity with solar and wind power, exporting electricity to the grid.

Hazelnut-finished pork chops.

Shepard emphasized, “My point is, when you set up a perennial system, all, absolutely all the ridiculous costs of plowing every year, fertilizing every year, herbicide every year, fungicide every year, spray every year, all the fossil fuel inputs practically go away. Your maintenance work is done by animals. They are another yield.”

Hog heaven

A few head of cattle and as many as 20 pigs graze the green grass of summer. “I would like to have a lot more of them,” Shepard allowed. “The issue comes down to fencing and the attention you can give them. Doing management-intensive grazing is one thing, but doing management-intensive grazing when there’s also trees in the mix, you’ve got to be really on top of it.”

They love the Tamworth breed of pigs, a tremendous grazer. Animals spend autumn under oak and hickory trees. The farmers separate their good apples from bad right out in the orchard and the pigs clean up hazelnuts and apples afterwards. Every pig is finished with a 5-gallon pail of hazelnuts. “What people are getting is a grass-fed, hazelnut-finished pig, and it has a totally different meat quality, texture, a flavor-to-fats that is totally different. With the price per pound I get for it—$4.50 a pound—you don’t have to raise a million of them if you’re getting $4.50 a pound.”

Shepard could be on the road full time consulting and doing workshops. Lately, interest in agroforestry and permaculture has gone through the roof. Advising individual clients, he stresses that every farm and situation is different, but roughly estimates a cost of $3,000 per acre for every plant species in your system. He has worked with federal agriculture agencies, cooperative extension folks and many land grant universities. It is a challenge to get the greater agriculture community to see the sense in this sustainable system. Shepard said, “That’s a long road because it’s not something that’s taught in their schools. They get it when they see it, but there’s no real incentive for them to help others implement it.”

A former intern at Shepard’s farm, Melissa Madden, is the organic research farm coordinator at Cornell’s ag school in central New York, which is researching hazelnut-based polycultures now with plenty of advice from Shepard. “We collaborate with too many entities to list,” he stated. “Fellow co-op members, neighbors, our local RC & D and other nonprofits; universities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kentucky, New York and New Jersey.”

Sales taking place on his polyculture farm are small at present, but increasing. The Organic Valley Cooperative markets their produce and morels. The cooperative’s “produce pool” acts as a consolidator, assembling enough from small producers to feed wholesale markets. With 2,500-gallon stainless steel tanks of hard cider, the Shepards sell their own hard cider directly to the consumer, buying clubs and a few wholesalers. Last year’s prices for nuts were: hazelnuts in shells, $3 a pound; hazelnut kernels, $10 a pound; and chestnuts, $5 a pound. A nut butter company and a cracker company are working with Shepard to develop value-added markets for hazelnuts. The chestnuts are popular with ethnic markets, especially the Hmong who have settled in Wisconsin.

With a farmer’s delight in that rare thing, a good price for a good crop, Shepard said, “If I remember correctly, the pay price for morels was $45 a pound!”

The author is a freelance contributor based in Brooktondale, N.Y.