Chestnuts of (permaculture) wisdom
Growing up in New England, Mark Shepard's influences included his father, who planted a wide variety of fruit trees and berry bushes in the back yard, and "some grouchy old guy" down the road - who turned out to be none other than Scott Nearing (The Good Life).
Now, after a lifetime of studying and growing plants, some permaculture training, authoring a book or two, helping to establish Midwest Permaculture, and living the life he believes in, some fortunate series of events led him to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference, which I attended last weekend. [I've written about my thoughts on the conference in general over here.]
Mark has probably told these stories and given these speeches hundreds of times before, but he brings so much energy and humor and brightness to the material that makes it downright infectious. He went through so many ideas that made me say, "wow," that I haven't come close to remembering everything, nor have I had time to look up the things I do remember so I can see how it all works. I hope I'm getting the details right, or at least close.
One of his main themes was what he calls the savanna model. The natural habitat in much of North America was once oak savanna - a mix of grassland and woodland. He said because the savanna takes advantage of three dimensions, vegetation high, low, and everywhere in between, you can get sixty vertical feet of photosynthesis, pull water and nutrients up from much deeper in the soil, and over time, build up some of the richest soil on earth. The savanna model can support more total biomass than almost any other system - seven times more biomass than a cornfield. In addition to large amounts of vegetation, African savannas can support very large fauna, just as the North American savanna used to. He quizzed us on what large animals used to roam these parts, and we all replied "bison." No, he said, bison were merely the medium to small fauna. The large fauna were things like the mastadons and woolly mammoths.
So that was the kind of potential for biomass this part of the country could support, if we adopted the savanna model. How? By using the concept of stacking to grow more plants and animals in less space, even while improving the ecosystem. The savanna model can be immitated in a highly productive way by growing more woody plants and trees that bear useful products, interspersed with grazing animals on pasture or more perennial food crops like asparagus. The beauty of this approach is that it reduces to almost zero the amount of tilling, seed starting, planting, and cultivating. And once established, labor decreases and output increases over time.
He discussed the fact that every civilization that took the majority of its carbohydrates, fats, and calories from annual crops eventually failed. Soil erosion, soil depletion, and energy costs for annual crops do not scale up well. At least not unless you have a cheap, abundant energy source, like fossil fuels, to prop the system up with.
At that point, he asked for a show of hands of how many people were familiar with the concept of Peak Oil. Even among that eco-savvy crowd, only handful out of several hundred raised their hands. He showed a couple graphs that would probably be familiar to anybody who has looked into Peak Oil, but didn't delve into it much further.
Turning back to the topic at hand, he said that the most useful Oak savanna crops fall into the following families:
- Fagacae: Oaks, chestnuts, beeches
- Malus: Apples
- Prunus: Plums, cherries, peaches, apricots, and other stone fruits
- Corylus: Hazelnuts
- Vitis: Grapes
- Rubus: Blackberries & raspberries
- Ribes: Currants & gooseberries
Now imagine the same arrangement, expanded into rows running north-south, with animals rotationally grazed on the pasture between the rows. (This kind of arrangement is sometimes called "alley cropping.") Think of the food potential and diversity for just a single acre!
The way he pays for these large plantings of trees is to buy twice or even three times as many trees as he needs at wholesale prices, and then he sells the extras at retail prices, which amounts to free trees for him.
He went into more detail on a couple of trees that caught my attention. The first was the chestnut tree. [Because of chestnut blight, only Chinese chestnuts can be grown in most of the U.S. at this time.] Chestnuts are nutritionally similar to corn, but take no plowing or chemicals or fertilizers or pesticides to produce. The crop almost literally falls from the sky, where it can be easily harvested for human consumption, or fed to livestock. And at the end of the chestnut tree's life, it provides straight-grained, rot-resistant lumber.
The second tree of interest was the hazelnut. Hazelnuts are nutritionally similar to soy, but with three times the oil content. Their hulls burn with the properties of anthricite coal. And every ten years, the trees can be coppiced - cut down to the ground and used for lumber - after which the stump resprouts to grow a whole new tree.
Even the lowly apple tree, he pointed out, could produce 25% more ethanol per acre than a cornfield, without nearly as much processing, or for that matter, farming. Another interesting comment he made was that if you mix hard cider and hazelnut oil, and wait a while, you get biodiesel. No fancy chemistry needed.
One of the core ideas of permaculture is that waste product from one system should ideally become the input of another system. Another key concept is to minimize work by keeping the things that need the most attention closest to the living space. He gave an elaborately detailed example from his morning routine.
He takes his kitchen scraps from the night before out toward his chicken coop. There, the meat scraps are separated from the vegetative material by a fully automated no-maintenance system - a system so advanced, it also deters mice, rats, foxes, coyotes, and racoons. The system consists of the family dogs and cats racing each other to the kitchen scrap pail, with first prize being the meat scraps. While the meat sorting system is functioning, he has time to use the facilities - a composting toilet, of course. Once the animal products have been removed from the kitchen scraps, they get dumped on the downhill slope behind the chicken coop. Off the back of the coop, above ground, is a bat box. The bats help minimize insect problems. Also on the back of the chicken coop, above ground, is a rabbit hutch, with an open mesh floor. The rabbit droppings fall onto the same slope as the table scraps. Rainwater collected from the roof of the coop is used to provide drinking water for both the rabbits and the chickens. After he feeds the chickens and lets them out of the coop, they dig through the table scraps for tasty morsels, and scratch the remaining scraps and the rabbit manure and any bat guano. Downhill from the chicken coop is a compost pit, dug into the ground. Chicken scratching plus gravity helps the scraps and manure gradually move downhill until they end up in the pit. The chickens will literally burrow through the compost looking for worms, while at the same time aerating the pile to keep the composting process moving along. After feeding the chickens and rabbits, and collecting eggs from the coop, he feeds his cattle and hogs, who have access to feed troughs attached to the coop. The animals funnel in from adjacent teardrop-shaped pastures. From there, he picks veggies from the garden, and mushrooms from a nearby shiataake-innoculated log. By the time he steps back in the house, he's fed his dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, cattle, and hogs, he's harvested the garden, and he's got the makings of a nice breakfast omelette, as he says, "all because I had to poop."
The Circle of Life, it seems, is more of an elaborate, three-dimensional, interwoven tapestry - and a beautiful tapestry at that - even if it does involve a surprising diversity of poop.